Is seafarer training keeping up with technology?

Sep 16 2021

Is the training that seafarers are required to do, such as under STCW, keeping up with advances in technology? ICS held a webinar to discuss.

The STCW (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) is “frankly struggling to keep pace” with changes in technology on ships, said Espen Poulsson, chair of the International Chamber of Shipping, in his opening address to a webinar on Mar 24, “The Future Seafarer”.


“There’s an increasing gap between meeting regulatory requirements and what is required from seafarers in practice,” he said.


Speakers included Mayte Medina, Chief of the Office of Merchant Mariner Credential, US Coast Guard, also chair of the IMO Human Element sub-committee and lead of the US delegation to IMO on safety and security; Gerrardo Borromeo, CEO of PTC Holdings, a company which manages a pool of 65,000 seafarers; and Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), a federation of transport workers' trade unions.


Mayte Medina

Mayte Medina said that IMO’s development of training requirements follows work in other areas of IMO.


For example, once regulations are set about equipment which must be carried or ways vessels must be operated, and performance standards are defined, the work on training requirements follows.


“The model of how it’s done, we wait for the other groups within IMO to develop performance standards. The training is the last thing that is developed.


“Most of the time we're running frantically to try to develop these training requirements, to implement them in time for when the equipment or requirements come into force.”


“IMO is losing the battle of trying to keep up with technology when it comes to training.”


For example, with ECDIS, IMO was “behind by 2 years” in developing training requirements. “That's something we're very aware of.”


“Introducing technology is not something new at IMO, we've done that before. The problem is this is moving very fast now.”


It may make sense to amend STCW so that it can be updated much faster, removing obsolete requirements and adding new ones, to address new and future technologies, she said.


“STCW has a number of requirements that are obsolete. They need to be removed, and in some cases, they need to be amended,” she said.


“My favourite example is the requirements for [training for] radar, ECDIS and ARPA (Automatic radar plotting aid). There’s no links in the convention within those [although a single device is used on the ship for all three]. Some administration provides separate training for each one. They could be provided as one training.”


“The other thing we need to do is make sure that we make seafarers more technically savvy. We included the electrotechnical officer in the last review. We need to review those.”


The structure of STCW, with a division into deck and engine, may also become outdated, for example if autonomous vessels become the norm. “We need to establish more of a multipurpose type of person, which I think is going to be key with automation in the future.”


There are some flexibilities built into STCW. “There is a system for alternative certification, Chapter 7”, she said.


Training models

The standard model for STCW maritime training is in a classroom, and classroom training was not available during the pandemic.


Many countries were trying to work out how to do virtual training. “We need to do that properly,” she said. “Not every training is conducive to doing through virtual means. But some of it is.”


There needs to be means to ensure the identity of whoever is taking a virtual course, if it includes an assessment.


“When it comes to sea service requirements, there's several studies which show simulator training can be equivalent to sea service. We are in urgent need of that. It is time we included simulators in the proper way,” she said.


Simulator training can be included under the current convention via being accepted as an ‘equivalent’.


Formal training should also be complemented by on the job training, and familiarization on board the vessel, “which is really the responsibility of shipowners,” she said.


On the subject of leadership training, Ms Medina thinks company culture is a major part of it. “If the company doesn't have culture that promotes leadership at every level, I will never succeed as a leader,” she said.


“Leadership is not only at the top level, but it is across the board, everyone is a leader within their specialty. We need to look at it from the beginning to end.”


Gerardo Borromeo, PTC

Gerrardo Borromeo, CEO of PTC Holdings, a company which manages a pool of 65,000 seafarers, said he agrees that the education / training of seafarers “is going to have to change”, as technology develops.


This training will be needed partly in order to ensure the industry can keep attracting the brightest people, he said.


However, he did not believe there will be a shortage of people from the Philippines who want to work on ships.


The maritime industry could also work more closely with academia, in particular training the next generation of maritime leaders.


“You talk to [maritime] corporate leaders, often the comment is "the [students are] not ready for what we're looking for.”


The shipping industry wants people with the “flexibility to be able to learn as change happens.”


Espen Poulsson, chair of the International Chamber of Shipping, agreed that it is important to narrow the gulf between academia and the real world. “I can't help but think, whenever I go to a university and listen to some lectures, which I enjoy doing, there's quite a gulf between the two.”


Stephen Cotton

“If we want to develop employment opportunities for seafarers, we have to change the approach ‘who's the cheapest seafarer’. If that's part of the rationale you'll never build a career path,” said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), a global union federation of nearly 700 trade unions.


“ITF sometimes sees the worst of the worst, including [from] some shipowners.”


Espen Poulsson, chair of the International Chamber of Shipping, responded that since shipping is a free marketplace, it is inevitable that cost “becomes a big issue”.


Seafarers as key workers

Although it was a different subject, webinar participants felt it was important to address the big issue of the day for seafarers, the “lack of action by far too many governments”, in recognizing seafarers as key workers, Mr Poulsson said. This means they are subject to too many Covid restrictions travelling to and from vessels.


ICS developed 12 protocols for ensuring safe crew changes and travel during the pandemic (MSC.1/Circ.1636) together with 15 other associations, and the protocols were adopted by IMO.


At the time of the webinar in March 2021, “less than half the countries that have ratified this, have recognized seafarers as key workers.”


“Far too many seafarers still face too many difficulties getting home despite these efforts. Seafarers being out of sight and out of mind are simply forgotten.”


“Despite some progress in the second half of last year [2020], the outbreak in South Africa, Brazil and UK has set us back.”


“Responsible shipowners end up chartering airplanes and finding other innovative and expensive ways.”


Stephen Cotton was able to compare the maritime industry approach with aviation, since his organisation ITF includes unions from both sectors in its membership.


Civil aviation has proven to be “very nationalistic with approach.” The maritime sector is much more international, he said. “When it comes to mobilizing around UN bodies, maritime has been so much more led - by ICS, ITF in partnership with all those UN bodies.”


But in the maritime sector at the moment, there is frustration with government and the level of bureaucracy, “and perhaps a degree of puzzlement”.


“We can get people in the room, get statements signed, but they can't manage their own internal national challenges. Often that’s because the departments responsible for transport are different to the departments responsible for managing health.”


But the health department are happy to rely on seafarers to move the medical equipment and food that people need, he said.


On the plus side, Covid has given seafarers much more attention than they are used to. “It has been recognized that we are critical to the response to Covid,” he said.


Mr Cotton called on charterers to do more, using the powers at their disposal. “I have to say to charterers in the audience, we are frustrated. We know you are trying to improve the situation, but - shipowners need you to collaborate with them to answer the questions.”


The multinationals at the end of the chain, which have a direct relationship with consumers, “are demanding you respect human rights and due diligence.”


“We need to give seafarers confidence in how we tackle the process,” he said.


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