April 11, 2023
By J. Wierski
The Wednesday portion of the Connecticut Maritime Association’s Annual Shipping Conference featured several panels discussing the crew side of ship management. Two major themes were discussed at length: the need for maritime workforce development and the trends that are emerging as most important to the potential mariner (and the companies hiring them); and recognizing the importance of mariner mental health and safety.
Martin Bennell of Faststream noted that job seekers are no longer “passive candidates” as the market has swung in their favor. The expanding need for new workers has positioned potential employees to be pickier in their job search, often holding out for better offers from competing companies. While it has long been assumed that this selectiveness is driven by wages and salary alone, Bennell noted that employees also want to build relationships with their companies and be given opportunities for mentorship, skills building and career development. Additionally, the next generation of workers joining the industry are looking for more flexible schedules and stronger benefits packages including options for retirement and investment accounts. Bennell encouraged companies to take note: potential employees are losing patience with lengthy and complicated recruitment activities and inefficient on-boarding procedures.
RADM Alfultis, President of SUNY Maritime, echoed some of these thoughts in his session, “Ensuring a Healthy Supply of Future U.S. Mariners.” Some of his suggestions for encouraging candidates to the industry included increasing the marketing of opportunities and improving the coordination of regional outreach. Citing decreases in high school graduates and fewer students participating in mariner license programs, Alfultis suggested that outreach to students of varied backgrounds and expanding opportunities for women to join the mariner workforce may be a way towards meeting enrollment goals.
The roundtable discussion on crew supply and support issues featured Beth Wilson-Jordan (CMA / Flagship Management), Martin Bennell (Faststream), Mark Nestlehutt (The Seamen’s Church Institute), Raymond Peter (Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement), Mark O’Neil (Columbia Shipmanagement/ Intermanager), Heidi Heseltine (Diversity Study Group). In many of the remarks, there was a common thread about the need for crew management to move towards more of what is experienced by on-shore employees: purposeful outreach and recruitment, performance bonuses, family friendly policies, management accountability, and attention to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Many agreed on what the future of recruitment could look like: full medical coverage, maternity and paternity leave, a culture shift within the industry in which everyone from the ship owner to the ship management team values a mariner’s safety and dignity.
Maritime Education and Training: Need for new standards for a greener and safer shipping industry
This panel was eager to point out that state of the art training centers and simulators can only take the industry so far – the need for a workforce that also has the personality, aptitude, attitude and soft skills to lead to effective team-building is also needed. Additionally, as emergent technology takes root in the industry, vessels themselves and the new training required to implement it can be sorely behind. Some trainings have integrated “gamification” and 3D animation to their trainings to try and keep pace with new learning models. Kevin Martel (Wilhelmsen Ship Management) spoke of the need for systems training across each individual vessel – and that the one size fits all approach to training is not fully meeting the needs of the industry. James Spear (SUNY Maritime) noted that while making more trainings available online and available 24/7 can be useful and convenient ways to keep mariners up to date, there are some limitations to this being a primary way that continuing education is produced and implemented. As the next generation of mariners is more conversational and collaborative, ship owners may want to integrate their methods into the trainings. Capt. Ozgur Alemdag (Maritime Trainer) concluded the panel by noting that even as more processes become automated, behind all of these systems are people, and the industry needs to make sure now more than ever that it is taking care of its workers. Help from management as well as peer support offerings can go a long way to ensuring better workplace productivity and happiness.
Normalizing a Healthy Approach to Mental Health
This panel touched on the importance of shifting the culture of the industry to make room for the undeniable fact that statistically, mariners on board are struggling with mental health at far greater numbers than the industry would care to admit. Philip Schifflin, Director of The Center for Mariner Advocacy at The Seamen’s Church Institute, offered that by bringing a culture of care from the top down, companies can recognize the problem and change the norms to include new policies that seek to improve the quality of life for mariners. Pam Kern, founder of Happiness at Sea, cautioned against assuming that all mental health programs and professionals are created equally and pushed for companies to really do their homework on who is leading, implementing and delivering their crews’ mental health programming. Special attention was brought to the fact that often you have to be located geographically where a practitioner is licensed. Are there other ways to deliver quality care without relying on methods that work primarily on land?
In order to battle the stigma of mental health the panel discussed ways of integrating it more fully into other health programs on board such as physical health opportunities, diet and nutrition education, and tobacco cessation. The panel concluded with thoughts about how some of the most accepted practices of the industry – the disrupted sleep schedules, isolation and screen inundation – are exacerbating the industry’s mental health crisis and that more research needs to be done to determine what works crews.
NAMPEA, in collaboration with the Maritime Primary and Secondary Education Coalition (MPSEC) is actively working on workforce development research and assessments to share with members and industry stakeholders. Together, we can connect the next generation of mariners to rewarding careers in the maritime industry.