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Deep Dive on the Workforce of the Future in the Maritime Industry


Disruption in any industry will affect its workforce, and the maritime industry is no exception. From automation to employee diversity to skilled workers, the industry faces challenges as it shapes its workforce of the future.

In our 2019 Global Maritime Issues Monitor, survey respondents did not rank workforce-related issues as high for impact, likelihood, or preparedness as they did for other areas.

Still, preparedness was not as high as one would like, and it is easy to envision unresolved workforce issues leading to more serious problems in the future.

Maritime Industry Grappling With Automation Technology

The maritime industry is in the early stages of the automation of a number of jobs and tasks, from the relatively mundane to the arrival of fully automated and autonomous ships.

In exploring workforce issues through the survey, respondents said increased automation of jobs and tasks is the most likely to considerably affect the industry in the next 10 years.

They also considered it to be the most likely to occur — and the one for which the industry is least prepared.

It’s clear that the maritime industry, like others, is grappling with digital transformation.

Automation is a reality, reflected in the likelihood score in the survey. And as the workforce issue with the lowest preparedness scores, it certainly needs to be addressed.

Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, believes that automation in the industry may be more limited than some proponents might suggest.

“The discussion about technology and the future is heavily shaped by a narrative which stresses the revolutionary nature of technological changes, particularly of automation, and its potential impact upon jobs,” he says.

"However, there is as yet no substantive evidence that such a revolutionary application of automation is occurring in any of our sectors.”

Rather than bringing rapid, wholesale transformation of shipping, Cotton says that automation is most likely, in the near future, to come in the form of remote control in ports, harbours, and in niche applications where it will augment human control, not replace it.

Still, he says, automation will affect workers, making it critical that they be consulted as changes are implemented.

How PREPARED is the maritime industry to deal with the following issues?

Ranking:   1 – Very prepared,   2 – Unprepared,   3 – Prepared,   4 – Very prepared
Rank Issue Preparedness
1 Increased automation of jobs and tasks 2.43
2 Shortage of qualified seafarers 2.47
3 Shortage of land-based talent 2.52
4 Low employee retention 2.55
5 Increased diversity of the workforce 2.62

“New technology must be used to improve the working environment for seafarers, which means secure jobs, decent wages, improved safety and reduced working time and fatigue,” Cotton says.

“Workers, through their trade unions, must be involved in the introduction of technology at shipboard, company and regulatory levels, with new forums to bring unions, employers and regulatory authorities together.

New training and qualification programs must provide for a genuine career path for seafarers, including for on ship and on shore and in the face of industrial change.”

Diversity Issues Center on Gender

Amid the industry’s many changes, any maritime company that does not focus on employee diversity risks being left behind.

For the traditionally male-dominated maritime industry, current questions of diversity center on gender.

Although the number of women gaining education and training in oceans and maritime programs has increased rapidly in the last few decades, their engagement, retention, and promotion to leadership in all areas of ocean activities — particularly the maritime sector — has lagged.

This is the case at the seagoing-seafarer level, and also in numerous connected activities in ports and logistics, legal, and other services.

Respondents think it is likely that diversity of maritime workers will increase, ranking it as the issue second-most likely to occur.

What is the LIKELIHOOD of the following issues occurring within the next 10 years?

Ranking:   1 – Very unlikely,   2 – Unlikely,   3 – Likely,   4 – Very likely
Rank Issue Likelihood
1 Increased automation of jobs and tasks 3.39
2 Increased diversity of the workforce 3.17
3 Shortage of qualified seafarers 2.98
4 Low employee retention 2.86
5 Shortage of land-based talent 2.79

But they also think the impact will not be significant, while also feeling most prepared for this among all issues in this section.

However, female respondents perceived the potential impact of increased diversity as more significant than male respondents, ascribing it an impact score of 3.00, compared with 2.63 for men.

“There are still too many generalizations that attribute specific skillsets to males and females,” says Ying Ying Lim, Ocean Transportation APAC Lead at Cargill.

“Ultimately, skills are individual and irrespective of gender. Women make up almost 50% of the world’s total labor capacity, and most industries have yet to optimize this.

What matters is having a balance, and if more women join our industry, we will see a more balanced way of looking at things. Diversity — not just in gender but also ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, and so forth — widens perspectives and stimulates success.”

Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, President of the World Maritime University, points to the recent WMU report, Transport 2040: Automation Technology Employment - the Future of Work.

The report says that advanced automation technologies are expected to make task profiles more diverse, which will result in the need for a more diverse talent pool to support future maritime industries.

The current shortage of qualified seafarers, increased automation of jobs and tasks, shortage of land-based talent, low employee retention rates, and the need for greater diversity of the workforce will require more women in maritime,” Doumbia-Henry says.

What IMPACT do you think the following issues will have on the maritime industry over the next 10 years?

Ranking:   1 – Minimal impact,   2 – Minor impact,   3 – Moderate impact,   4 – Major impact
Rank Issue Impact
1 Shortage of qualified seafarers 3.29
2 Increased automation of jobs and tasks 3.16
3 Shortage of land-based talent 3.01
4 Low employee retention 2.89
5 Increased diversity of the workforce 2.69

“Without increased diversity in the next 10 years, the pace of innovation in the maritime industry will be slow, and a closed mindset in maritime business could yield a leadership opportunity to emerging non maritime players.

Preparation a Key to Maintaining a Skilled Workforce

There is a pressing demand for skilled workers and competent innovation leaders in all areas of marine activity.

Not only are shippers and others competing with one another, they are in a struggle with other industries for the best talent as many skills in the digital age are easily transferred from one industry to another.

When it comes to the impact of employee shortages, respondents are more concerned about the shortage of seafarers than about the shortage of land-based talent.

They also feel less prepared for this change.

However, Bjørn Højgaard, CEO of Anglo Eastern Univan Group, says the term “shortage of qualified seafarers” is a “bit of a misnomer. I think what people really mean when they say it’s a risk is that they have difficulties finding seafarers with the necessary skills, and that it may take a long time to recruit/train and prep these seafarers for a job onboard.”

Scatter plot of impact vs likelihood vs preparedness

Another way to frame the challenge, he says, is to look at it in terms of preparation: “You have to prepare years in advance by building a brand amongst the seafarer supply nations and recruit cadets and junior officers to build a pipeline of the people you will need 5 to 10 years ahead.

And you have to be attuned to a changing landscape in terms of the skills that are needed in different ranks on different ships, and you have to commit to upskilling your workforce onboard as an ongoing activity.”

At the same time, the industry needs to compete with other industries for talent. Cargill’s Ying Ying Lim says that the maritime industry is about to enter a critical decade, driven by change.

“We will see opportunities that call for new skills and experiences, so candidates from other industries will bring valuable fresh perspective. We should be thinking about what needs and benefits will be required to attract these candidates and ensure that our industry is qualified to bring the outside in.”