Monday, February 18, 2008

Crewing Crisis

Having had my maritime career mainly in Greece, I can say that this problem is a major issue for the future that is likely to have far reaching consequences.

The Past and Present:

The Greek shipping business model is primarily a vessel provider, rather than cargo operator. Greek shipping always had a competitive edge in service because of the close relation between the office and the ship, which gave superior operational strength and capacity. Traditionally, the older major shipping companies used extensively crew from their islands who were friends and even relatives. They cared for their families in a paternalistic spirit. Their offices were staffed by ex-seamen, which gave them great strength in managing both the deck cargo operations and the technical condition of the vessel.

Because of the early retirement of seamen, Greek offices locally are staffed by older deck officers and engineers, who assume middle management port captain and port engineer functions. The early retirement works as an indirect subsidy on office costs and overheads for small and medium size operators. Today this office staff is gradually becoming more and more elderly due insufficient replacement. For those who go to sea, they serve much less than in the past and leave. The younger staff has limited or no sea service whatsoever. This process risks a decline in the experience factor and quality of the shore-ship link that is a great traditional strength in Greek shipping.

Originally foreign seamen were used only for rating positions and all officers were Greek. In the shipping crisis of the 1980's, companies started to use full foreign crews and lay off the Greeks. At the same time, the Greek government offered subsidies to build rooms, hotels etc to promote tourism, which led many families to move to this sector and abandon the sea. The private schools for seamen all closed. Gradually the enrollment in the state schools diminished. Generally the Greek government has always under invested in education. They have not given technical education sufficient emphasis. Only recently has there any discussion about revamping the Greek educational system nationally and improving standards to which there has been recently considerable local resistance to change and modernization.

Another adverse factor has been the mismanagement of the Greek Seamen's Pension Fund. The Greek seamen unions were ideologically opposed the use of professional fund managers to improve the endowment. The Greek Governments in the 1980's extended the Seamen's pension funds to cover pensions to refugee families from Eastern Europe from the Greek Civil War era. This undermined the economics of the fund and increased dramatically the contribution liabilities on Greek flag vessels. Many smaller and middle size shipping companies were simply not in an economic position to take on these open-ended pension liabilities and were forced to flag out. Ultimately Greek seamen suffered the consequences in diminishing benefits and the need to work on foreign flag vessels. The European Union has encouraged the Greek Government to reform and unify its pension system and progress is slowly being made.

Today with the anti-terror measures shore time is more and more restricted. Immigration formalities are burdensome and onerous for seafarers. Government Authorities have too often shown callous disregard in offering refuge to distressed tonnage. There is a nasty tend in the penalization of accidents, where Masters and senior officers are increasingly exposed to jail and penal trials. One of the ugliest examples was the Spanish Government in the case of the Prestige, where the Spanish Authorities exposed the crew to danger of their lives in refusing refuge and put the Master on an extended jail sentence after surviving the ordeal and seeing his crew to safety, refusing for months to release him on bail.

Governmental considerations for the future:

Governments need to find ways to ease traveling and immigration formalities for seamen and allow them their due on shore leave, so they have more time to let off steam from long voyages and enjoy the ports that they visit when they are off duty. Travel and seeing the world has always been an incentive for young people to go to sea.

Governments need a more rational unified response plan in case of accidents. It would be good to have the jurisdiction in case of accidents and emergencies given exclusively to shipping professionals similar to the US Coastguard and preclude any involvement of political figures whatsoever. The matter of shore refuge for vessels in distress needs to be reviewed and made more professional, so seamen have the security that the shore authorities are there in case of trouble. Some countries are a lot more advanced and professional than others on these matters. The EU should consider these issues carefully.

The matter of penal liabilities in case of accidents has to be reviewed and modernized. The Master and senior officers should not be held in jail or charged for criminal liabilities without cause, which has to be established by proper inquiry in specialized maritime legal units - perhaps similar to US Coastguard accident inquiries, etc.

Management Considerations:

Crew group pension and medical benefits that reward those who make the choice of a seagoing career with a company.

Shore job opportunities that reward sea-going experience and integrate sea-going staff with office staff.

Continuing education benefits for high training standards, reduction of accidents and better shipboard management.

Highly trained shore staff who ensure good communication, support and co-operation to the crew.

Unfortunately this process tends to favor larger companies, who have the critical mass and resources to support these overhead expenses that improve quality and productivity. On the other hand, those companies who show personal interest in their units and crews tend to get better results. Ships do not run well by remote control.

Over the past few years, salaries levels have risen enormously. For senior officers, there is gradually an international convergence of remuneration irrespective of crew nationality. Also the fleet today is much newer, communications have improved with Internet. Life on board is less isolated and more comfortable that it has ever been before. Oil company vetting and safety standards are much higher so ships and sailing are safer than ever in the past.

Hopefully attitudes will change and more people will be drawn to a sea-going career.

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