New skills, old problems: the crewing crisis in a competency context

The shipping industry has a worsening crewing crisis. But like other crises, it’s one that is bad, but not severe enough to stop ships trading or interrupt world trade.

The degree of the problem is well known. The BIMCO/ISF study estimates the current shortfall to be 16,500 officers, projected to grow to 92,000 by 2020 and to 147,000 by 2025. Other research estimates that the shortfall could be another 42,000 by 2020 and an additional 90,000 by 2025, depending on growth in the global economy.

The second, related factor in this assessment is that the competence standards of existing crew are acknowledged by the P&I community and others to be lower than before, despite a fall in the number of major claims.

When training software provider Seagull undertook competence evaluation testing of 242 companies against STCW standard tests, it concluded that the average competence of those who replied was about 60%. STCW has no pass mark but Seagull thinks that 75% should be the expected score.

At the recent IHS Markit Risk Forum, North of England P&I Club Deputy Director, Loss Prevention, Colin Gillespie argued that the 60% level was not the problem, but rather, what happens at the bottom end of the curve. Without the problem of a supply shortage, crew scoring 30-40% wouldn’t be employed but right now, owners have to be satisfied with crew that simply have a ticket.

Of course STCW like other IMO regulations is designed to deliver a minimum acceptable standard of competence and in that sense, he said, the countries that provide most crew are all around the 60% competence level. Any move to demand a higher standard would potentially worsen the shortage of supply.

“Where would your red line be?” he asked. “Below what level would you not employ – it’s up to the company. But if one seafarer in 12 scores less than 40% in these tests, we have to ask, should they even be in the industry? The trouble is they have a ticket and we need them.”

While P&I is primarily concerned with safety, he pointed out that there was a market effect at play too. The crew shortage is adding to owners’ cost pressures because seafarers can argue for better pay – but the bigger issue is the effect on standards.

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