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Meeting the training challenge

Seafarer training in the UK

Kathryn Neilson, Director of the Merchant Navy Training Board, explains what the MNTB is doing to develop, expand and promote seafarer training

The Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB) plays a significant role as the industry body for ensuring consistent, coherent and cohesive seafarer training across the UK, coupled with careers promotion through its Careers at Sea brand and ongoing career development through Careers at Sea and Beyond.

Since the introduction of tonnage tax in 2000, and with it the officer cadet training commitment, the number of cadets nationally has increased from some 400 to around 800. Indeed, almost 1000 were recruited before the introduction of tuition fees and the considerable increase in overall training costs to companies. But now, we feel that the industry is at another turning point here in the UK.

The challenge

Photo: MNTB

The 2016 BIMCO report forecast an increased shortage in the number of officers; sponsoring companies say that the high cost of training UK cadets is stopping them training greater numbers and in fact reducing their numbers in some instances. The UK ratings workforce continues to age and needs a new pipeline for those companies wishing to employ UK ratings. The issue of training-berth availability and quality continues to raise its head – variably and at different times for companies and training management organisations. There is increased competition for young people as a direct result of a renewed impetus on apprenticeships by government and the developing impact of the apprenticeship levy. There is greater demand for seafarer skills, knowledge and expertise in ship management and related sectors ashore, and we still need to attract greater numbers of females into the Merchant Navy.

The MNTB and its trade union partners Nautilus International and RMT, along with the UK Chamber of Shipping, have an ambition to increase the number of new entrant seafarers to 1200 by 2020 and to 1500 beyond that. A great deal of work is under way to achieve this, and to put a range of measures and activities in place to ensure it will happen. We are working with the Department for Transport, and of course with our highly respected and expert maritime education and training institutions and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, as well as the newly formed Institute for Apprenticeships. Together, we will make sure all the dots are joined as effectively as possible.

Officer cadets and ratings

Firstly, we need to address the high cost of training officer cadets. Compromising on the unique UK cadet training system – which develops high-quality, skilled officers – is not an option, so we need to secure increased funding from all possible sources to help with this. The important Support for Maritime Training (SMarT) funding provided by government, currently £15 million per year, has been eroded in value since 2000, when it covered some 50 per cent of training costs. This has reduced to around 25–30 per cent today. The industry-supported proposal for an extension of the SMarT scheme – ‘SMarT Plus’ – requires an increase in government provision, which would result in companies training officers in even greater numbers, enabling the UK to claim a bigger share of the global market for highly qualified seafarers. The quid pro quo is that, in return for additional government funding, companies would undertake to employ their newly qualified officers for a sufficient period to enable them to attain higher-level certification. We have developed a sound economic case to show that SMarT Plus would increase the numbers not only of new entrants but also of officers with senior qualifications, who are highly sought after for both shipboard and shore-side employment.

And what about our ratings workforce, which continues to languish with reduced numbers of UK-based ratings working in limited sectors of seagoing employment? New rating apprenticeship programmes are being developed and implemented, covering deck, engine room, hospitality and on-board services positions. This will mean that the apprenticeship levy can be used to support training costs, as well as the Maritime Educational Foundation (MEF) not only providing bursary funding to shipping companies employing rating apprenticeships, but also funding a full-time post within the MNTB to undertake the apprenticeship development work, liaise with shipping companies, and encourage and support the employment and training of a new generation of ratings.

Increasing both quantity and quality

Photo: MNTB

Increasing the numbers of trainees, whether officer cadets or rating apprentices, will be compromised if we don’t have enough suitable training berths. Measures have recently been put in place by the MNTB to enable greater flexibility in the phasing arrangements of cadet training programmes, along with changes to the programmes themselves, to provide the potential for three entry points per year, rather than the two currently in place. Starting in the current academic year, this will spread the use of training berths more evenly through the year, instead of an influx of trainees onto vessels in the summer months. Other activities we are involved in are designed to develop the availability of ‘training platforms’ throughout the industry, not least the potential for several commercial vessels to act as training ships while operating around the UK coast and in international waters. Thus, we aim to increase both the quantity and the quality of training berths in preparation for the anticipated growth in the number of trainees in the coming years.

There appears to be little doubt of an increase in demand for young people from many industry sectors across the UK. The high cost of university education may have been advantageous to the industry’s sponsored education and training programmes in helping secure good numbers of applicants over the past five years or so. However, the apprenticeship levy, the improved availability of apprenticeships in other industries, and the increase in the school leaving age are all having an impact. While these changes do not appear to be affecting the number of applicants for rating apprenticeships reported by companies, they are reflected in applications for officer cadet places, which have been proving harder to source and fill over this last year, in particular. If our ambition for an increase in new entrants is to be realised, it is clear that we need to devise and implement new means to attract young people to our industry – and to achieve significant growth in the number of female applicants.

Promoting the cause

The MNTB has produced a new promotional video, The Sea ... or Not to Sea ... , which forms part of our innovative and exciting Careers at Sea campaign over the coming months and into the next few years. The video was launched during London International Shipping Week in September, and will be distributed via major advertising on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram social media platforms over a prolonged period, supplementing the increased efforts of cadet sponsoring companies and organisations to attract greater numbers of young people into the industry. We are also increasing our efforts to bring this to the attention of young females, to show them that a career at sea can be for them.

There is much to be done to make sure the UK not only continues to play a part in seafarer employment, training, development and progression opportunities, but significantly ups its game and increases the numbers of highly expert and skilled ratings and officers at all levels of certification. In turn, this feeds in to the shore-based complement of seafarers who provide their expertise to ship management companies and the whole range of related sectors that need the skills seafarers bring, to equip those organisations to meet the demands of competitive business.

We are ambitious, we are on the case.

Kathryn Neilson took up the post of MNTB Director in August 2017.