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The importance of fostering maritime skills

Seafarer training

Mark Dickinson, General Secretary of Nautilus International, calls for the removal of the barriers to maritime training

The maritime industry is a major contributor to the UK economy, contributing £6.6 billion in gross value added (GVA). Some 95 per cent of all goods entering the UK do so at one of the country’s 120 commercial ports. Underpinning this major economic contribution is over 220,000 workers employed, on both land and sea, across the four constituent nations of the UK including 23,000 seafarers.

Atlantic Conveyor, one of over 70 merchant vessels requisitioned for service during the 1982 Falklands War, burning after being hit by Argentinian missiles. 12 of the crew were killed and the ship sank under tow. Photo: IWM

The UK government has made clear that the maritime industry has an integral role to play in the future of the UK as it strives to become a global leader in technological and environmental innovation. However, the focus on the future of the maritime industry cannot blind us to the past. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Falklands war where over 70 Merchant Navy vessels were mustered in support of the defence of the islands off the Patagonian coast. It is widely recognised that the Merchant Navy effort was crucial in the eventual British victory, but it wasn’t without loss: 17 merchant seafarers from three vessels – the RFA Sir Galahad, RFA Sir Tristram and the Cunard-owned SS Atlantic Conveyor – made the ultimate sacrifice in support of the war effort.

Investing in the seafarers of the future is but one way we can honour the sacrifice of those seafarers who died during the Falklands and other conflicts and restore some pride to this maritime nation.

Maritime 2050 is the government’s response – a blueprint for the future of the maritime industry. It commits the UK to growing the maritime industry through collaboration between government and partners. It also sets the admirable aim of ‘inspiring young people to pursue maritime careers’. Nautilus strongly supports these aims, but I believe it can only happen if there is genuine investment in the future of the maritime industry and its people. Warm words are just that, words; it is action that is needed to turn the ambitions set out in Maritime 2050 into a reality.

As a vital pillar of the British economy, the maritime industry must play its part as we collectively tackle the climate crisis and progress towards a carbon-free future. As green technological innovation progresses at breakneck pace, there is a real risk that our seafarers will be left behind. There can be no transformation of the maritime industry without proper government and industry investment in the skills of both the current cohort of British seafarers and the seafarers of the future to ensure the transition is a just one, centred on people.

Training is an essential element in the maritime sector

Maritime 2050 recognises the need for continuous education and training for the maritime workforce. With the transition to newer and cleaner technologies and fuels, the need and demand for skills enhancement, continuous professional development, education and training will only increase. It is imperative that seafarers and all maritime professionals are given every opportunity to re-skill so as not to be disadvantaged by these crucial technological and environmental advances. Key to this is ensuring that educational opportunities are suitably accessible and deliverable to all seafarers.

Training crews in emergency procedures. Photo: Nautilus

Maritime 2050 states: ‘better connectivity at sea would remove an existing obstacle to lifelong learning’. Nautilus has long campaigned for better connectivity at sea, most recently contributing to international efforts to secure an amendment to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006, which will make it mandatory for shipowners to provide seafarers with internet access on board. This is a crucial step towards making training accessible and deliverable to seafarers while working at sea.

However, access to training isn’t just logistical; financial barriers must also be considered. Seafarers should not be forced to bear the costs of retraining, and there must be genuine collaboration between government and employers to ensure that no financial barriers to retraining exist.

Nautilus welcomes government investment in green maritime technologies through the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition (CMDC). We believe that any business applying for funding should, as part of its application process, show a commitment to the training of seafarers. This is an opportunity for both government and industry to show their commitment to training seafarers in new innovative technologies, to ensure our workforce matches the pace of technological change. Innovation and education must co-exist side by side.

Many in the industry have argued that the popularity of careers in maritime has been in decline for some time, but for me it has always been a lack of opportunity for young people that has been at the heart of the issue. Maritime 2050 commits the government to reversing the decline in our maritime skills base and to giving young people more opportunities to take up a career at sea and in maritime. This is the only way to ensure that the UK can be a global leader in maritime technology and innovation.

Public perception of maritime careers

In 2021, Nautilus conducted a Maritime Barometer survey, where we asked 2,000 members of the public for their knowledge about the maritime industry. More than a third of the respondents said they would consider a career at sea should the opportunity present itself. Their perception was that the maritime industry employed the fewest people in the UK out of the career options provided, with only 4 per cent of the population hearing about or discussing career prospects in maritime at school or college.

Then and now – statistics from the UK Department for Transport show starkly the degree to which Britain’s share of world tonnage, and the numbers both of UK-owned ships and active UK seafarers have declined since the time of the Falklands War.

Further, respondents incorrectly thought that maritime is poorly paid, with only farming having less income potential. This represents a significant challenge to attracting young people into a career in maritime, and represents what we call ‘sea blindness’. The issue of sea blindness must be addressed, as quite simply young people will seldom consider a career at sea while the industry remains out of sight and out of mind.

The barriers to training

We must address the treatment of officer trainees/cadets. Undertaking a cadetship is expensive, with the ever-increasing educational cost being funded by SMarT payments that do not cover the actual costs of training, with berthing and STCW training costs needing to be covered in addition to tuition fees and examination fees.

Cadets often struggle to survive on courses that are not eligible for student finance bursaries on sponsorship rates that pay, in some instances, less than £2.70 per hour. Alongside this, while the cost of living has risen exponentially, many cadets have not seen their training allowance rise.

Clearly, these financial barriers – both to shipowners and to the cadets themselves – reduce the numbers of new entrants and effectively stop talented young people, particularly from lower socio-economic backgrounds, from being able to pursue a career at sea.

Nautilus has consistently argued that the costs of cadetships should be 100 per cent funded by government.

The benefits of funded cadetships

According to a study by Oxford Economics, for every £1 spent in SMarT funding, £4.80 was returned in economic benefits. The government has indicated that it will increase funding to 50 per cent, but with a 5:1 return I cannot understand why an island nation so dependent on shipping would not see the strategic and economic need to increase funding for training to support a massive boost to the nation’s maritime skills base. With all this post-Covid talk of security, resilience and self-reliance it seems to be an open goal.

Maritime is the future, but there is no future without investment in our seafarers. We need a diverse workforce with the skills needed to meet the coming technological and environmental transformation. There is currently a global shortage of 26,240 certified officers – a shortfall which is expected to grow to nearly 90,000 by 2026.

Maritime 2050 contains a commitment to inspire young people into careers in maritime, and this is welcome and timely; a major shortage of officers could have a devastating impact on shipping and supply chains worldwide. The UK has long counted itself as a global powerhouse in seafaring, but to be able to confront future challenges in maritime and become a global leader in technological and green innovation, it must futureproof its maritime and seafaring workforce.

This can only begin by the recognition and removal of the barriers to education and training. There must be government and industry commitment to retraining and reskilling the contemporary seafaring workforce so they can truly be part of the transformation. Only once the issues have been addressed can we begin to attract more young people into maritime careers and make the UK a world leading maritime nation once again.