Technology is transforming the working lives of seafarers – but how can training keep up with the pace of change and provide maritime professionals with future skills? Andrew Linington reports from an industry conference set up to tackle this thorny question
Maritime trainers, recruiters and seafarers gathered at a revolution-minded education and training conference in London organised by the Honourable Company of Master Mariners (HCMM).
Delegates at the day-long meeting – including cadets from V.Group – looked at the need for maritime professionals to develop so-called ‘soft skills’, an understanding of safety culture and wellness, and digital and technical skills; and considered how training might need to change in response.
In her keynote speech, UK Merchant Navy Training Board director Kathryn Neilson said it was clear that radical changes are required. ‘If we don’t prepare for the future, our seafarers will not have the necessary skills to compete in an ever-changing global market,’ she warned. ‘Never has there been a greater urgency to modernise the way we train and educate seafarers. But how do we educate our seafarers for jobs that don’t yet exist?’
Shipowners – who are deploying new technologies on their vessels – need to be involved in the development of new training methods, Ms Neilson argued. There’s a strong case for shipping to use simulators in the same way as the aviation industry. ‘Whether we like it or not, quality sea time cannot always be guaranteed, but by developing specific simulator training challenges throughout the cadet training programme, we can guarantee a better standard of education and experience.’
The industry must also have the confidence to remove ‘outdated practices’ such as celestial navigation from the curriculum, Ms Neilson said. ‘We must weed out those skills that are now redundant and free up valuable time that can be put to better use. Otherwise, as technology and working practices evolve, we will keep our cadets stuck in the past just as we should be pushing them to the future. They will be looking at the stars whilst their competitors are using virtual reality and artificial intelligence.'
The conference – which was chaired by HCMM professional development consultant and Whitehorse Maritime director Paul Shepherd – gave general agreement to suggestions that soft skills need to be embedded within the wider training programme, rather than being a ‘bolt-on’ for a few days during a HELM course.
However, there was also a clear consensus that soft skills – particularly those covering leadership/management and mental health – are not taught adequately, even though awareness of mental health issues is improving.
Steve Cameron, from CMR Consultants, warned that more must be done to foster a true safety culture – notably with measures to enhance leadership and training, to provide support for whistleblowers and rewards for near-miss reporting, as well as developing joint ship and office project teams to break down barriers.
Neal Rodrigues, from the Britannia P&I Club, said companies could take things further by assessing officers using the principles of behaviour-based safety and adopting a proactive approach to safety, with ‘near-miss’ reporting including an option to also report on good practices. Safety works when people view it as a value, not simply a requirement, he argued.
Captain Johan Gahnström, Intertanko senior marine manager, explained how the tanker owners’ organisation has developed a ‘soft skills’ training and assessment programme for masters and officers, covering competency in such areas as collaboration, communication, situation awareness, results focus, decision-making, and leadership and management – noting how sharpening such skills can improve safety and performance.
Several speakers highlighted the gap between skills that are taught at college and those required onboard. The conference agreed that whilst it was important to maintain a grounding in basic skills, the current emphasis should be switched from around 80% chartwork and 20% electronic chart display and navigation systems to the other way around.
Sinikka Hartonen, senior adviser with the Finnish Shipowners’ Association, spoke of the way in which new technology is creating a demand for new skills and knowledge, and fuelling a shortage of electro-technical officers and automation specialists. She argued that industry debate has been too concentrated upon unmanned vessels and needs to focus instead on the challenge of providing a bedrock of seamanship skills, backed up with good training in IT and cybersecurity, to safely monitor the new systems of ship operations.
Nautilus Council member Captain Michael Lloyd and International Marine Pilots’ Association secretary-general Nick Cutmore both described the increasingly specialised nature of ship types and operations, as well as the diversity of shipboard equipment.
These presentations resulted in the conference considering a more radical and divisive proposal to move away from an Unlimited ticket and towards modularisation of the qualification system, so that one qualifies in the basics and then does type-specific training in areas such as ship-specific operations, equipment types, and engines and thruster systems.
Such a system, it was argued, would be more akin to the aviation industry and could produce better-trained seafarers. However, Capt Lloyd cautioned, it would require a fundamental re-think of the way the maritime industry approaches training and could face considerable resistance on the grounds of cost and timescales.
Liz Baugh, from Nautilus strategic yacht partner Red Square Medical, spoke of feedback gathered from seafarers attending STCW first aid courses. This showed the five most essential skills to be: cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR); use of defibrillators; bleed management; care of sick crew; and dealing with fractures.
Almost two-thirds of seafarers said they felt confident after attending a course, although more than one-quarter said they had very little time to practice their skills during the training. She asked whether STCW first aid and medical care standards need to be overhauled, withan emphasis on mental health.
Other radical changes were considered in a session looking at new ways of training seafarers. V.Group cadet training manager Lee Clarke outlined plans for a new generation of officer trainee – Cadet X – who would be given the skills and competencies that are likely to be needed 30 years ahead.
Officers of the future will need to have a high degree of digital skills, Mr Clarke argued, and Cadet X may well be a combination of deck, engineer and electro-technical officer. However, he stressed, they will also need to have strong ‘meta-skills’ – with the ability to be adaptable, creative and self-aware.
Mr Clarke said virtual reality colleges could revolutionise cadet training, heightening engagement, improving the learning experience and raising morale and motivation.
Gordon Meadow, founder and chief executive of SeaBot XR, explained his vision for the use of smartphone-based VR to create new forms of experiential, collaborative and independent learning for seafarers.
In his closing address Mr Shepherd said: ‘These issues are complex and sometimes divisive, but it was reassuring to see a fairly clear consensus develop during the day as to the direction we need to take and, with the involvement of Kathryn Neilson of the MNTB, it’s clear that the output of this conference is going to directly affect policy moving forwards.’
The HCMM is aiming to put on a similarly thought-provoking conference once a year.