The International Maritime Organization's STCW requirements for seafarer training have not been reviewed for 10 years, during which there has been massive technological change in shipping. Meanwhile, employers have stubbornly continued to prioritise cost over competence, and flag state enforcement of standards has remained patchy. In a major new research exercise, trade unions in the worldwide Nautilus Federation group surveyed nearly 1,000 seafarers on what is and isn’t working with STCW, and what changes they would like to see. Helen Kelly reports
The STCW Convention and Code are not fit for purpose and should be revised, according to the 2020 Nautilus Federation survey of close to 1,000 seafarers.
Known in full as the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping, STCW is the global benchmark for seafarer training set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). But it was last reviewed 10 years ago – a lifetime, considering the advances in technology.
'Training should be future-proofed to respond to the rise of automation and digitalisation and the predicted transformational effects that these will have on the role of crew,' Nautilus Federation director Mark Dickinson said. The Nautilus Federation is a group of 21 like-minded trade unions in the global shipping industry.
Respondents to the Nautilus Federation survey identified several areas currently lacking in STCW, including IT skills, soft skills and interpersonal skills, familiarity with modern marine equipment and knowledge of new propulsion systems and fuels.
IT computing and networking were identified as key skills that will be in great demand in future, and as a result, there was recognition that the role of the electro-technical officer (ETO) will become increasingly important. Many respondents suggested that traditional distinctions between deck, engine and electrical departments will become obsolete and that seafarers will need to be multi-skilled.
The seafarers surveyed were sceptical about the concept of a remote-controlled ship operated from shore, but felt strongly that if the concept does become reality, shore controllers should be experienced mariners qualified to at least officer of the watch (OOW) standard, possibly with additional training and education on top.
Most respondents felt that STCW would continue to be the appropriate place to regulate those in control of merchant ships – on land or at sea.
Questions of competency
One reason often cited by industry for a need to overhaul STCW is a perceived lack of competency in a significant percentage of certified crew.
Deficiencies in basic skills, seamanship, experience and common sense were flagged as major problems by respondents to the survey. These are all competencies which seafarers should have on completing a training programme that meets the minimum requirements of STCW, which suggests that the problem is not related to the standards themselves but their implementation.
Indeed, feedback indicated that the primary reason for a perceived lack of competency among seafarers was inconsistency in implementation and enforcement of the minimum requirements by flag states, and ship owners knowingly prioritising crew cost over competence.
This has led to a situation where seafarers' competence is being called in to question by employers, while administrations that attempt to rectify the situation by implementing a higher standard are put at a competitive disadvantage by those same employers.
Working conditions onboard play a significant part in the development of seafarers and the quality of training they receive. While this is in large part down to individual shipowners, STCW has a role, as it is the convention from which maximum working hours are derived.
Excessive working hours and insufficient crew levels prevent officers from investing enough time in cadets' training and development. Poor working conditions contribute significantly to a high rate of turnover among crew, which often leads to the loss of highly experienced seafarers and to seafarers being promoted before they have gained enough experience to carry out more senior roles.
There was support for raising the overall standard of STCW training, providing it is properly enforced to ensure a 'level playing field' for seafarers as well as ship owners.
Is STCW fit for purpose?
Some 45% of respondents felt that the STCW in its current form is not fit for purpose, with 39% saying it is fit for purpose, and 16% unsure.
When asked what was most lacking from the STCW Convention and Code as a whole, respondents suggested that the differing standards between flag states are the biggest issue and this is caused by lack of enforcement.
As one officer noted: 'International standards vary too greatly. While many international centres provide training to a high standard, many also just provide training to the bare minimum requirements. This leads to a skills gap between officers and crew who have trained in more reputable establishments and those who haven't.'
Respondents also expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the hours of work and rest regime that is permitted under the Code and the lack of any prescriptive crewing requirements.
One respondent stated: 'Rest hours – this is the biggest issue we face … rest hour rules and the enforcement of them need major improvement.'
There was clear consensus among respondents that this situation is detrimental to the quality of training that seafarers receive, with only 27% believing that crewing levels are enough to allow cadets/trainees to receive adequate training, mentoring and supervision onboard.
It is worth noting that 71% believed simulator training cannot be considered an adequate replacement for seatime.
There were also suggestions that the STCW in its current form is outdated and does not relate to the roles as experienced by the modern seafarer.
One deck officer commented: 'The equipment and plant I am expected to maintain on my vessel is above and beyond anything I am officially holding STCW training for. I basically need an engineering CoC as well.'
A master mariner stated: 'There is very out of date stuff being taught for mates and masters. It is only there to pass the exam and has no real use in the industry now… It does not relate to the modern job now as it stands.'
The areas where it was felt the Convention and Code were most lacking were:
- enforcement/differing standards
- hours of rest and crewing
- outdated topics
- the revalidation/renewal process
- general level required too low
- the lack of mandatory requirement for electro-technical officers (ETOs)
Seafarers were asked whether competency levels were adequate for the roles in which colleagues onboard were employed.
The responses showed:
- 51% believed that some seafarers have the appropriate level of competency but not all
- 26% felt that most seafarers have a level of competency lower than required for the role that they are in
- 21% agreed that most seafarers have the appropriate level of competency
- 2% felt that most seafarers have a higher level of competency than required for their role
There was a very strong feeling that any lack of competency by some seafarers was due to inconsistency in STCW implementation among IMO member states, and that the training programmes of certain countries produced seafarers of lower competency than others.
One deck officer stated: 'Certain countries issue tickets far too easily and the standard of training provided differs vastly from country to country!'
Another officer pointed out: 'Many maritime academies are not providing courses which meet the STCW standard. Why is there no independent body to make sure every training centre is meeting the minimum requirements?'
A large proportion of respondents believed this was a problem that shipowners were aware of yet were willing to accept, choosing crew purely on cost rather than competency – or as one respondent put it: 'Cheap, cheaper, cheapest. Transport in general is not allowed to cost money.'
Many respondents questioned how claims made by shipowners regarding their desire for highly trained, competent crew stacked up against their crewing models: 'Shipowners will hire everybody with a certificate, valid or not. Shipowners don't care about skills; as long the number of people onboard the vessel compare with the Safe Manning Cert, it's fine for them. Money is all. Companies will say "safety is our utmost priority", but they don't add "as long it doesn't cost money".'
The idea that shipowners are failing to invest sufficiently in competent crew was backed up by the three-quarters of respondents who felt that owners are not doing enough to ensure that there are enough quality training berths available to meet future demand.
Respondents also highlighted a lack of practical experience/seatime as a major issue, both in terms of the minimum seatime required for a certificate of competency (CoC), with only 41% believing that this was adequate, and the amount of experience in rank that individuals had before being promoted.
One respondent stated: 'Fast tracking through the ranks is an issue. Money could be a big motivator to take on jobs you're not actually ready for but do have the certification to do so. Also, the lack of seafarers in this industry can force companies to promote people that aren't actually ready yet.'
A second officer commented: 'There is too high a turnover; there are fewer and fewer incentives to stay at sea throughout one's career so people with less experience are promoted into higher ranks quicker to be able to fill the gaps.'
Seafarers report significant dissatisfaction with having to pay for additional STCW training, which leads to courses being viewed as an unnecessary expense or a 'scam'.
One respondent noted: 'It is generally considered by the seafarers I work with that there is no real benefit from having the refresher training at five year intervals when it is a requirement on a regular basis to carry out training onboard for firefighting, lifeboats, etc. It additionally adds a considerable financial burden to seafarers as most companies do not cover the costs of this repeated training.'
Only 39% of seafarers in the survey believed that STCW currently covers the skills needed for today's maritime industry and a significant proportion reported that basic IT skills are not covered at all. One respondent said: 'Better IT skills are needed. There are still seafarers leaving school who can't make a simple Excel sheet to calculate 1+1.'
Many want an increased focus on interpersonal and social skills and training in how to recognise the signs of stress and fatigue in colleagues. One seafarer said: 'Future officers need to recognise when personnel are tired/stressed due to overwork or long hours.'
This perhaps reflects that seafarers are particularly sensitive to the importance of recognising mental health issues as they are more likely to be prevalent in the difficult conditions experienced at sea.
A failure to properly train seafarers in the use of ancillary equipment onboard could lead to incorrect operation, respondents said.
Training on newly installed equipment including scrubbers and ballast water management systems had been virtually non-existent for many seafarers. The training gaps in STCW identified by respondents include:
- computing/IT skills
- people skills (social, communication etc)
- basic practical skills
- modern machinery
- new propulsion systems/fuels
- business skills
Training should be future-proofed to respond to the rise of automation and digitalisation and the predicted transformational effects that these will have on the role of crew Nautilus Federation director Mark Dickinson
The increased importance of more advanced electrical and digital skills translated into strong support for the mandatory carriage of certificated ETOs, with a massive 80% of seafarers agreeing that this would become necessary.
As equipment becomes more technologically complex, the traditional division of roles into deck, engine and electrical may cease to be appropriate.
An officer in the survey said: 'There needs to be specific training of new/incoming technologies. Technologies such as augmented reality have the potential to overwhelm unfamiliar users, but used properly will greatly aid in a navigation officer's ability to identify causes of concern.'
A move to something more like a dual ticket system may be of consideration for the future. 'If automation/smart technologies develop to a point of requiring less bridge time this would allow for crew to carry out other duties. Basic ETO training may be appropriate for maintaining some of these systems.'
As equipment becomes more sophisticated there will be an increased need for type-specific training on individual systems.
One respondent noted: 'There will need to be more training on equipment. You see now that too many accidents are caused by, for instance, not knowing ECDIS sufficiently.' The new skills that will be required were identified as:
- general IT/systems/networking
- system-specific training
- increased academic/soft skills
- dual-qualified/multi-discipline seafarers
- cyber security
It is possible that ships of the future will be remotely operated from shore. This opens several questions as to what qualifications a shore controller should have and who should be responsible for implementing and enforcing standards.
A large majority of seafarers felt shore-based controllers would require at least some practical experience at sea, with the most popular view being a minimum qualification of OOW level.
A significant number felt that Master Unlimited would be the appropriate level but questioned where the long-term supply of experienced mariners would come from if the concept was widely adopted: 'Shipboard experience is a must. Ideally a master's licence, although this is not sustainable as no one would be able to advance if all ships were autonomous.'
There was also significant support for the idea that additional training would be required on top of maritime experience, with one respondent commenting: 'They would need to be the same as a master mariner, plus specialist training regarding automation technology.'
Some even felt that entirely new programmes would need to be developed for shore-based controllers, which could include: 'A specific training package drawn from all three major specialisations that currently exist (ETO, deck & ME) so system diagnostic can effectively be conducted while maintaining traditional navigational safety oversight.'
Some 68% of respondents said the IMO should regulate training for shore-based ship controllers, and 15% said that this should be the flag state's responsibility.
- The IMO should carry out a comprehensive review of the STCW Convention to ensure that it remains relevant to the modern shipping industry and to raise the overall minimum acceptable standard for competent seafarers.
- There should be a review into the system of reporting and monitoring of implementation of the STCW with the aim of introducing a system whereby the information contained in MSC.1/Circ.1163 (STCW white list) can be considered a useful and reliable indicator of the quality of the training provided by parties to the Convention.
- There should be recognition of the responsibilities of ship owners and managers in the training of seafarers which include providing enough time to obtain the necessary experience and a working environment conducive to effective training and mentoring. In this regard, hours of work and rest and crewing should be considered within the scope of the STCW review.
- Implementation of any amendments to STCW should be arranged in such a way so as to minimise the financial burden on individual seafarers.
- Recognition should be given to the increasing importance of the role of ETO by its inclusion on the safe manning certificate and the development of a senior ETO certificate of competency.
- The principle should be established that any shore-side controller should be qualified at least up to OOW level and the standards for their training and certification should be incorporated within the STCW.