The impact of COVID-19 on seafarer populations will be felt for years to come

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Here’s what’s at risk tomorrow if we don’t respond to the crew change crisis today.

By Hrishi Olickel and Irina Carbunaru – The crew-switching crisis rages on as changing Covid-19 restrictions complicate seafarer movements – and the ripple effects could continue to spread over the next five years years. The crew crisis and increasing safety risks of operating in a tense geopolitical environment are hurting morale. Operations and training institutes are compromised by increased restrictions. Some fear that the growth of the seafarer population, which is already below requirements, could slow further.

This slowdown must be tackled at every stage of the crewing process: from improving the training of seafarers at the very beginning of their careers, to accelerating the accreditation of senior managers and taking a holistic approach to the good -being of the crew.

With reduced staff numbers, many maritime operators are faced with difficult decisions to maintain their services. Companies will need to be at the forefront of crewing innovation or the lack of human power will wreak havoc on global supply chains.

Navigation issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic

While the challenges of the shipping industry may have been overlooked before, border closures have drawn attention to how goods move between countries, the seafaring profession that supports the chain of global sourcing taking center stage. With increased awareness comes a decrease in the number of seafarers seeking to join the industry, further slowing the growth of the seafaring population. As awareness of cargo supply chains increases, the crew supply chain is often overlooked.

At its core, the crew change crisis stems from movement restrictions since the early days of the pandemic. Sailors with 6 or 9 month contracts were sometimes stuck on board for more than 18 months while shore crews could not board ships. Sailors stranded on ships are struggling with increasing fatigue and interpersonal tensions, as well as declining mental and physical health, jeopardizing maritime safety. There is a growing weariness, compounded by the feeling that ships are working even harder to keep up with the increased trade.

But the problems run deeper, with the impacts being felt at the very beginning of the crew life cycle: the training establishments. Lockdowns and social distancing have led to the closure of training institutes, the cancellation of exams and the halting of certification processes. Seafarers who were still looking for work were unable to renew their licenses, which further reduced the number of senior officers for this technicality.

Crew safety was once the primary concern of ship managers around the world, but crew welfare is becoming increasingly important; failure to meet these needs risks further alienating the shrinking workforce.

The impact on the future of shipping if we don’t act now

Although there is a shortage of sailors, the demand for crew is not lacking. According to the Seafarer Workforce Report 2021, we will likely see the situation worsen within two years. The world fleet is expected to grow by 6.4% over the next five years, while a study by the International Chamber of Shipping found that the demand for officers grew by 24.1% with no increase in supply, which means a shortage of about 16,500 officers. This projected shortage will disproportionately affect small shipowners, operators and managers.

These impacts will not be felt evenly and some economies will suffer more than others. Shipping is not an attractive profession in countries with better jobs ashore, further reducing the pool of available workers. For example, in Singapore, companies are limited to hiring Singaporeans while competing for attractive onshore jobs. These regulations will need to be relaxed in order to hire seafarers from less economically developed countries with fewer competitive employment opportunities, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam. Relying on workers from these countries can also be complicated, as they may be subject to stricter immigration requirements.

Given the projected shortage of skilled seafarers, companies need to increase their efforts and resources associated with recruiting and developing sustainable crew pools. Without a crew, shipping companies see their operations disrupted.

Crew welfare must become the North Star of the industry

Seafarers are the backbone of the maritime industry; the tide that transports goods globally. The industry needs to challenge the long held view that people come after freight and profits – without human power, the supply chain is broken.

As demand increases and the workforce shrinks, crew members are under increased pressure. Higher wages are not enough to retain staff, shipping companies must keep their crew engaged and build collaborative relationships based on trust and loyalty with a concern for the welfare and well-being of workers. Research from Indonesia has shown that a work-life balance has a direct impact on work efficiency – happy, rested teams are more efficient workers.

In a rapidly changing global landscape, where pandemics, road blockages and military campaigns can cause large-scale industry-wide disruption, maritime decision-makers must future-proof their crews and operations by adopting a more resilient to protect their basic needs.

If nothing changes, the industry risks losing workers at an unprecedented rate. Bringing a human touch is essential to ensure the well-being of the crew in maritime transport. This ensures that the crew is happy and healthy, which keeps the global supply chain running.

Conclusion

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought existing resource issues in the maritime sector to the forefront of global conversation, with the crew change crisis exposing gaps in onboard welfare considerations. This issue needs to be addressed urgently, otherwise it will further slow the growth of the seafarer population.

Inaction will have massive repercussions on the global value chain and within the crew supply chain. Smaller operators risk being disrupted beyond recovery, which will radically reshape the competitive landscape of the shipping industry.

Digitizing crew processes is not just about smoother operations. Ultimately, this will ensure that crew leaders can free up time so they can focus on providing greater human touch to support crew proficiency and well-being as well. By proactively addressing the crew change crisis and stalled training programs, we can address dwindling crew numbers and lay the foundation for a more productive and engaged workforce.

Hrishi Olickel is CTO at Greywing, a new maritime operating system. Irina Carbunaru is General Manager HR Marine at Bernard Schulte Ship Management.

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