Cries of shortages become louder
So why are so many seafarers upset ?
Authored by: Martin Leduc August 2006
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Ever since I was in marine school in Vancouver back in 1996, I have been hearing this cry of looming labor shortage from the marine industry worldwide. Ten years later I am still hearing it, especially in Canada. I believe it to be a logical conclusion, no one is being trained, and worldwide trade is at its peak, of course there will be a shortage.
Ten years have passed, I have made my way through school, worked under some real jerks, broke skin many times, chipped and painted many miles of pipe. It was tough, didn’t even get a job that used my license for about two yrs after getting it. Good thing I had my family support as well, because the money wasn’t all that impressive.
Things are a bit better now. At least I am working, deep sea with a reputable company – could be worst I could be destitute and homeless. But with “competitive wages” mixed with the downward spiral of the US Dollar, its sometimes feels like being destitute and homeless is just around the corner. And for sure, any sense of a comfortable family life or stability, especially living on the west coast of Canada is a shaky dream at best.
So after proving myself “deep sea” for well over 4 yrs, in a good position utilizing my skills and earning many more, on top of the 6 years working ships on the west coast; you would think that I would at least get a response from my job prospect inquiries. I tried the usual operations, mostly on the west coast, like Seaspan (and its many division), BC Ferries, several different terminals, Coast Guard etc and even some operations on the great lakes – did not bother this time with the east coast, since its generally futile efforts - based on many yrs of experience trying. The only reply I got after four months, was from BC Ferries Swartz Bay (Victoria), a nice enough fellow offer to put me on the “on-call” list, as temporary casual, for the position of Engine Room Assistant. The other outfits did not even reply with a free email auto response or even less of a human response.
I am confused; maybe I think too highly of myself. I know with a third class license I am not that all that high in ranking or lack “uniqueness”. But come on! After seven years holding a license and a decent resume I still can't interest someone to allow me to compete for a relevant position. But the worst part is people inside companies complain of overworking due to a shortage of engineers – go figure.
Not overly confident of finding a decent position “close to home”, I will continue to “kick ass and take names” wherever I can. I love working deep sea. It’s challenging, stressful, and satisfying, after all, I am competing on the international stage, where competition is fierce and I am still here, and the better for it
But be warned, if you come and tell me, with a straight face, that this industry, on the west coast, or in Canada for that matter, suffers from a, not just "experience" but, plain "skilled workforce shortage" you will get my super size "Cat" steel toed boot up your ass, because I have had it!
The great thing about a "grassroots" website like this one, it's a great way to get to know many people and their concerns. One thing is for sure, this apathy towards human resources found across Canada, and really the world, is one of the most common topics I come across. So I know I am not alone on this “boat”.
The only shortage of seafarers that exists, is that we are really short of people highly trained (by someone else), dedicated (cyborgs), with lots of experience (can rebuilt engines blindfolded), willing to work for wages (that makes it almost impossible to have a family), on “modern vessels” (built in the 60’s). That’s what we are really short of; at least that’s what I deduce from the extremely limited feedback provided when an application for work is made.
From my perspective, it seems that everybody is raising the alarm everywhere - the government, the unions, and industry groups. In doing so, it appears that they relieve themselves of the responsibility of doing anything else about it. I firmly believe that those three levels of the industry share equal amount of blame for this “labour crisis” causing this alarm.
Just ask yourself, when was the last time your company invested in training, say, engine room resources management, simulator training, or controls training for the employees. What percentage of employee positions is allocated to cadets or apprentices? When was the last time your union supported those entry-level spots for cadets and apprentices, offering them sailing berths as a general practice? Is there a union program for employees to not become complacent, and help them achieve higher certification? Can you remember when the government regarded seafaring with pride or provided the industry with a modern regulatory infrastructure and support? Hell, can you remember a time when trades in general, were not vilified.
People, in general, get complacent in there own limited success, a human fault I think. They believe that the size of their entity is enough to draw the talent they need without investing anything back into that talent pool. I believe this is true of people and companies, and seems to me to have been the attitude on the West Coast for a long time, and from my limited insight, seems to be well across Canada too. Well now its coming back to roost.
I am picking on the West Coast industry because it is the most familiar to me, but I seen similar problems deep sea as well. It’s not all bad news; there are a few exceptions worth mentioning from my own experience. Back in the late 90’s BC Ministry of Transport had supported 3 full term apprentices in the Marine Branch (fresh water lake ferries), even though they only had 7 small license vessels running. Canadian Coast Guard Pacific Region regularly runs with Cadets as supernumeries on their ships, in support of their own training campus in Nova Scotia. On the west coast, these two examples are medium size players, as far as seagoing resources goes, so the question begs to be asked, what have the big players done?
The BCIT Marine Campus is another bright spot. The provincial government has not close this facility yet, although increasing pressure from other programs is threatening to take over resources of the campus, encroaching on the marine side of things because the lack of unified support for what it does, from the marine community at large. It seems to remain afloat through the individual drive of local seafarers upgrading their skill and those trying to enter the industry.
With the constant “need to cut costs”, one of the first places to suffer cuts is usually human resources, since it is hard to gauge the benefits to an organization. The result, other than the obvious increase in workload, is an erosion of benefits associated with life at sea, of being an officer, and just plain low morale. This in my view creates a workforce of “paid loyalty” employees. So if you want to fix the shortage of officers, then it is simple for employers, offer a better pay package and I’m sure you will get your competition’s skilled labor. This is the way things seem to be in the industry now; I believe this race to the bottom is shortsighted and it would appear from the “labor shortage cries” that it is an unsustainable business model.
I believe this apathy towards human resources, where the goals is to reduce the workforce’s expectations to the lowest common acceptable standards, but slightly above your competition, has a tendency to burn out people. It is common on a ship to see saying like “we have done with so little for so long, that we can do anything with nothing”. These are funny but at the end of the day, skilled people get burned out and leave the industry when they are not respected in general goodwill or monetary fashion.
I am afraid that these cry of alarm - shortage this, shortage that - are only a precursor for a push to relax labor standards by industry. We could certainly use an updating and overhaul of regulations but I am afraid it is not going to get better for Canadian seafarers because of the lack of unity. Employers have the motivation and resources and are much more aggressive in pushing the changes they need to government than seafarers, our own fault really. I fear that one of the changes on the horizon will be the importation of third world labor on our Canadian trade vessels, more in line with “international standards” as some would argue, to “make us more competitive”.
The bottom line as I see it, is this; if your are truly serious about fixing this labor shortage, unions and government need to support business in establishing a compensation package that supports lifelong seafarers. Not just the “senior” ranks, critical to their immediate operations, but supporting and accepting younger ones through the ranks. For one thing, you could start by communicating your employment requirements or at the very least respond to applications made, because I, and many others are, confused about what employers want. So until this confusion is somewhat cleared up, I would suggest you think about another popular saying on our ship, “put up or shut up”.
Martin Leduc, August 2006 - Comments always welcomed
Here are some comments received from readers...
"How can the unions and gov help in Canada when the companies only want to create a shortage of highly skilled Canadian workers and bring in someone they can pay 1/12 the wage. If my living expense was the same as F.O.C sailors then I would work for the same wage but when a Fed Ex driver is getting 27$ an hour I think an engineer is worth double."
Dave T. Ontario
"I have just read you article "Cries of Shortage" and have to say in Australia we are having similar problems. I served a cadetship, starting in 1988, with a major shipping company here. After gaining my Watchkeper STCW 78 Motorship certificate, I continued to serve with them as a 4th, 3rd, and 2nd engineer until 1999. In 1999 I left the industry, because when I started in 1988 there was 28 vessels in the fleet (all blue water) and in 1999 there was only 7. The general feel in Australia was that with removal of cabotage and the easy issue of single voyage permits for foreign flagged to trade on our coast, that the end was in sight. I was not alone. The majority of people in my position did the same thing, either started another career ashore or went to UK based companies where the pay was double but the leave was half of that on the Australian coast.
In 2004 I decided after a few phone calls from people I used to know in the industry, to revalidate and return to sea. It is now 2006 and in 1 month I will be sitting my 2nd Class STCW95. The college courses required were paid for by the company and a wage of 3/4 of my graded rank. I'm not writing this email to brag, but to give you some insight into Australia's industry and there are some companies still in this industry that are willing to train and invest in their staff. And yes, we to have a major shortage of sea staff in all ranks. So much so, that companies are offering to train the shore based contactors they employ for some of the maintenance as watchkeeping engineers.
We also have three strong maritime unions covering the three departments (engineers, mates and crew) which are fighting tooth and nail to increase training, maintain the current numbers of vessels on our coast and to enlarge the fleet. However, in a sad twist of fate due to the lack of trained staff in Australia of all ranks, we have not being able to man some of the new vessel which were to be Australian flagged. So much so that the Australian Ship Owners Association is starting to support the unions in our struggle against the Federal Government's attempts to destroy our industry. Companies here are now starting to take heed and investing in training as well as the reasons behind why no one wants to go to sea and why what staff they do have are leaving. This may just be a face saving exercise to appease the unions, we will wait and see. At the moment, our head is still above water, and the way I see it we will survive and possible expand. It will never be like it was when my father and uncle first went to sea, nor the same as when I went to sea, but there is still light at the end of the tunnel. So, don't give up."
Regards, Amos S.- Australia
Yes it is indeed very interesting situation you described. I am a bit worn out of all this action from office types about changing this and that, in the end it all comes back to the basic course they should have stayed on. Ironic indeed. It is so unfortunate for countries like Australia and Canada, huge exporters, to shone their seagoing fleets, very strange attitude, the worst is when it comes back to bite the policy makers in the ass such as it is now. I am not giving up, I am a optimist at the end, but an engineer as well, so sometime it takes a bit of action and chaos to appreciate one's position. - Martin Leduc
So from now on any articles when I come across about labour shortage of ship's officers, I post them on this site, originally just below here. But there was so many that I decided to post them on the under the General Job Topics of the Job Board in the Forum area.