Upgrading a ‘ticket’: a view from the bilge
Authored by Martin Leduc
January 10, 2013
Over the last few years, I have been getting phone calls from Human Resource
“professionals”, looking to fill positions requiring Transport Canada Marine
Engineering First Class Certificate of Competency (COC). They call from offices
across Canada, drawn to the high value of the commission, should they be able to
fill the position, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 thousand
dollars. They are of course unknowledgeable of the marine industry in general,
but in particular the Marine Engineering field. Due to my higher than average
online profile, I end up fielding these calls with some regularity, which, I say
I only have a Third Class certificate – and dash their hopes of a quick buck.
The conversation invariably turns to a bit of learning session, where I share my experience about the Marine Engineering profession. One of the first question they usually come up with, is “why is it so hard to find a Marine Engineer in Canada”? I of course want to say that the constant moving target that is the certification process in Canada is outdated, duplicitous, irrelevant, and down right difficult for no real or apparent reason.
Furthermore, the lack of support and investment in the process over many, many years, by ship owners, and the obvious social costs that one must bear to work in the industry, are further impediments to the process. And of course the payoffs, such as compensation, quality of work environment and social benefits, in terms of the individual investment, is rather ridiculous compared to other professions.
In general I attribute the shortage, to a total, long term, lack of vision by those in the industry, and even less action. But of course, the answer to this Human Resource person on the phone is “…because it is complicated”.
Marine career, a tough love
I turned forty this year. When you are in your twenties, forty is like “old people”. Indeed it does feel like it; the burdens of responsibility are heavy, in particular with a family, your perspective changes dramatically as well. The running of my website (dieselduck.net, blog forum, etc) was always a mental exercise for the eventuality of upgrading my license, moving through the ranks. I have been laser focused on my career in the marine industry for so long, it’s hard to decipher where it ends in my daily life.
But these days, I am not all that impressed with the industry and its constant battering of its professionals. So as a cathartic exercise, I offer this post mortem of my recent attempt to move ahead in the industry without sacrificing all of my sanity. Perhaps those starting out may use it as a cautionary tale, for they’re own purposes, as we are sometimes blinded by the excitement when starting out, working in the commercial maritime world.
STCW95 the game changer
In the mid-nineties, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the world maritime regulating body, met to update the Standards of Training Watchkeeping and Certification of Seafarers convention. New changes introduced in 1995 were adopted by the IMO member states, Canada included, and came into full force in 1999. This IMO convention is more commonly known as STCW95.
STCW95 dramatically changed the way training and certification of seafarers was being done. The original convention affecting training and certification was introduced in 1978; and the most recent one, the Manila Amendments, as been accepted in 2010, coming into force in 2012. These conventions dictate how nations like Canada, make regulations concerning commercial shipping.
Since the mid nineties, most people entering the Marine Engineering profession do so by following the Marine Engineering Cadet / Apprenticeship program, to an accepted worldwide standard. This is a considerable shift from the previous way Marine Engineering professionals were trained in Canada.
Cadets now receive the bulk of their training at the beginning of their careers, before achieving their first COC – the 4th Class. Over the four years of the cadet program, they are in the classroom, learning the theoretical subjects, and onboard the ship, following a training program. In some countries, upon convocation, the Cadet is issued a diploma or similar degree such as a Bachelor of Science; however in Canada, no such recognition is generally attributed to this program.
Static standards in a dynamic industry
From the 1960’s, until the mid nineties, a person could “walk off the street”, get sea time onboard a ship, then challenge the Fourth Class certificate. That person would then progress through his career, with sea time, and learning the “basics theory”. The theoretical component would usually be completed in piecemeal, typically done at one of the training institutions, sometimes, on their own. That “basic” knowledge would then be assessed by Transport Canada, when challenging the exams for the next certificate, i.e. 3rd Class, 2nd Class, 1st Class. This system is (was) known as “hawsepiping”.
Canada, coming out of the Second World War, had a massive merchant fleet, and was therefore at the forefront of developing shipping standards early on, including manning regulations. With STCW95, the “rest of the world” caught up, and threw in some best practices of its own. It came in full force in the late nineties, resulting in very few aspiring Marine Engineers, if any, able to “work their way up” organically in Canada – by experience and self schooling.
Despite the shift to “up front” basic training that is now the way Marine Engineers are trained, the Marine Engineering certification system in Canada, has remained largely unchanged since the sixties. The many regulations that have being developed by the IMO, in particular STCW95, and STCW10, are being shoehorned into Canada’s already burdensome “old system” of certification and regulations.
Certificates of competency system
Every regulated ship on the world’s ocean is required to sail with a certain amount of competent crew members. The Captain is a good example, commonly identified in popular culture. There are of course many skills needed on a ship, in particular the safe and efficient running of the ships machinery. The professionals responsible for this area, commonly known as the “engine room”, are Marine Engineers. Every ship must carry a certain number of engineers, depending on various size limits – set by regulations and international agreements.
Marine Engineers are licensed personnel, Ship’s Officers, and their abilities are vetted worldwide by high level federal government agencies, such as Transport Canada. The result of the vetting is the issuance of a Certificate of Competency (COC), also known as a “Ticket” or “License”. There are four levels of COCs in Canada, the 4th Class, 3rd Class, 2nd Class, and the highest being the 1st Class – each level, applicable to Steam and / or Motor Ship propulsion. Internationally, there are typically three accepted classes of certificates, Watchkeeper, Class Two, Class One.
Once a 4th Class COC is obtained (entry level), the upgrading of a COC is achieved by acquiring experience in the form of time spent at sea, and training certificates in various short courses, such as Engine Room simulator, Marine Emergency Duties (safety), first aid, etc, as well as meeting medical standards. The bulk of the upgrade consists of completing two sets of Transport Canada administered exams. They are separated into two categories, Part A, involving 5 theoretical subjects, and Part B, involving 3 subjects, with more practical aspects of shipboard knowledge.
What’s a TC Marine Engineering exam
The Transport Canada exams are 3.5 hours long. The exams are nearly identical in scope for the 3rd Class, 2nd Class, and 1st Class COC, however, the complexity of the questions increases according to level attempted – in theory.
The Part A subjects are:
• Mathematics (3rd Class only)
• Applied Mechanics,
• Electro technology,
• Naval Architecture, (1st 2nd Class only)
• Technical Drawing (2nd Class only – 6 hr exam).
The Part B subjects are general engineering knowledge (also known as EKs)
• EK General,
• EK Motor and / or EK Steam – depending of designation sought – and,
• …at the end, an Oral Examination with a Transport Canada Marine Safety Engineering Examiner.
The individual exam consists of nine questions. Typically, each question takes about one or two sheets of paper to answer. All work must be shown. Non mathematic based questions usually require a diagram, and at least one page written description. The first six questions answered, are graded, counting toward the final mark. Overall exam passing mark required is 60%.
Persons that have completed an approved Marine Engineering Cadet / Apprenticeship program, whether at the federally run Canadian Coast Guard College, or at the provincially funded institutions, (Georgian College, BCIT, Memorial University or Rimouski) are exempted from the Part A portion of the 3rd Class and 2nd Class certification process; others candidates are not.
The relevance of the theoretical formation for Marine Engineers is beneficial to the overall understanding of the work aboard; however it rarely comes into play during the day to day performance of one’s duty, other than serve as a broad stroke knowledge pool. Because the subject matter is basic to the greater understanding of the duties of a marine engineer, these are usually absorbed in a formal classroom setting under a goal oriented structure. This is best done at the beginning of one’s career, such as it is being done now with the internationally formulated Marine Engineering Cadet / Apprenticeship program.
Marine Engineers employed by a company in a certificated capacity are usually employed onboard ships, because ships are required by regulations to have trained people onboard. The Marine Engineering professionals onboard are therefore utilized as systems operators, rather than design and construction specialist. The onboard systems on modern ships are extensive and complex, their integration, even more so, thus the relevance of a properly trained engineer.
Typically, professionals such as mechanical engineers specializing in naval architecture are sought to tackle specific issues onboard, or in the early design and construction phases. However bright an individual sailing as 2nd class engineer might shine in the design of a structure, it is not typical of the role, nor is the frequency of it occurring in the typical 2nd class capacity, to ensure a high degree of quality assurance that is usually sought be regulators, such as Classification Societies.
The Canadian exam system, conceived in the sixties, is not reflective of the needs and realities of today’s shipboard work environment. However, with Canadian regulators allowing a great number of shipping tonnage built in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, to still trade commercially, it is not surprising.
The realities today, are that ships are more efficient by being bigger, with more equipment onboard, and more complex to operate. Meanwhile, cuts to crewing and manning levels are a consistent theme. As a result, there is a greater reliance on outside specialist, for efficiency and overall reliability when specific issues onboard are identified by the engineering team. The Marine Engineer has evolved into a plant operator, more than a designer or builder, than perhaps they were considered numerous decades ago. Make no mistake, it is a major undertaking to safely and efficiently operate large machinery, knowledge and experience are key to success.
Parts of the upgrading process
The short course portion of the certification process is primarily the results of the STCW conventions, specially the STCW95 convention. They are worthwhile in targeting training to specific needs that have been identified over time, and are required internationally.
The Part B of the certification process deals with more practical issues encountered by engineers on a ship, such as piston construction, or pump design. These examinations are generally considered to have some worth, but ultimately the subject matter currently covered is woefully outdated, and lacks consideration for modern ship equipment and practices.
The EK exams are based on basic knowledge of specific items – such as knowing what piston ring material are and why. Of course this is a good thing to know, but not really something that is relevant due to its frequency of occurrence. One must also consider the engine manufacturer specialist should / would most likely be involved in any major maintenance.
The Part A examination are problematic to anyone upgrading their COC in Canada. They represent extensive mathematical – trigonometry, calculus, etc – comprehension. These subjects are good to have a basic understanding, but represent a major challenge to a sailing Marine Engineer, due to the lack of routine use. The subject matter must therefore be re-learned specifically for the examination process – and then typically forgotten until the next upgrade.
How basic do you need
It is always good to return to the basics, but at what cost and to what level of “basic”. Take for example Electro Technology examination, where capacitance and resistance is calculated. These are great skills to learn if you are building or designing systems. However, I have never once, in 17 years of sailing, seen this skill used onboard in a practical application.
Typically, defective electrical, in particular, electronic equipment will either be replaced to be fixed by authorized service centers or, usually, discarded. It is highly unlikely that skills necessary to troubleshoot and repair issues on one’s system circuit board exist onboard – or could be trusted. A more practical approach to assess would be basic troubleshooting, and lock out / bypassing techniques and how a failure would affects the overall plant health.
With the new cadet / apprenticeship program, I believe that necessary basic training, such as knowing how steel is made and the likes, are being addressed appropriately in a classroom setting, at the start of their career, during the four years of formal training. To require COC candidates to re learn this material, numerous times over their career, to a degree of a specific examination of memory, is counterintuitive and akin to a detour on one’s Marine Engineering career road.
Apples and oranges
Early on in my career, starting with my first COC, the 4th Class, in 1999, I have identified the Canadian COC certification process as a major career roadblock, and have wondered why. I sailed a considerable amount of time internationally and have quizzed my peers from various nations on their systems, to satisfy my curiosity. One of my first career observations was that in Canada, it seems that your license level was dictated by your hair color. Whereas sailing internationally, I often sailed with Chief Engineer in their thirties, and even late twenties – and felt comfortable with their knowledge base and capabilities.
From my investigations I could only identify two other nations with similar certification process as that in Canada; those are of Chile and Venezuela. Although it is difficult to compare “apples to apples”, when it comes to international seafarer certification, it appears that the majority of nations, like Canada, adopt the formal training model, which see cadets scheme and the likes. After all, this is what STCW implementation is aiming for – standardization. The major difference in other countries, like Norway, is that once the formal cadet process is successfully completed, an engineer needs only to build experience with sea time, before moving to a higher COC. Some countries, like Australia, before approving a COC upgrading, require an oral examination with an engineering examiner.
I don’t think anybody would argue that Norway is a laggard in terms of safely and efficiently operating ships internationally, or locally. They are often at the leading edge of system design, operation, implementation, and regulations.
I think it would be worthwhile to fully, and objectionably ascertain where Canada sits in certification process, compared to other nations. I believe we would find that Canada’s system is an onerous and duplicitous process, causing harm to our industry.
The choice: family or career
To successfully pass a Transport Canada examination requires a great deal of investment, in time, concentration, and finance. As discussed above, the subjects, in particular, Part As, have to be re-learned at each COC certification upgrading process, due to inactive use of the material in realistic career settings.
From my observations, peers that have been successful in upgrading their COC to the 1st Class are divorced, widowed, in a new relationship, or otherwise single. Typically these people had the capability to dedicate the large amount of time to relearn and study the material, to pass the exam – sometimes, after several attempts. Although, ultimately they succeeded, they also endured considerable impacts on their social circumstances. As a result you either get an older person beyond the active family life, or the younger person before family life completing the upgrading process. Any Marine Engineer with a family will find that upgrading professionally, will endanger their family structure.
The major issues that impacts an individual upgrading is the amount of time and the financial cost dedicated to the endeavor. Some without family commitment may be able to segregate adequate time for studying on their own, although considerable, it is not unheard of.
Aside from an elevated gift of memory for the mundane, to be successful, a formal training environment yields best results from my observations. This is a major stumbling point in Canada, as upgrading program for various COC, are not generally available, or “close by”. If they are, they are usually not with a full time tutor or instructors – however, provide the necessary physical environment for a proper mindset. Furthermore, it is generally accepted that you require at least one month of full time studying – 8 hr a day to prepare for one exam. With (roughly) eight exams per COC, you can expect to spend eight months in a given institution.
The formal training setting greatly helps in securing some measure of success, but the cost of this is staggering. A candidate would have to pay for the program itself, pay living and transportation expenses to attend whichever institution offers the course. Unless you are single and mobile, you will still need to continue maintaining a family residence, unless planning on uprooting the family unit, for each upgrading session. This is a severe measure when full impacts are considered, i.e. further social isolation, schools for kids, relocation costs, tremendous burden on spouse, and their work, etc.
In our family we have calculated the direct financial cost to our family unit to be in the vicinity of $150,000 to upgrade my COC to a 1st Class COC. In comparison a peer of mine, who completed the cadet program in 2000, has just completed his upgrading, from a 2nd Class to a 1st Class COC. His UK based company sponsored the entire endeavor with a caveat, that he give them two years after completion. He estimates the cost to the company, to be around $300,000.
The risk factor
One of the biggest challenges to the upgrading process is the risk involved. The drain on our family unit is a real one; and is measured in financial cost, emotional toll, and time. Currently, we have determined in our family, that upgrading my COC in Canada, is simply too risky.
It is risky because there is no end in sight once you start. Despite all the best intentions you might have, you cannot state that: this is the start date, and this is the end date. This uncertainty can quickly overwhelm your available resources.
Part of the problem is that Transport Canada and its examiners are trained to look for faults. With a three hours written paper dealing with specific technical subject matter, that are not normally used in the day to day profession, one can quickly grasp that there is a high likelihood of failure – depending or varying criteria’s. It could be weather, individual’s moods or attitudes, interpretation, simply an unfamiliar term / word used, bad handwriting, etc. Too many factors affect the outcome of one exam. Successfully passing a Transport Canada Marine Engineering examination is a moving target.
In some countries, the completion of an approved ten month program at a designated institution satisfies the requirement of regulators, for upgrading the COC. With this, the COC upgrading process can be budgeted and become manageable – finances can be planned accordingly, dad’s grumpiness can be tolerated until a set date.
The rewards, in terms of remuneration offered have major impacts on a candidate’s willingness to upgrade their COC. The contract onboard the last ship I was on, for a well known Canadian company was for an hourly wages of $31.61/hour. In British Columbia the average Red Seal trades person – electrician, mechanic, welder – is in the high thirties per hour. I would suggest that a typical trades-person has far less regulatory hurdles to overcome, than Marine Engineers. I love what I do, but at some point, the cost / benefit calculation has to be made.
In my estimation the salaries offered, not to mention conditions onboard, are simply not adequate to offer a proper return on the tremendous investment a person, and or family, is required to make to upgrade their COC – or even remain in the profession. The current remuneration offered by Canadian companies for the professional service Marine Engineers provide, are, in my view, grossly inadequate.
The evidence for this hypothesis, I would suggest, is the obvious absence of available Marine Engineer professionals in Canada. Not just the senior ranks, but also junior ranks. There are numerous opportunities available elsewhere, such as utilities or oil production, that offer equivalent if not better remuneration, with far less requisites, and offer better social situations.
Whichever way a 1st Class COC is achieved, it is an overwhelming achievement in Canada. Worthy of a TV show, perhaps, we could call it “Survivor”.
My answer to the next Human Resources person that calls my house, looking for qualified Transport Canada 1st Class Marine Engineers, will probably remain the same, for simplicity sake; “…it’s complicated”. However, if they are interested in the full details and the perspective from the “bilge level”, they can refer to the commentary above.
I hope the above offers insight, where you might draw your own conclusions. I believe in the old adage, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and from my point of view, the current availability of professional Marine Engineers in Canada is certainly a suspect link. This shortage of professionals has the ability to stop a ship from moving cargo, and since the very large majority of economic trade depends on cargo moving by ship, this link represent a considerable threat to the Canadian economy.