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Don’t be reactive: complacency warning over skills and recruitment at ISSS

The shipping industry cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to skills, recruitment and retention of seafarers – this was the warning from speakers at the International Shipowning and Shipmanagement Summit (ISSS) on the opening day of London International Shipping Week.

The ISSS webinar, organised by SMI, focused on ‘The 4 Pillars of Successful Ship Operation’ – skills, digitalisation, compliance and markets – but skills was the topic that dominated the discussions.

“We can’t afford to be complacent,” said Heidi Heseltine, Founder of the Diversity Study Group. “One of the key things is, in shipping, when it comes to people, quite often there is complacency. We historically are not always the most forward thinking. Some organisations are really progressive and leading the way and achieving great things, but that is not always the majority.”

The industry knows it needs new skills and needs to bring new people, mindsets and skills into the industry, but that should not be at the expense of those who are already in the industry, warned Heseltine. “It is [about] integrating the people we do have with the people coming in. How do we blend a huge amount of shipping knowledge and experience, which is vital to what we do, and make that work in harmony with the new skills and talents that are coming in and that we need to attract?

“We don’t want to attract them in and have the wrong environment or culture and then have them leave – that would be even more disruptive. Also, what skills and experience do we need? Are we ready for it? Do companies know, are they thinking ahead? In my experience, hiring is quite reactive; people want someone they want to start yesterday. But you can’t afford to be reactive; you need to think ahead.”

Shipping talks a lot about the need to attract more seafarers – “but why aren’t we working harder to retain what we have got? I don’t want to hold back anyone coming into shipping, but it is 98% male dominated and we need to consider the environment on board for them, too. We have to take a pragmatic approach based on the reality of our situation. Why not upskill – not just in hard skills but also soft skills. That’s where we are seeing some really good progress. Sometimes decarbonisation and new technology is almost a red herring when it comes to some of the core challenges [relating to people].”

This point was echoed by Raal Harris, Chief Creative Officer of Ocean Technologies Group, who emphasised “not leaving people behind”.

“We have a workforce out there and, in some cases, age profiles are going up. People like me talk about millennials and Gen Z, but older people are still there. We have to think about how to work with people who don’t have the skills to take care of their own learning. How do we make sure we upskill people and take them on the journey?”

People are shipping’s most important asset, said René Kofod-Olsen, CEO of V.Group.

“Our industry is nothing without having the right people, both on our fantastic vessels and on shore. We will as an industry find it more difficult to continue attracting the right talent.”
He recalled warning some years ago that the challenge would be a brain drain from shipping as other industries became more attractive. “It is incumbent on us to deliver attractive career/working conditions,” he said – and he also emphasised the need to create seafaring careers so that people know they move on to work for a shipmanager or owner, oil major or another related sector.

Seafarers now ‘feel seen’ and they want to be treated in the same way as staff ashore, said Mark O’Neil, President of Columbia Group and President of InterManager.

“We really have to look at our seafarers from the HR point of view and give them the self-same benefits as our staff ashore.”
Source: International Shipowning and Shipmanagement Summit (ISSS)

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