'Down to the Seas'

By Shashi N. Kumar

A Long, Distinctive Lineage

In seafaring there has never been any room for error or negligence. The education of new merchant mariners would be incomplete without lessons in survival at sea under the most catastrophic conditions. They learn from day one the ruthless nature of the sea and its intolerance of incompetence and complacency. Successful merchant mariners have always been unique individuals and consummate professionals who inspire confidence among their shipmates.

Their uniqueness comes not from extraordinary intellectual capacities, but from simple common sense (often called a “seaman-like manner”), self-discipline of the highest order, and a willingness to be separated from near and dear ones for prolonged periods, often under trying circumstances. It comes also from a mental and physical ability to face the unknown, whether that be maritime piracy, hurricane-force winds, or militant stevedores pilfering cargo in port.

Years of experience at sea and professional maturity give them the leadership skill fundamental to effective command and control and sound judgment. Furthermore, at least in all traditional maritime countries, merchant marine officers serve as vital (but often unheralded) defenders of national economic as well as security interests.

Another distinctive characteristic of the profession is its global aspect, long before globalization was controversial. Today’s labor market for seafarers is perhaps the most globalized ever, with standards and minimum wages agreed upon worldwide.

International, Cooperative Trade

Globalization in shipping began long before the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade’s Uruguay Round discussions (which led to the establishment of the World Trade Organization) even started in 1986. Among the practices that had become routine were commercial liberalism in shipping, the establishment of flags of convenience, the emergence of a new breed of maritime clusters spearheaded by Hong Kong and Singapore, the dependence of several shipping companies (based in both traditional and non-traditional maritime countries) on expatriate officers and ratings to staff their ships, and the outsourcing of crew and technical management to specialized companies.

Although various technological advances since the 1980s have reduced the number of required crew, this has by no means diminished the role of seafarers in maritime business. On the contrary, crewing still constitutes a major component of the operating cost of a ship, and crew-related issues remain relatively complex. Indeed, the effects of globalization on merchant mariners serve as excellent illustrations of the pros and cons of the phenomenon in general.

While the fundamental repertoire of merchant-marine officer skills has remained unchanged for generations, the challenges that lie ahead for new recruits are extraordinary. This is especially the case in light of the highly globalized nature of contemporary maritime operations and management.

New Skills Needed, New Nations Applying

In addition to traditional hands-on mariner skills and self-discipline, merchant-marine officers today must be tech-savvy and multi-skilled, capable of making rapid decisions and leading others in a fast-paced operating environment. They should be competent, self-confident, highly ethical, and effective leaders, with superior organizational skills and respectable cross-cultural literacy, as well as multilingual communication capability.

Another significant change in today’s merchant-marine officer set of skills is mandated specialization. Whereas a licensed officer could once serve on any commercial ship of the size for which s/he was licensed, current international regulations mandate specific additional qualifications and credentials for specialized ships such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers, oil tankers, and chemical carriers. This makes staffing those ships an extraordinarily difficult challenge. Invariably, ship owners meet the increasing staffing needs through poaching officers from other sectors, then providing additional training—which further worsens the supply imbalance.

Given all the exceptional demands and sacrifices expected from today’s merchant mariners, one wonders why such qualified, highly specialized individuals pursue a career at sea when terra firma opportunities are often more lucrative and less painful. Such rationale has affected the career choices of current youth, especially those from well-developed countries. It has contributed to a pronounced shift in major merchant-marine officer supply sources away from the traditional nations to newly emerging maritime powerhouses—some of which are also the fastest-growing economies today. Relative prosperity has begun to impact the recruitment of officers in countries such as India and China.

The Data—Or Lack Thereof

Despite the existence of several sophisticated shipping databases, global statistics on merchant mariners are sadly lacking. Attempts to provide this information are difficult to corroborate, and hence remain non-conclusive. The five-yearly global survey of merchant mariners that began in 1990, coordinated under the auspices of the London-based Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO) and International Shipping Federation (ISF), is considered the most current reliable estimate. Unfortunately, fluctuations in the market during any five-year window is typically so complex that the validity of such a survey often drops shortly after it is disseminated.

The 2005 BIMCO/ISF Report was published while the industry was going through an unprecedented span of spectacular growth, during which all major markets reached their crescendo individually and collectively, a truly rare event in shipping annals. While maritime economists began contemplating the dawn of a paradigm shift in shipping-market dynamics and perhaps recalibrating their economic models, ship owners went into a state of irrational exuberance, their predictable Achilles’ heel.

They placed orders for an unusually large number of new ships, thereby inflating the price. More important, this strained the global building capacity to the point where new-ship delivery time (from contract signing to actual delivery) reached four years. The delivery of new ships that began in earnest in 2006 and still continues altered the demand for merchant mariners significantly, and impacted the reliability of the 2005 report and its projections.

To complicate this further, shipping markets went into a steep decline in 2007 and plummeted to their lowest levels in 2009. Liner shipping companies alone lost an estimated $15–20 billion collectively in 2009, and laid up well over 750 ships when the crisis was at its peak. So even the midpoint BIMCO/ISF update to the 2005 Report—based on a nonscientific survey conducted in 2008—does not provide a reliable analysis of merchant-mariner supply-and-demand conditions.

A fundamental difficulty in producing reliable statistics is in the voluntary nature of survey participation and the lack of consistency in reporting figures. A good example is the typical 12–18 percent wastage rate used in supply forecasts, indicating the percentage of new recruits who do not complete their training and education, and/or the ratio of those officers leaving the profession prematurely. In reality, wastage rate is highly variable from one country to the next, and even within the same country regionally. The national wastage rates for a particular country, and within its regions, could change from year to year based on prevailing macroeconomic conditions. Such fluctuations can be captured only in a regular annual estimation, coordinated and disseminated by an authoritative entity and justifiably sponsored by the industry.

Doing the Math

Perhaps the most significant finding of the 2005 study was in documenting that officers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) member nations had dropped to 22 percent in 2005 from 40 percent in 1995. During the same period, those from Asian and Eastern European nations rose to 76 percent from 52 percent. Although not shocking revelations, the magnitude of the change was noteworthy. The study documented a shortage of 10,000 officers in 2005, which was predicted to worsen to 27,000 by 2015. This varied from a 2008 Nippon Foundation Study predicting a world shortage of 32,153 officers by 2020, and a 2009 Drewry/Precious Associates study estimating a shortage of 33,000 officers in 2009, increasing to 42,700 by 2013.

Table 1 shows the top 12 merchant-marine officer-supplier nations in 2008 and the change compared with the original BIMCO/ISF (1990) statistics. Among them, only three belong to OECD: Greece, the United Kingdom, and Italy. The modest increase in supply from Greece and United Kingdom is attributable to a conscious effort to boost their supply of officers after undergoing a very large drop in the 1980s and 1990s.

Regardless, these increases are relatively minor compared with the more spectacular growth from Asian and Eastern European countries. The triple-digit growth from India, Croatia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Bangladesh is particularly noteworthy. Currently, almost one out of every two merchant mariners is from Asia. As an extreme case, the ocean-going national-flag ships of Japan, a nation with a long maritime history, are staffed by 94 percent other Asians.

The most recent statistics come from the 2010 McKinsey Report prepared for the Director General of Shipping in India, according to which the current demand for officers is 550,000 worldwide and will increase by 20 percent in 2015, to 660,000. In comparison, the worldwide supply of officers in 2008 was only 498,800, according to the Drewry/Precious Associates Report of 2009.

The demand for ratings is also estimated to increase by 20 percent, from the current demand level of 600,000 to 720,000 by 2015. The extraordinary increase in demand for merchant mariners during the next five years is a result of the huge backlog of new ships that will be delivered during this period and that are expected to trade commercially. According to one study, world trade should grow 7 percent annually from 2010 to 2013 to absorb all the new ships scheduled for delivery during that period. However, at this point it is overly optimistic to assume that trade will grow by even 3 percent until 2013. 1

Although the 2008 BIMCO/ISF interim survey was unscientific and did not provide specific supply-and-demand statistics, its qualitative findings are nevertheless revealing. 2 Of survey respondents, 58 percent believed supply of officers had decreased in 2008 compared with 2005, and 87.5 percent had experienced a severe to moderate level of officer shortage during that time, the most serious being for senior engineering and chief officers.

The survey also found that the average age of merchant-marine officers in general and senior officers in particular was rising rapidly. Only about a third of respondents believed there was an increase in the intake of cadets worldwide.

The escalating shortage of officers has had serious economic ramifications for ship owners. According to the 2008–09 Moore Stephens Report, despite a sagging global economy, wages increased in 2008 by 21.4 percent from the previous year, and by another 12 percent on top of that in 2009 under even more adverse macroeconomic conditions. Although the 2010 Moore Stephens Report found overall ship-operating costs declining for the first time in ten years, wage costs were still escalating in specialized sectors such as tankers, where there is a significant shortage of skilled officers. Ironically, it is still very difficult to attract new officers from not only well-developed countries, but also increasingly from those such as India and China that have become dominant suppliers in the global market.

Recruitment and Retention

Both recruitment and retention have affected the availability of officers. This was primarily a problem for OECD countries in the 1980s and 1990s, but now it is becoming universal. A lack of awareness of opportunities in the merchant marine, and of the outstanding personal development and self-discipline it inculcates in future officers is extremely unfortunate.

The International Maritime Organization launched its first Go to Sea campaign in November 2008 to promote these careers and attract new entrants. But recruitment is far more complex. Maritime academicians believe that applicants today lack the foundational skills in science and technology required for the highly sophisticated ships in service, and that those who have such skills do not find the career attractive. Related issues include the absence of appropriately qualified educators and insufficient training billets.

Coordinated long-term recruitment planning is also notably absent in most countries today. With the sole exception of the United States, every traditional maritime country intentionally cut back its investment in maritime education beginning in the 1980s. Some European countries attempted to revamp programs in the 1990s to restore their overall maritime milieu, but those efforts were lukewarm at best and have now been supplanted by other national priorities under trying macroeconomic conditions. In July 2010, Germany announced a plan to cut back its apprenticeship subsidy program, which provided ship owners the equivalent of $32,000 for each trainee position on a German flag ship. 3

Worldwide, the consensus is that it takes about ten years for a new recruit to gain the credentials and experience to take command of a ship or rise to the chief engineer’s rank. On top of the difficulty in attracting the right recruits, the challenges in retaining them are also becoming complex. A major impediment is the diminishing quality of work life experienced by many, documented in publications such as the BIMCO/ISF interim survey and 2010 ISF Annual Report. 4

Quality of Life Issues

For merchant mariners, a ship is not only where they work; it is their dwelling. Difficulties and discomforts have a magnified impact on their bearing and attitude. The increasing sophistication in shipping operations and quick turnaround in ports have taken away not only the charm of sailing that existed until three decades ago, but also the fundamental ownership and operational dynamics in the industry.

Traditional ship owners of previous generations, whose longing for the sea was second to none, are a rare breed these days. Ship ownership and operations have shifted to pension funds and conglomerates that often seek instant gain from the sale and purchase market of ships rather than from their operation, or from certain tax-exemption loopholes. Under these conditions, the merchant mariners’ roles and functions have been marginalized, and their loyalty made meaningless. With the increasing number of open-registry vessels and outsourcing of ship and crew management, the relationship between management and mariners may not even exceed the length of a contract.

Furthermore, ship managers providing the crew for open-registry vessels as well as for other fleets often find themselves in a highly competitive market, with little room for ongoing training and mentoring of the next generation of officers, especially given the tendency of some of their clients to switch management companies frequently. Even senior officers may not receive many development opportunities or help with career planning. Under today’s ship-ownership structure, merchant mariners have been inadvertently reduced to just another operational-cost category.

Criminalization Problems

A 2010 survey of the members of the Anglo-Dutch maritime union Nautilus found that 92 percent of respondents were very concerned about the continuing criminalization of the maritime profession. Two out of three stated that it has impacted their desire to continue in the field. 5 The survey found that some employers are not providing even the most basic legal knowledge, such as rights in the event of accident or death, or information on insurance for legal risks while employed at sea.

Several incidents during the past ten years have contributed to the current sentiment that national authorities hold them to a seemingly reverse burden-of-proof standard, i.e., guilty until proven innocent. One of many examples is the 2007 Hebei Spirit case, in which the very large crude carrier was at anchor in South Korean waters when hit by an errant heavy-lift Korean barge. The ship’s captain and chief officer took every prudent action possible to avoid collision, yet they were indicted for criminal negligence. A South Korean lower court found the two senior officers not guilty in June 2008, but six months later an appeals court reversed this. They were given tough jail sentences, although virtually every professional association of merchant mariners endorsed their actions as extraordinarily prudent and seamanlike. After global protest, the officers posted bail in January 2009 but were prohibited from leaving Korea for several more months.

A Tarnished Ethos

The current geopolitical environment has been extremely unkind to merchant mariners, especially those from developing countries. First came the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, and terrorists’ continuing attempts to wreak havoc on everyone they perceive to be their enemy. Almost simultaneously, maritime piracy, a perennial scourge in waters off Indonesia, the South China Sea, and the Malacca Strait, began spreading to Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Somali pirates have commandeered many ships and held crews hostage for long periods.

The impact of these developments on the psyche of an average merchant mariner, especially one from a developing country, is particularly troubling. They undertake long voyages battling not only inclement weather but also people waiting on the high seas to prey on them. If their professional competency and anti-piracy skills outmaneuver these foes, upon successful completion of the voyage they may well reach a port where they are not allowed to even step ashore for security reasons. It is a rare individual who would want to continue as a merchant mariner under such conditions. The merchant mariner ethos has been tarnished in no uncertain way. While going about facilitating globalization, these mariners have become silent victims of current geopolitics.


Merchant mariners have always been a rare breed, and a crisis in their supply worldwide appears to be looming. The industry must generate reliable current data on supply-and-demand conditions in the global market. A concerted, long-term effort should be made to recruit qualified youth for careers at sea from traditional countries as well as newly emerging maritime nations.

Equally complex is retention, which will necessitate enhancing quality of work life and shifting away from unfair criminalization, as well as attention to fundamental humane issues such as shore leave, access to Internet and e-mail on board and in port, and a safe work environment where they are not perceived as pawns to be bartered by ruthless pirates. Like any other professionals, merchant mariners aspire to steady careers. Highly talented, they have fungible skills and deserve respect, stability, and care. The International Maritime Organization designated 2010 the Year of the Seafarer. Now that it’s ending, the global community should recognize the selfless, daily dedication of 1.5 million mariners worldwide to safer ships and cleaner oceans.

1. T. Leander, “Shipping’s Phony War,” Lloyd’s Register , 15 Sept. 2010, p. 10.

2. International Shipping Federation, “Interim Manpower Survey,” 2005, http://www.marisec.org/ManpowerInterimSurveyV6.pdf .

3. P. Hagen, “Germany to Cut Crew and Apprenticeship Subsidies,” Lloyd’s List , 9 July 2010, p. 3.

4. International Chamber of Shipping, “Annual Review 2010,” http://www.marisec.org/annualreview2010.pdf .

5. “Worried Seafarers Kept in the Dark,” Lloyd’s List , 28 Sept. 2010, p. 2.

Dr. Kumar is a well-known, authoritative master mariner and distinguished maritime educator.

Dr. Kumar is the academic dean at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, N.Y. Previously, he was the founding dean of the Loeb-Sullivan School of International Business and Logistics at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not represent the views of either his employer or the U.S. Maritime Administration.

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