UK: Shape Up Or Ship Out? What Lies Ahead For Shipping Crews In The Wake Of Technological Change

Last Updated: 13 March 2018
Article by Heidi Watson

Technology in Shipping Series

"Technology on the march. A huge step forward for shipping, technology is changing many aspects of our personal and work lives. The challenge is to benefit from the positive aspects and minimise the negative."
MV Yara Birkeland - First Zero Emission Autonomous container Carrier, Maritime HR Association website

Over the last two decades the marine industry has been led by innovative change, with crews changing size and skills to adapt to new technologies. The most recent proposals in relation to digitalised energy management, onshore control centres and even unmanned ships suggest that radical changes to marine labour forces are afoot. If current predictions come true, we are likely to see the industry shake off the last of its traditional vestiges.

Technological advancements mean that unmanned vessels and smart shipping are no longer a mere notion but a real possibility. In that context, Clyde & Co teamed up with IMarEST to understand how more than 20,000 marine professionals around the world are responding to these emerging technologies. Across the four categories of unmanned ships, smart shipping, energy management and green technology the strong majority of survey recipients all shared a common message: when considering the adoption of new technologies, management needs to keep crew at the forefront of their minds.

Click here to read the Technology in Shipping report

Opportunity and risk for the industry

Those driving the new technology debate are keen to point out the benefits of smart and autonomous shipping, in terms of cost and safety. The benefits appear to be recognised by those surveyed who identified the top 3 advantages of autonomous vessels as:

  • Reduced health and safety risks;
  • Reduced risk of human error; and
  • Cost saving in personnel.

On the other hand, there are certainly those who doubt whether the claims made by technology companies can be achieved within a foreseeable timeframe or indeed at all, and the union lobby in particular is raising questions about the safety risks inherent in automation, and whether the crew cost reduction figures being mooted are realistic.

As well as the obvious benefits, it has also been suggested that piracy will be eliminated by autonomous ships as there will be no human hostages to take as leverage for ransom payments. Caution is needed here, though. With new technology, new risks arise – the prospect of digital piracy by hackers with the potential to take over ship controls.

Interesting questions are raised around the impact of dwindling crew numbers on those who remain, with smaller crews isolated on vessels for months at a time. Will it become increasingly difficult to attract seafarers to these conditions and will the industry be able to support any mental health issues which arise?

While the development of autonomous ships is still in its infancy, 65% of those surveyed thought that autonomous ships will arrive within the next 15 years in varying forms of sophistication, and certainly the developments in smart shipping are already changing the way crew operate at an incredible rate. Whether change will be immediate or, more likely, in stages it seems certain that technology will continue to drive changes to the role of crew into the next generation.

The need to plug the knowledge gap

Digital technologies continue to be developed to determine and optimise the operational efficiency of a vessel, and in the short term this is to the benefit of crew, with one respondent commenting: "If correctly utilized, data-centric operation will enhance the functions of existing crews."

The biggest benefit of smart shipping is to allow these developments to work alongside crew to increase operational efficiency. However, as with any new idea the use of these technologies will, if they are to be used efficiently, require a change of mind-set throughout the organisation.

We spoke to Karen Waltham of HR Consulting at Spinnaker Global, an industry organisation which works with maritime employers globally. She comments: "The rate of change in the world generally is increasing. I question whether the industry is ready for the change at all, let alone the pace of change we are seeing. While some appear to be supporting and even championing change, there is still fear and resistance in many quarters. We as an industry need to be thinking outside of the box. It is now widely accepted that we are 20 years plus behind the times in HR management covering everything from attraction, performance, development and retention of people. We can learn so much from other industries in this regard. While we are unique and different as an industry, we are also the same as any other business in many respects. It will require real investment and focus from Board level to facilitate, truly embrace and support the cultural changes which will be required to benefit from this changing world."

While the benefits of new technologies are clear, ship-owners will need to assess whether their crews are ready to use the tools available. 31% of those surveyed felt that crew competencies and skill sets were not at all prepared for smart shipping and only 15% felt that crews were prepared. As a result, ship-owners face a knowledge gap between the technology available and the ability of crews to use those technologies.

While the experience of seafarers is undeniable, the use of technology alongside that experience will be important to ensure vessels are running at optimum levels. Ship-owners will therefore need to think about the training needs of their crews in order to benefit from smart shipping developments.

Alongside this, there will also be a need to recruit IT specialists who are able to train staff, run the new technology and be available for when things go wrong.

Changing job roles in smart and autonomous ships

The feeling amongst those surveyed is that smart shipping will not act to reduce crew sizes. Instead there is likely to be a shift in control from the experienced seafarer to the onshore software engineer. This fundamental shift raises difficult questions about how to protect the existing workforce, how to fill future roles and how to manage the difficult safety issues which arise from this new dynamic.

As more and more operational functions are carried out onshore through technology systems, what will this mean for the role of the master and other skilled crew? Will we see a loss of valuable knowledge, a "dumbing down" of the role as the crucial functions of analysis and decision making are taken over by technology?

Many believe that no technology can replace the instinctive knowledge of an experienced master, yet experience from research and advancements in other sectors is generating evidence that computerised data based decision-making is more effective than human decision-making.

Much will depend on the quality of the systems. The risk, of course, lies in the technology creating a new source of error – technological rather than human – and confidence in smart technologies will depend heavily on minimising such errors to the satisfaction of stakeholders including maritime regulators. It is clear that the regulatory framework needed to properly regulate new technologies, including autonomous shipping, is a long way from reality, and much work will need to be done in this area in partnership with industry before radical changes to crewing arrangements can be implemented.

Total loss of crew?

In comparison to smart shipping, there is the inescapable feeling that when autonomous ships arrive on the seas, crew reductions and job losses are waiting.

With 78% of those surveyed indicating that there would be crew reductions and job losses as a result of automation, ship owners will need to be aware and prepared to deal with redundancies. Ship owners should ensure that they understand their legal obligations which could involve consultation and negotiations with crew and /or unions who represent them.

It may seem inevitable that in the autonomous revolution the traditional seafarer roles will become redundant. However, many believe that automation will lead to alteration rather than elimination of jobs, not least because of a desire to hold onto some of that experience. Good quality onshore roles in the sector should increase significantly and should, at least in the early days of the technology, benefit from experienced and skilled crew with knowledge of real time life aboard a ship. Re-training crew for these new onshore roles will be critical to retaining knowledge and avoiding redundancy costs. If change is, as expected, going to by stages then the industry has an opportunity to react positively to this as an opportunity rather than a risk.

However, the reality is likely to be that the skill set for new technology roles will be very different to that of the average crew member. 59% of those surveyed felt that current crews lack the experience or skills to support or act as shore-based operators. It, therefore, remains to be seen whether the industry is able to manage that transition effectively.

On the plus side, the increase in shore side roles could be attractive to a whole new type of individual, an hitherto untapped market of talent. In particular, quality shore based roles are likely to be more attractive to women, a group currently much under-represented in the industry.

Karen Waltham comments: "With the increasing focus on diversity globally and along with the increasing competition from other sectors, we need to ensure that we maximise the potential of all available talent. From our Maritime HR Association's 2017 Salary Survey of approximately 100 shipmanager, shipowner and shipbroking companies, we know that women make up only 34% of the maritime workforce, and those roles tend to be focused on administrative and support roles. Maritime employers have a real opportunity to take advantage of the changes afoot to attract and retain more talented women into a much more diverse set of roles."

Ship-owners will need to consider where to base their onshore operations and a big part of that decision will have to include where they will find those with the appropriate skills. The places where the sector can source technology expertise may be very different to current crew sourcing jurisdictions. As a result, while there may be cost saving from reductions in the numbers of personnel needed, there is no way around the need to have highly qualified workers, and the cost of those workers may well be higher than the traditional crew salary.

With additional onshore workers comes additional employment law obligations. Onshore employees will benefit from clearer access to courts and tribunals in the jurisdictions in which they work, and may have access to minimum entitlements relating to pay and protection from dismissals which they may not have been able to access before.

The future of technology

In conclusion, the technologies available today come with huge benefits to all industries and the shipping industry is no exception. To ignore these changes would result in the maritime industry being left behind. While the shipping industry is still very much uncertain about the changes that will result from these technologies, especially in regard to regulatory and legal changes, it is clear that workforce needs will need to be reviewed. Changes to the workforce will present challenges and opportunities for ship-owners but an early review of the future needs now, will help navigate the technological changes of the near future.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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