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Tue 19 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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The shortage of good deck officers is reaching epic proportions, driving salaries through the roof.

The shortage of good deck officers is reaching epic proportions, driving salaries through the roof.

A raft of challenges may set 2008 apart as a watershed year for Middle East employers in the sea freight sector.

The weakness of the regional currencies pegged to the ailing US dollar, combined with a stifling shortage of high calibre seafarers has put the ball even more firmly in the hands of employees and jobseekers.

Salaries around the world are on the rise and this is largely being driven by the shortage of experienced personnel in a range of categories.

Maersk Line began the year with the announcement 2000 - 3000 staff were to be made redundant, which suggests that the financial performance of even the largest players in the industry has been below par for too long, a theory backed by plummeting share values of Asian and European lines on international stock exchanges last month.

However, for seafaring staff the redundancies are likely to come at a time when their hand is strongest.

Not surprisingly, Maersk Line confirmed that the vast majority of the job cuts would be achieved by reducing the size of its middle-management structure, and not through a reduction in the services it offers.

While the major lines may be drawing in their belts and downsizing the number of their land based employees, the seafaring requirement remains an area that simply cannot be shrunk without a necessary reduction in potential business.

This remains the one area where companies are facing the toughest battle hiring the staff they need.

The officer class of seamen who ply over 90% of world trade along global shipping lanes are in ever-shorter supply, and the medium-term outlook on that front is somewhat bleak.

Freight shipping companies across the board are aiming to return to healthy levels of profitability at exactly the same time a world-wide crunch on the availability of experienced mariners is reaching epic proportions.

Many experienced seafarers from the global talent pool are reaching retirement age at a time when fewer young people are joining the industry, and those that are have many years of on the job education to undertake before they are capable of replacing that older generation.

The statistics themselves are quite staggering. There are 1.25 million seafarers in the international commercial fleet.

The shortfall of trained senior officers is estimated to be in the region of 10,000, which represents 2% of the total workforce. 25% of those officers are over 50 years old, and 50% are over 40.

It is expected that only a tiny percentage of those officers intend to remain at sea beyond the age of 50.

This information is made all the more troublesome when the growth of the commercial fleet is taken into account.

The number of ships in the world fleet has grown by more than 1% per annum over the last decade - much faster in the Middle East - and this trend is set to continue for the foreseeable future at least.

Based on current projections the officer shortfall is expected to reach more than 27,000 within a decade, representing nearly 6% of the total workforce.

"There is a growing officer shortage that is predicted to increase over the next 10 years," confirms Claire Campbell, director of UK-Based Marine Recruitment.
An examination of the research literature on this topic reveals that remedying the current drain of top quality mariners is indeed a complex issue that the global shipping community will have to tackle.

"In higher-wage economies a lot of young people seem generally unaware of careers at sea - even in traditional maritime nations such as the UK. At a basic level this is a marketing failure," says Campbell.

There is a growing officer shortage that is predicted to increase over the next 10 years.

"One of the main challenges facing the shipping community is to get the message across that there is a clear career path for prospective candidates in the industry, with a combination of on the job training and educational development," echoes John Halpin, general manager of Hy-Tech Logistics.

The economies of Eastern Europe and Asia have, for more than a decade, provided the maritime industry with an influx of junior officers and ratings, in particular Romania and the Philippines have emerged as essential providers of crew for many major shipping companies.

In lower wage economies the salaries of seafarers are relatively high in relation to equivalent jobs in the local economy, which acts as the crucial incentive.

"However, even from these essential maritime recruitment centres the cost of training can act as a barrier to entry," adds Campbell.

Most senior officers are still recruited from developed countries where economic and societal changes have exacerbated the drift away from sea-going careers.

"Social changes, cheaper travel and jobs offering equal remuneration mean that people can travel the world without having to abandon a normal social and family life to do so," explains Campbell.

To counter the upcoming shortfall various organisations around the world are pooling resources to bring a new generation of graduates into the maritime community.

In the United Arab Emirates the UAE Ship Owners Association launched last year, and announced that one of its primary goals was to attract young talent into the industry, however the association is still in its infancy and little headway has been made to date.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) set up an US$55 million Maritime Cluster Fund (MCF) in 2002 to help promote and strengthen the maritime cluster in Singapore.

Nearly $35 million from the MCF was earmarked to enhance maritime manpower development as well as to develop local training infrastructure and capabilities.

The most successful and productive regional training facility remains the International Maritime College Oman (IMCO).

"We have 240 students enrolled for the academic year 2007-2008, with deck cadets from Oman, Qatar, UAE and even India," says Sander Wubbolt, marketing manager, IMCO.

The college offers huge advantages to the students, who can learn the necessary skills to become a qualified deck officer without leaving the Middle East, and provides regional companies with competent local employees who typically speak fluent Arabic.

Partly due to the region-wide drive to recruit more local talent the college has had a promising success rate in placing its graduates in port, maritime and shipping management roles throughout the Middle East.
Although the college shows great potential, such initiatives are not yet churning out the first officers that are so much in demand.

Attaining such rank takes years of experience, and for several years to come there will be a significant shortfall of such talent in the market.

The associated inflationary impact on salaries that has developed due to rising demand and a falling supply of mariners is a further challenge to the regional sea freight lines.

"Salaries around the world are on the rise and this is largely being driven by the shortage of experienced personnel in a range of categories," says Phil Parry, chairman of Spinnaker Consulting.

"It is a candidate market at the moment and they are commanding higher salaries as they know the demand is strong but the supply is not," he adds.

Most employers have tried in vain to temper the inflationary aspect by offering candidates more variable benefits, such as bonuses and commissions, however demand has been so strong that basic salaries have risen across the board as well.

Rising fixed cost of salaries is particularly worrying to regional operatives.

Local businesses are plagued by the weakness of currencies tied to the US dollar, and escalating fixed costs.

"Generally rising costs have made it harder to attract staff to the Middle East."

"The cost of housing has shot up in Dubai in particular, to which you can add inflation which the International Monetary Fund estimates at 10% for the UAE, and possibly higher still for Dubai," says Parry.

Salaries in the Middle East have generally not been as high as they are in Europe and the US, but the tax-free status and lower cost of living has traditionally more than compensated for this.

However, the cost of living, in particular accommodation, is reaching parity with the most expensive and exclusive enclaves of Europe. The reality is that wages that were more than sufficient to lure expatriate workers to local shores just two years ago are no longer adequate.

Tackling this problem is evidently critical for shipping lines around the world, but the huge ambitions of Middle Eastern lines may be tempered by the crewing crisis.

Dubai Maritime City has vowed to take a proactive step towards training officers at its academy, but for the time being the International Maritime College in Oman remains the leading light in this field.

Sea freight companies looking to maintain an advantage will need to address the upcoming crisis in ways not previously thought necessary. Those firms that offer scholarships and appropriate financial incentives now will reap the rewards when the supply of talent dries up further.

Looking ahead to 2009 and beyond, for employers it seems that rising fixed crew costs above normal inflation seems an inevitable part of the shipping game.

Mariners fortunate enough to be within that shrinking pool of talent are clearly the ones behind the wheel, and as long as freight volumes continue to rise, will continue to command enviable salaries.

"We predict a continued jobseekers market, plenty of vacancies, but perhaps lower staff turnover figures this year will help to ease the employers pain a bit," concludes Parry.

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