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Sat 9 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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Train of thought

As the maritime industry faces a major skills shortage to support its buoyant growth, the Middle East region has the solution at hand.

As the maritime industry faces a major skills shortage to support its buoyant growth, the Middle East region has the solution at hand.

Finding the right staff ranks top of the list of challenges being faced by most of today's maritime industry.

The apparent appeal of a seafaring career, on the other hand, is seen as lacking, with potential recruits being deterred by perceptions of long periods spent away at sea, security, regulatory pressures and slow-moving bureaucracy.

Throwing low-level manpower at the problem will never be as effective as employing fewer but better trained personnel. - Nigel Moore.

Whilst the recruitment world of the maritime sector has been undertaking a major marketing facelift, the growth in the Middle East's shipping industry has led to even higher demands for trained and willing workers.

The conundrum is not so much about quantity. It's more about quality or, in other words, having workers with the right skills to function efficiently in this growing industry.

When it comes to churning out skilled maritime staff, the region certainly has had its share of criticism for not having world-class facilities to adequately train maritime workers in their professions.

However, with maritime training institutes in the region growing in terms of both recognition and, perhaps more importantly, student numbers, the tide appears to be turning.

The International Maritime College Oman (IMCO) is an example. "The rapid regional expansion in the transport sector has been outstripping sources of skilled labour," says Jan Van der Heijden, general manager of IMCO.

"This problem is expected to worsen in the coming years. It is reported that the port, shipping, transport and petrochemical industries would need a tremendous amount of people simply to get the jobs done."

To help counteract the regional shortage, the college provides training for all of these industries, with qualification programmes combined with experience in the field.

"IMCO fills the gap between the need for qualified and competent people and the related training. But close co-operation between the training institute and industry is essential," he highlights.

Having a quality training establishment in Oman has been a great boost for the country's maritime sector. As well as drawing young talent from elsewhere to the region, the college has been attracting the local population into the possibilities of a maritime career.

By ensuring that young Omanis have the opportunities to reach the skill levels expected by today's employers, the college is providing a double investment for the region.

"What other solution could there be to solve the manpower shortage; expatriates doing the jobs while there are a great number of youngsters available in Oman?" says Van der Heijden. "Educating and training of GCC nationals is the only light at the end of the tunnel and should even be encouraged."

With the growth of establishments such as IMCO, the region's shipping industry is indeed waking up to the benefits of training future workers, particularly those from the local population, as a long-term investment in its businesses.

As one of the most exciting ongoing initiatives in the region, Dubai Maritime City (DMC) has also identified the need for training.

The massive purpose-built development is planning to build its own educational campus, Dubai Maritime City Campus (DMCC), focusing specifically on upping the skills of the thriving maritime sector.

"The campus has been incorporated into DMC's master plan to promote the manpower development needs for the region's maritime sector," explains Captain Jaafar Sidin, director of DMCC.

"As a centre for lifelong learning in maritime studies, it will open a huge window of opportunity to expand the region's pool of specialists and professionals in various areas related to the maritime sector."

Due for completion by the fourth quarter of 2010, DMC Campus will provide around 36,000m² of space for maritime education, an engineering complex, student accommodation and a maritime museum.

"The campus will open its doors to people from the region, the wider Middle East and beyond. They will comprise high school leavers, working adults and professionals," says Sidin.

The campus will eventually accommodate more than 1300 students and offer both short-term courses and maritime-related degrees.With such an impressive capacity, DMCC certainly promises to take steps to address the shortage of maritime expertise in the region. However, as even Captain Sidin admits, such establishments alone cannot overturn the staff shortages being faced by the industry as a whole.

"The campus is created to help alleviate the manpower shortage for the maritime industry, but I don't think we will be the ultimate solution. The task is quite substantial and DMCC cannot do it all," he says.

Whilst education institutes have a role to play in attracting and training staff for a career in the sector, there are other options to educate both current and future workers.

Throwing low-level manpower at the problem will never be as effective as employing fewer but better trained personnel. - Nigel Moore.

The past few years have also seen companies developing ‘inhouse' educational facilities to equip their present and future employees with the skills for this highly competitive sector.

For shipping firm GAC, developing its own facility was a core part of its business strategy. Launched in February last year, the GAC Corporate Academy (GCA) provides learning for employees throughout its global businesses.

"The GAC Group is unique in terms of the nature of its shipping business and global operations," explains Damien O'Donoghue, general manager of GCA. "The corporate academy allows us to train and develop our people through a GAC-specific context.

Harnessing state-of-the-art eLearning technology, we are able to build global communities of professional practice to ensure uniformity of service delivery."

The benefits of this training are obvious as it is so closely tied to the day-to-day practicalities of working in a specific environment. For GAC, the investment behind its academy comes down to human resource development - how to harness the potential of personnel for the good of the business. GAC employs over 7000 people globally and is expected to grow to 10,000 in the next few years.

Alongside its growth, the academy is expected to expand at an equivocal rate to keep up with its requirements - making it an ideal solution for the company.

However, for those who prefer the idea of tailor-made training over the more generic education offered by a formal establishment, but without the considerable resources required for such an endeavour, there is a third way.

Consultants such Rasmussen & Simonsen International (RSI) also provide the transportation industry training via customised programmes for individual businesses as well as generic training programmes, delivered with partners including trade associations.

"RSI has a number of industry-specific training programmes designed to address current challenges, employee development and related skills needed by companies to remain competitive in today's shipping industry," says Amanda Rasmussen, CEO of RSI.

RSI has worked with some of the big names in the region's shipping industry, including United Arab Shipping Company (UASC) and in collaboration with the GAC's Corporate Academy. "Both organisations have demonstrated a strong and ongoing commitment to employee learning and development which we are proud to be a part of," says Rasmussen.

Like Van der Heijden, Rasmussen recognises that the cost of bringing professionals into the region can be very high, with the wiser investment being to train and develop people already in the Middle East.

However, she points out that training can only provide one of the solutions to the manpower shortage affecting the industry when combined with effective talent acquisition and retention strategies.

"Training is viewed as a way to not only develop appropriate, relevant and needed skills, but also as a key employee benefit all while increasing overall productivity levels. An additional key factor is access to a strong and self-motivated talent pool," she says.

Tasked with finding this ‘talent pool', Nigel Moore, director of Logistics Recruitment Middle East & Africa, is well-versed in the problems of recruiting skilled labour. "Throwing low-level manpower at the problem will never be as effective as employing fewer but better-trained personnel," he says.

"Firms should support career development by encouraging workers to participate in training to contribute towards ongoing improvement in their business."Moore himself believes that there is not just one solution to providing the training needed, but that a combined approach is necessary. "Companies here need to take on responsibility for training employees with a combination of inhouse training and external internationally recognised courses that can be completed locally or as distance learning projects," he says.

GAC's O'Donoghue also agrees that although the development of new people is an important strategic move to ensuring a skilled workforce, attracting new talent to the company requires an extra effort.

 "A hybrid strategy is required to ensure that we are bringing in new talent into our ranks and also ensuring that our current people are given an opportunity to contribute to our global growth and development," says O'Donoghue.

This is even more necessary for companies investing in the training of their employees, such as GAC, when there is a danger of skilled workers being poached in an industry where demand far outstrips supply.

"As a result of the increased demand, qualified people, such as deck and marine engineering officers, transport managers and operators and maintenance technicians, have become rare and those with good experience are being coveted by many industries," concurs IMCO's Van der Heijden.

The recent improvements to training facilities across the Middle East will undoubtedly serve a double purpose, not only providing skilled maritime workers for the region but also acting as a stimulus for drawing new talent into the sector.

As more training and educational options become available to the industry, companies need to look at their own human resources needs and how to best meet them.

This includes training and up-skilling existing staff whilst trying to find different ways to attract new workers into the industry.

As Rasmussen concludes: "The awareness is increasing but is still an area for potential improvement for individuals wishing to seek a career in the shipping industry. The shipping sector has long been perceived as an industry that people "fall" into, but it is truly an excellent and dynamic industry of which to be a part."

CASE STUDY: International Maritime College Oman

The International Maritime College Oman (IMCO), a joint venture between the Government of Oman and the Shipping and Transport College Group (STC), has been leading the way forward in the regional maritime training and education since its inception in 2005.

"The joint venture has been set up to revitalise the rich Omani seafaring history and meet the need for labour in the transport and petrochemical process industry," explains Jan Van der Heijden, general manager of IMCO. "In the wake of this development a huge demand for a skilled and competent workforce was foreseen for the port, shipping, transport and petrochemical process industries."

Today, IMCO offers a wide range of diploma and degree programmes, as well as short courses, for varying maritime professions including deck officers, marine engineering officers, port, shipping and transport management, and operation technology. "Since the start, the college has changed a lot," says Van der Heijden.

"Courses have been fine-tuned, relations with the private industries set up, and, most importantly, we have seen the increased interest to start a career with IMCO every year." Indeed, IMCO's own figures are a testament to this.

In 2005-6, IMCO had 205 degree students, this year has seen the number rise to an impressive 750. "Without question our graduate capture and student intake shows promising growth," he enthuses proudly.

One of the mottos of the college is ‘bridging the gap between the maritime industry, and related training and education'. As such, IMCO's courses are focused on providing students with first-hand experience of working in the field through apprenticeships.

"Students get practical working experience after two years of classroom and simulator training. This means that they have to complete an apprenticeship in the industry," explains Van der Heijden.

Due to its strong ties with the industry, IMCO students usually have no problem in finding a placement. "The response from the private industry has been very positive and we have already found enough companies to cover the need for apprenticeships for 2008-2009," he adds.

Construction of the new building for the college has already started in the Port of Sohar, which will have the capacity to accommodate 1500 students. The site will include classrooms, workshops, laboratories, pilot plant, control room, simulators, an auditorium, sports facilities and dormitories.

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