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anonymous person

Captain X speaks

So, Spinnaker: I read your blog on hiring for 'I can’ attitude – and it’s absolutely right. Hire for attitude, train for skills.

The sad thing is that oil majors do not accept this. Through their crew matrix requirements they demand a certain time in rank, time in the company, time on this class/size of tankers of the combined 4 top officers on board. In practice this stifles a ship manager's or owner's chances to promote good young officers to highest ranks. Yet there is a whole body of evidence to suggest that complacency; the 'it cannot happen to me' attitude, not wanting to be challenged by juniors are serious root causes of accidents. And where do you find most of those attitudes? Exactly: with the most senior guys. They usually do NOT have 10+ years’ of experience at all, they have one year of experience repeated 10 times. I have found more fire in the belly of newly promoted senior officers, who have embraced Maritime Resource Management values, who check and double-check before acting, just to make sure that they are doing the right thing, instead of relying on an auto-pilot feeling of imagined experience.

The captain who kicked in an open door on the lack of leadership training for seafarers is absolutely right. When you climb up through the ranks, you never get any man-management or leadership training. It is monkey-see, monkey-do all the way. And with a solid background in their own society of hierarchy, a senior-junior system of education, high power distance scores, many seafarers become the same rotten bullies they so despised the moment they reach highest rank. Are they getting their own back? Or do they simply have no good role models while climbing the ranks and think that respect can be enforced instead or earned?

Luckily, we have already had – for many years – Maritime Resource Management training – possibly the only widely available man-management training in our industry. It is really based on two values: Challenge and Response and Getting the Best out of the Team.

Challenge the unsafe act, not the person. Create the working environment on board in which everyone is comfortable to make anyone else (and visitors to the ship) aware when they are about to commit an unsafe act.

Getting the best out of the team – because nobody can run a ship on their own and you have to be able to sleep at night! And if you don't believe that everybody's job on board is important, then you are ego-centric. Perhaps that is at the root of many human errors on board: crew forget to check their ego at the gangway.

In which other industry would we put someone in charge of a $120 million asset, with 23 people on board, 12,000 tons of bunkers in the tanks and $400 million worth of cargo – and his only qualification needs to be an old Rules of the Road exam result? We just hope that such highly-loaded managers have picked up good habits to be built on and bad habits to be avoided from the seniors who mentored him on his ways up the ranks.

And here is another problem: we actually have juniors who ask us if we can please put more experienced senior officers on the ships, so the juniors will learn more. We all know of fast-track promotions, the impossibility to ask for references under MLC, the shortage of engineers and navigators in the shipping industry. So we'll have inexperienced, fast-tracked seniors mentoring inexperienced juniors. Do I smell a spiralling problem for years to come? Years when we will speed up ships again, when we will have to sail with LNG as fuel, when we will have to comply with regulations using totally unproven technology like ballast water filtering?

So why is this? Is it because we still build ships the way we did 40 years ago; ok, we made the engine 'electronic' and put some more unreliable automation and control gear on board, but we have not massively overhauled maritime education. Yes, we have abolished the sextant and made spare batteries for the GPS mandatory (!) but we have heaped more and more regulations on the poor people on board and we no longer tolerate any human error in shipping.

You’re right, it does beg the question: why would you encourage anyone to go to sea and make a career?

– Captain X

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