World Maritime Day was first held in 1978 to mark the 20th anniversary of the IMO Convention’s entry into force. Celebrations are held throughout the world and each annual event focuses on a particular aspect of IMO’s work.
The 2015 theme is Maritime Education and Training, a theme which was adopted to focus attention on the wider spectrum of maritime education and training, in particular its adequacy and quality. Preparation of seafarers to face the rigours and challenges of the career ahead of them is vital – and so maritime education and training is the bedrock of a safe and secure shipping industry.
High quality education and training are vital to preserve the quality, practical skills and competence of qualified seafarers – keeping vessels safe, protecting the environment and keeping trade flowing.
Setting up a global system of training and certification has been a challenge, and the IMO sets the requirements which its members States have to then implement. Taking the lead in this approach is the 1978 STCW Convention and Code, as amended. This sets the international benchmark for the training and education of seafarers.
The goal is to provide a systematic flow, one which brings people in – trains them, and allows them to progress. The young cadets and trainees enter the process with little or no knowledge. Without barely the knowledge to tie a knot or make a gasket, they begin to be trained and shaped.
From the first phases of training – where they find out the most basics or basics – even washing themselves, and how to avoid souvenirs of runs ashore. They learn and begin to build.
The first trips away – filling in record books, getting puzzled by the most simple of shipboard tasks – and then suddenly the pennies begin to drop. It begins to make sense, and the education and training begins to work.
While some States may have slightly different takes on the flow of when and how new seafarers gain their experience – what tends to happen is that the first time at sea is tough. It can be hard to make sense of it all – it is an alien world, one of rules, demands and experiences which are completely new.
After the initial sea phase though, when our new seafarers are back in college – then things begin to fall into place. They have experienced life at sea, they have met expert seafarers, they have navigated or taken machinery apart. They have built upon a proud maritime heritage to become the future.
From then things change quickly – the chop and change of college phases, interspersed with time at sea begin to shape our seafarers and they devour information quickly. They grow up fast…and the journey to becoming a competent, qualified professional is nearly complete.
But that is just the start – the education and training is the hugely important foundation on which all this experience sits. Without the time in the classroom, without the lecturers demanding and expecting more, then the time would count for nothing.
The system moves fast – from being a new seafarer to becoming an Officer of the Watch may take a couple of years, but it all seems to happen in the blink of an eye. From seeing ships as an alien world suddenly it all makes sense – the cargo, the gear, the construction, even the stars in the sky are where the lecturers said they would be.
When the system works, it really works well. It provides a stream of new professionals for a global industry which – even with all the talk of autonomous ships, still rests on the skills of the people at sea.
However, it is not all good news. While World Maritime Day is a chance to celebrate we should not shy away from the problems. Maritime training and education regimes around the world can differ wildly – there can be cultural differences, and there are criticisms of some over others.
At best they produce proud, skilled, smart and dedicated professionals. At worst they can become “ticket factories” which value numbers over quality. There is a very watchful eye on some nations – criticisms of seafarers buying qualifications, or of poor standards are a major concern and this needs to be addressed.
The world needs a level training and education playing field – one in which a navigator from Poland has the same attainment as one from Philippines, or where an engineer from the UK is as skilled as one from Croatia.
To achieve this is a monumentally complex and demanding exercise – and perhaps the celebration for World Maritime Day should focus on the challenges are met head on. Shipping gets criticised when things go wrong – but incredibly, given how difficult it is to work at sea, things do not go wrong that often.
This is testament to the commitment of seafarer, but so too to the STCW convention and the people who implement it. Is it perfect? No – far from it, but as a foundation it works. As a Petri dish in which the culture of seafaring is grown, it gives seafarers a chance to grow, to learn and to achieve.
There should be no resting on laurels though – and as the Manila conference proved back in 2010, there are things which need to be refreshed, examined and re-examined, and then new elements implemented. The willingness to face weaknesses and to react positively to them is the mark of a progressive education and training regime. In the maritime domain we are fortunate to have just such a mechanism.
Maritime education and training is not just about the formal classroom, or even record books and certificates. One of the proudest traditions of being a seafarer is that of mentoring
Senior seafarers give of themselves to train the next generation. It is how the system works. New seafarers get to follow the crew and learn the hard gruelling tests of life on deck or on the engine room plates. New seafarers get to stand next to the OOW and find themselves focusing on the loom of lights and understanding them. They get to work alongside engineers – demanding spanners like a surgeon in theatre.
The mentoring and leadership which other seafarers provide for those coming up behind them should never be underestimated or ignored. It is this, which in concert with formal training, produces the people which will make a difference in the years to come.
It is the proud heritage of seafaring, it is the chain of experience which goes back generations which flows through the process. Seafarers who mentor others, who lead, guide and shape – they are every bit as important as the lecturers ashore or the legislators in the IMO.
So we can see that the building blocks of a career, of becoming a professional seafarer are in place. A bright young person – whatever race or gender can enter the maritime industry, and with dedication, enthusiasm, commitment, a bit of grit and a heap of hope – they can be turned into future captains and chief engineers. This is something of which we should be proud, and something which the IMO World Maritime Day should rightly celebrate. However, we need to temper that slightly. It is not all good news.
We need to ensure that much is done to safeguard the best of the system while weeding out the worst. Are we making sure that seafarers have the time and support to mentor and lead the next generation? Tiredness, stress and fatigue are not conducive to encouraging people to help those in training.
We need to ensure too, that people are not “buying” tickets, we need to ensure that the standards of training ashore are exemplary. We should celebrate the best lecturers, we should raise the standards of the average and do whatever is necessary with the worst.
So let’s celebrate the role and importance of education and training in ensuring we have competent and qualified seafarers, but let’s also highlight the improvements which can be made and put a spotlight on the weaknesses and failings.