Tom Crichton, Associate Professor of Navigation and Maritime Science at the University of Plymouth, talks to Felicity Landon about demographics, digitalisation and how sponsorship opportunities can attract young talent to the sector.
It’s a perennial concern: why does the maritime industry have to work so hard to attract new recruits? What do we need to do to make the industry more attractive? At a time of dizzying technological advances, how do we ensure we have the skills we need for the future?
With the right sponsorship, you will have no course fees, will receive a living allowance, and have very little debt on graduation.
Plymouth also has a strong engineering base. For example it offers degrees in mechanical and civil engineering, both of which can have marine applications. There are also courses in maritime business and law, marine biology, hydrographic surveying and ocean science, to name but a few.
The image of the industry, Tom says, needs attention everywhere. “When you look at people becoming seafarers or working in the industry, our experience shows that it isn’t something that schools or teachers understand well themselves. Careers advisors don’t get it.”
The demographic of the Merchant Navy is a big problem, he says. “It is 97% male – and that is a hard stereotype to break. We have a visibility problem, we have fewer people coming in, and we are not appealing to 50% of the population."
Plymouth does slightly better in the measurements, with about 10% women on its courses, says Tom. “I would put my female students against anyone in the world in terms of ability, and they go on to have very successful careers. The problem is attracting them; but I believe that is where the growth is going to be.”
A university education for deck officers provides a great advantage in terms of future career opportunities.
Whether for young women or men, it is important to get beyond the straight concept of ‘working at sea’, he believes. “It should be explained that going to sea is only the first part of a far longer career. These days, the seagoing phase averages just eight years.
So young people can get away and have a bit of an adventure but it isn’t 30 or 40 years at sea, the way that generations before might have done.”
Eight years gives people enough time to go to sea, build experience and then move to a shore-based job – perhaps when they want to settle down and have a family, says Tom. “We need to articulate that. The challenge is to advertise seafaring as the first part of an ongoing career. We need the competence and operational understanding in many fields and there are all sorts of shore-based positions these people can fill.”
He welcomes the Government’s decision to double-fund cadet training through the SMarT Plus (Support for Maritime Training) scheme and the fact that the tonnage tax benefits come with training obligations.
“What the Government has done in terms of funding should be attractive to a number of people,” he says. “There are fantastic opportunities in the industry. Many of our students go on to become ships’ officers. Other students who don't wish to become seafarers but have an interest in navigation and maritime science find a wide variety of shorebased roles within the industry.
However, one issue is the time lag, taking into account the training and seagoing experience required before an officer is ready to take on responsibility. Is that even more of an issue at a time of rapid technological advances?
“We have one eye on digitalisation, autonomous vessels and maritime cybersecurity,” says Tom. “In three to five years, the capability will be there for autonomous vessels. In fact, technically you can do a lot of stuff already. In our own research we can control vessels remotely and make them avoid collisions. All of these things can be done and will happen and who is to say whether the same skill sets and same personality traits will be required.
“But there will be a transition period. And we are already feeding strands of cyber and autonomy into our programmes. We need to be prepared for the impact technology can have and incorporate this into the way we teach and train, and adjust operational procedures.”
Perhaps, he says, a more digitalised future will appeal more to the younger, digital generation. But that brings up another question – how to persuade young people to go to sea when they are so used to constant connectivity and the constant drip feed of social media.
The answer? “You actually find that once that connectivity is limited, they just get on with it. There is this worry that while earlier generations wanted to escape and have adventures, it now seems to be all about safe spaces, and the suggestion that young people are not exposed to risk and don’t understand how to take risk.
“But once you break through on this, we have some really good young people who go out there and do a great job.”
And there is one other big advantage for youngsters taking up Plymouth’s BSc course in Navigation and Maritime Science - a fully funded degree. “With the right sponsorship, you will have no course fees, will receive a living allowance, and have very little debt on graduation.” says Tom. “About 66% of our students are sponsored, and a university education for deck officers provides a great advantage in terms of future career opportunities."
“The image of education for the seafarer is generally further education (FE) or a foundation degree, not higher education (HE) level. And yet these young men and women may be holding the watch on a vessel with perhaps 4,000 people on board and will probably go on to a shore-based role where an HE background may well prove beneficial. There are people out there ready to step up and do a great job.”