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Special Report

Published on: Aug. 24, 2023, 11:40 a.m.
Wooing the maritime workforce
  • The ship management sector in India is poised for a CAGR of 6 per cent in the years to come

By Hemang Palan

Leaders of the Indian ship management sector firmly believe that encouraging Indian millennials to choose a career in merchant navy is a tough task due to the diverse career options available to them, as India is one of the fastest developing economies of the world. Although the global share of Indian seafarers, popularly known as merchant navy workforce, is rising consistently, young Indian population need immense guidance and encouragement to join the profession of seafaring.

The maritime stalwarts expressed their views in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on 15 August 2023, on the occasion of India’s 77th Independence Day. Modi had said: “India had ‘democracy, demography and diversity’, which together have the potential to realise dreams of the country. While other countries are growing old, India is young. We have the highest number of youths in the world."

There exist about 1.5 million seafarers in the world at present. The Indian seafaring population includes about 160,000 professionally certified seafarers (highly skilled merchant navy ‘officers’ and semi-skilled workforce classified as ‘ratings’), who serve cargo ships of various types; and also some 90,000 seafarers, who serve cruise liners. The total population of Indian seafarers is estimated at about 250,000. The government of India, in co-operation with the stakeholders of the Indian maritime industry, aims to increase the global share of Indian seafarers from 12 per cent to at least 20 per cent over the next few years.

Over the past decade, the number of Indian seafarers has experienced a significant growth rate of about 270 per cent, with the number of certificates of competency issued for entry-level deck officers increasing by 85 per cent. But a lot more needs to be done to sustain and increase the growth of the Indian seafaring population to achieve the target of 20 per cent global share.

The coherent view amongst stakeholders of the Indian maritime industry is that the ship management sector in India continues to hold immense promise for the growth of the maritime industry and the flourishing careers of Indian seafarers in the coming years. Like the IT industry, the growth of the Indian ship management sector too solely depends upon ‘human capital’, or the young generation of India – the youngest nation in the world, with over 66 per cent of its population under the age bracket of 18-35 years today. 

However, it is easy for the IT industry of India to continuously source human capital required for its consistent growth, considering the popularity of the software engineering profession, and the existence of robust and excellent quality academic infrastructure in the country that continuously trains Indian students in the IT skills on a massive scale. India continues to produce about 9.5 million graduates each year, including 1.5 million technical and engineering graduates, who seek suitable and lucrative employment opportunities.

Not an easy task

However, getting adequate and well-trained manpower in huge numbers to bolster the growth of the Indian ship management sector does not seem to be an easy task. “In the past, careers involving foreign travel were highly sought after in India. However, with the opening of the Indian economy in the 1990s, the IT/service sector became more popular among young Indians, causing a steady decline in the appeal of the careers in sectors like Indian Foreign Service, merchant navy, aviation, etc,” said Vinay Singh, group managing director, marine HR, Anglo-Eastern Shipping group, which contractually employs about 21,000 Indian seafarers aboard over 500 ocean-going merchant or commercial ships of various types that serve the global cargo needs on a continuous basis. A reputed ship management conglomerate based in Hong Kong, Anglo-Eastern group is one of the largest employers of Indian seafarers through its India-based ship management company.

  • Singh: merchant navy offers unique benefits

Singh reiterated that encouraging Indian millennials to choose a career in the merchant navy is undoubtedly a challenging task due to the diverse career options available to them. Sectors like IT, finance and healthcare have expanded, offering a wide range of opportunities. “However, for those who prefer not to work in an indoor environment, the merchant navy offers unique benefits, especially for younger individuals. These benefits include global exposure, working with different nationalities and in various types of ships, a challenging work environment with new technologies, rapid professional growth and attractive perks such as tax-free wages, job security and extended leaves between the job assignments,” he said. 

This growth indicates that the merchant navy profession has not lost its lustre. “Anglo Eastern Shipping group’s premier education institute, Anglo Eastern Maritime Academy, based in Maharashtra, sends over 700 new trainees from India annually, making up about 25 per cent of the Indian market for fresh seafarers. The high demand is evident from the fact that only one out of 40 applicants gets selected eventually at the Anglo Eastern Maritime Academy,” informed Singh. 

One of the significant challenges in maritime education is gaining access to apprenticeship opportunities on ocean-going ships. To prepare a skilled workforce for the ship management sector, it is crucial to have a robust academic infrastructure in the country. While India has about 166 maritime training institutes, the quality and capacity of these institutions vary. Not all can provide world-class training and exposure required for the challenging profession of the merchant navy.

“So, we can say that the Indian ship management sector holds promise but faces challenges in attracting skilled professionals willing to work away from home for extended periods,” affirmed Singh. “To address these challenges, it is important to enhance the popularity of the merchant navy among students, improve the quality of maritime education, and effectively communicate the unique advantages of a career in the merchant navy to the millennials. A strategic and collaborative approach involving industry stakeholders, educational institutions, and government bodies is essential to overcome these challenges and ensure a thriving future for the sector”.

Inadequate manpower?

“Is the merchant navy a popular profession amongst the students in India? The answer is not easy,” said Shiv Halbe, CEO, The Maritime Association of Ship-owners, Ship-managers & Agents, a leading shipping association. Halbe was of the opinion that the 1990s saw a boom in skill demand by the Indian and global economies. Professions which were hardly ever heard of came to the forefront – IT, actuarial sciences, legal services, financial services, hospitality industry, etc, and not to forget the glamorous airline industry! 

In career fairs across the country, many of these professions put up attractive and lively ‘stalls’ to create awareness and attract students of desirable age. Merchant navy also participated for a couple of years, but for reasons unknown, the effort faded. For the merchant navy to remain above the visible horizon, the stakeholders must remain visible and relevant. As the old adage goes, ‘Advertise or die’!

One thing must be made clear at this juncture. In the Indian context, the challenge with the maritime sector, that of inadequate manpower, is essentially because of the large number of Indian seafarers employed on foreign flag ships, in ever-increasing numbers. Incidentally, the number of Indian seafarers employed on foreign flag merchant ships is four times the number employed on Indian flag ships! The migration of Indian seafarers from Indian flag to foreign flag has been an on-going concern for the Indian flag operators. And more is never enough!

  • Halbe: adapt to the changing times

Maritime training was primarily the domain of the Indian government till about the late 1990s. However, with the increasing number of Indian seafarers finding employment on foreign flag ships, the government’s facilities were grossly inadequate. The maritime training was then ‘opened up’ to the private parties, with the government being the regulator. This attracted a lot of investment, resulting in growth to the extent that, today, barely 50 per cent of the pre-sea ‘seats’ in the academies get filled.

Thus, excellent infrastructure is grossly underutilised. The growth in the merchant navy is dependent upon the intake of ‘trainees’, who then are ‘certificated’ upon meeting certain criteria, set by the International Maritime Organisation, and recognised globally. The main hurdle is insufficient training ‘berths’ onboard the ships.

“Also, one of the untapped resources till date has been the induction of women in the Indian maritime sector,” stressed Halbe. “Increased gender diversity will not only increase the pool but also make more business sense and make the workplace (the cargo ships) more attractive. This does require a rethink on the way the industry has traditionally operated. However, if the ship management industry does not adapt to the changing times, and takes a ‘head in the sand’ approach like an ostrich, then the outcome is evident, with highly damaging consequences”.

Maritime stalwarts believe that, to make seafaring profession highly sustainable in India, the millennial population need to be guided properly and there is a dire need to increase awareness related to rewards offered by merchant navy and the importance of sea cargo transport activities worldwide. Unfortunately, the risks faced by Indian seafarers and merchant navy workforce get prominent coverage in the local media in India only in crisis like situations during piracy-attacks, or natural or an unnatural death of any seafarer on-board the cargo ship.

Marketing strategies for the industry

“Maritime industry should employ marketing strategies on social media and conduct webinars, with interactive content, to showcase the benefits and growth potential of the seafaring profession,” observed Deepu Kishinchandani, vice-president, BW Maritime India. “The industry should partner with the maritime training institutes to ensure that they have the latest study material and technology available to enhance the values of maritime training provided in their classrooms.

The Indian legacy has to continue for years to come. We all know that 90 per cent of the world’s trade happens through shipping and, therefore, the ship management sector must be given the pride of place in India for becoming a global economic powerhouse when we are celebrating the 77th year of our independence”.

Amar Singh Thakur, general secretary of India’s prominent shipping union, ‘All India Seafarers Union’ felt that the potential of the youth population residing in small towns and Tier II cities of India should be tapped by the Indian ship management sector to increase the global share of Indian seafarers. “Unfortunately, many small and mid-sized ship management companies in India are focussed on profit maximisations through malpractices and exploitation of Indian seafarers,” Thakur contended. “Such companies manage substandard ships and tend to damage the sector’s reputation. Indian ship management industry should jointly confront such malpractices and challenges to attract the best skills in the industry”.

  • Kishinchandani: industry should partner with institutes

Also, there exists a strong opinion in the maritime fraternity that the Indian ship management sector should promote the essential contribution of merchant navy officers in maintaining the global trade routes amongst the young population of the country. “The sector should invest in targeted marketing campaigns, spread awareness in higher secondary schools and also establish partnerships with prominent educational institutions, to showcase the benefits of a career in merchant navy,” remarked Sanjeev S. Vakil, founder & CEO, Hindustan Institute of Marine Training, based in Chennai. “Also, awareness related to sustainable practices adopted by the shipping industry can also make merchant navy more appealing to environmentally-conscious millennials”.

Challenging career

In the scheme of Indian shipping, a systematic, regulated maritime education and training had its start in the early decades of 20th century. Sea career was seen not only as a lucrative option but also as a challenging one. However, with the advent of the IT sector boom in India, sea-careers have lost the sheen. As a consequence, the intake quality of aspirants keen on joining merchant navy has also deteriorated. “An exacerbated phase was during the Covid periods, when assessment models were either diluted or done away with,” lamented Rajoo Balaji, Pro-vice-chancellor, Indian Maritime University, a Central university under the government of India.

“The diminishing interest in sea-career is a universal phenomenon, wherein the traditional maritime European nations have been affected the most”.  From the Indian perspective, sea career still makes the list as a good profession to pursue. Given the large Indian middle class and the increase in the number of maritime training institutes, it may be said that pursuit of sea careers will sustain in India. However, “from the broader view of post-schooling careers, sea careers lack the allure primarily due to the inherent work demands of being away from home (and land) and more probably due to the lack of awareness,” added Balaji.

Despite the lack of awareness about sea careers and shipping related careers, especially amongst the rural school children, maritime training institutes and agents have mushroomed. This has helped spread the career awareness to some extent along with the besetting maladies of education-business like money for college seats and jobs thereafter.

To boost the morale of Indian seafarers, help maritime stakeholders of India to increase the global share of Indian seafarers and attract Indian youth to join merchant navy, Indian Shipping Ministry has planned the launch of a 'sagar main sammaan' awareness campaign. This campaign will also provide an equitable playing field for facilitating employment opportunities to Indian women in the seafaring profession and ensure gender parity in the maritime sector.

  • The sector should invest in targeted marketing campaigns, spread awareness in higher secondary schools and also establish partnerships with prominent educational institutions, to showcase the benefits of a career in merchant navy

    Sanjeev S. Vakil, Founder & CEO, Hindustan Institute of Marine Training,Chennai

Awareness campaign

“Lack of active participation by Indian women in seafaring profession is mainly due to limited knowledge of such an illustrious career opportunity in merchant navy, the lack of proper incentivisation from shipping lines and also, cultural bias,” commented Shripad Naik, Union Minister of state for ports, shipping & waterways.

“To address this issue, such an awareness campaign planned by the Indian government will publicize the success stories of women seafarers and spread information about opportunities in the merchant navy especially amongst female students of India.” In addition to this, I am of the view that the ship onboard gender sensitisation should be encouraged, and on boarding buddy programmes should be launched,” he added.

The ship management sector in India is poised for a CAGR of 6 per cent in the years to come. However, a lot depends on the future willingness of Indian students to join merchant navy in huge numbers and the easy availability of skilled seafarers to cater to the needs of over 153 ship management companies operating in the country.  As Europe’s seafarer population ages, foreign ship owners are likely to look towards India for recruitment in the years to come.

In the next five years, India is expected to be the world’s third largest economy, as envisaged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently. In such a scenario, sourcing skilled and young manpower required by the ship management companies operating in India may not be an easy task. The ship management sector might face stiff competition from the anticipated buoyancy in jobs creation by manufacturing and services industries located across urban and rural landscapes of India.

India has the world’s largest workforce currently. But, without enough good jobs, that unmatched advantage could prove a disaster. It is estimated that nearly 33 per cent of India’s youth is neither employed nor in education or training at present. India’s youth population needs nurturing and should be transformed into doing productive, well-paying work. The Indian ship management sector should grab this opportunity at the earliest to strengthen its growth trajectory. 

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