The country’s exceptional maritime services, quality of seafarers and relevant training institutions, strategic geographical location, abundant natural and human resources, among many others coupled with successfully fighting against the global pandemic puts the country in a perfect position to thrive in becoming a maritime education and training hub not just in the region but globally as well. This is an opportunity that should never be missed. It’s the ideal moment for the government to lobby with other countries, establish sustainable public-private partnerships, create awareness about this lucrative profession, integrate maritime education into the school curriculum, encourage prospects to pursue their maritime training at home than abroad, invest in a range of infrastructure and support systems, among many others. It’s now or never.
Maritime transport dominates
When we talk about maritime in general, it’s probably the main mode of transport for global trade with around 90pct of traded goods being carried by ships. Despite many technological advances in this sector, the shipping industry continues to still dominate as the life blood of the global economy. Things such as intercontinental trade, bulk transport of raw materials, and the import and export of affordable food, essentials and manufactured goods would simply be impossible. Simply put, without shipping we would’ve all gone in hunger during this pandemic.
Seafarers globally and in Sri Lanka
Globally there are over 54,000 merchant ships trading internationally, run by around close to 1.7 million seafarers, according to International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) figures. Somewhere in between 15pct-20pct out of the global seafarers are from Philippines, second to China. The industry accounts to over 3.6pct of GDP as per the stats released last year. Being a maritime nation, Philippines have done exceptionally well, setting a world-class example to all other countries.
In contrast, Sri Lanka is also regarded as a maritime nation with many natural resources and easy access due to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean. The country may even be boasting a much higher quality in maritime education and training, with many of our seafarers notably running merchant ships of all types and sizes all across the world. However, unfortunately over the years despite having around 17,500 active seafarers, we only have around 5,000 employed at any given time. This shows that 12,500 of them are idling without any vessels. Currently, these 5,000 seafarers earn about USD 300 million a year. Though it might be a small number, the quality of the profession is very lucrative compared to sending domestic workers such as housemaids to the Middle Eastern countries.
Quality of seafarers
The quality of seafarers has gradually reduced over the years and this has become a global concern today. This can be due to many reasons. Becoming a seafarer is highly competitive two or three decades ago. You have to be the best of the best to be considered and recognized as one. The profession is highly lucrative with high income, and only a very few are recruited onboard to international ships.
For example, many years ago in Sri Lanka, if you want to recruit around 25 cadet officers the employer would receive around 500 applications. This shows that one needs to be among the cream of the cream, with an exceptional skillset. Today, the employer will not even receive 25 applications. This is not just in Sri Lanka but globally. If we take a look at the news, there are more accidents and incidents on ships compared to those days. One reason is because of the quality of seafarers and the other is because of their inadequate level of education and training.
Pandemic and its detrimental effects
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of fatigue among seafarers globally. Usually a seafarers’ contract is 4 to 6 months off-shore, then they return to land to take care of their family life and again go back to sea. Thousands of seafarers remain trapped at sea and some remain stranded even after twelve months or more onboard. Even according to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), an employer cannot keep the seafarer for more than a year. The fatigue has forced many seafarers to cause quarrels and disagreements among each other which is naturally understandable due to the mental stress and illness the pandemic has brought about.
Crisis turned into opportunity
The pandemic has forced many maritime training providers globally to shut down, notably in UK, Europe, and Australia. This is an ideal moment for the country to market and open up to limitless opportunities in this area, at least by lobbying and inviting students and prospects from the SAARC region. Our qualifications and training are internationally recognized with a very affordable fee plan. This is the right time, under the country’s current leadership, to start acting upon it. In my view if this leadership fails to act upon, I fear there will not be any opportunity in the near future.
Over the years, many prospective seafarers from Sri Lanka go overseas for their maritime training programmes and job opportunities. We could’ve easily discouraged this as we not only lose our talent pool and resource personnel but also in foreign exchange and economic growth. In my experience, Sri Lanka has highly qualified resource personnel even surpassing some of the best countries. Being an experienced seasoned seafarer having traveled to over 90 countries with exposure towards diverse cultures, I can confidently say that we have some of the best senior captains, officers, chief engineers, and engineers as trainers like nowhere else in the world.
The transition from off-shore to on-shore globally and in Sri Lanka
When we look at history, seafaring began by the Europeans who owned and managed various merchant ships. And after World War II, shipping thrived as a fruitful business. As time went by, as the American-European shipping trade grew significantly, these countries developed at a fast pace with colossal wealth. And as this was happening, there were a wide range of opportunities on-shore in comparison to off-shore, with salaries not having a big difference at all. Eventually with off-shore jobs being very challenging and sacrificing, many preferred on-shore jobs. This resulted in outsourcing off-shore jobs to the Asian and East-European destinations at cheaper labor costs whilst still owning and managing the fleets.
Sri Lanka just like Philippines and many other Asian and East-European countries were enjoying this opportunity over the years and today these countries including ours is developing or developed in this particular sector, and this again is the same scenario that happened with America and Europe- the transition from off-shore to on-shore. Sri Lanka has to leverage its blue economy and seize all opportunities before the outsourcing markets moves into the African region.
Many years ago, a student has to go to the University after ALs to pursue his or her higher education. Today, there are many paths available right after one’s OLs, with foundation programs paving way to degree programmes or professional qualification, with higher starting salaries and a wider range of opportunities on-shore. Going for an off-shore career is considered as the last resort like in China, and this has led to a drastic reduction in competitiveness among seafarers.
Sri Lanka also as security services and crew change hub
I always view crisis as an opportunity. Sri Lanka has managed to earn colossal revenues by providing their exceptional security services (sea marshal) onboard ships including those that face piracy attacks. Similarly, Sri Lanka can also thrive as a hub for a crew change. The present unresolved crew change crisis can be a massive opportunity, with many seafarers remaining stranded on seas (around 400,000 seafarers according to IMO).
Sri Lanka’s way going forward
With the unprecedented global pandemic, Sri Lanka just like many other countries has restricted their ports. With the country being one of the very first countries to successfully tackle the virus, things are getting back to its normal stature, slowly but surely. It was very recently ranked 2nd in the latest World Survey on Pandemic Control by the YICAI Research Institute.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) features a list of white-list of eligible countries to train their programmes. Sri Lanka is one of the many with only a handful of institutions providing similar qualifications. Sri Lanka is highly dependent on benchmarking in how other countries are doing in this sector. We don’t have to. This mentality and attitude needs to change. In my personal view, we are well independent and self-sufficient to stand by ourselves however the quality of these maritime education and training institutions need to be well overlooked and maintained. Therefore, it’s the duty of the country’s administration to ensure that these institutions continuously adhere to the guidelines set by the IMO. To overcome the issue of the quality of seafarers, I suggest three solutions.
Creating awareness- As a maritime nation, we need to equip ourselves with better knowledge in maritime. The best way to go about this which I also have proposed certain administrations is to try and include some part of maritime education such as supply chain and logistics into the school A/L syllabus. This is a very attractive profession with high income, and the government needs to focus more on seafarers in contrast to sending domestic workers.
Lobbying and PPPs- We need to utilize the idling seafarers in the country. Even the present 5,000 seafarers are employed mostly on foreign vessels. Currently it’s solely the private sector that spends money to get foreign ships or companies to enable our seafarers get access to job opportunities. I strongly suggest that the government has to get heavily involved by its officials from ministries and authorities participating and lobbying with other countries in this area. I believe lobbying is essential to the industry as a whole. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are paramount to its success. They need to ensure that the seafarers’ community is well recognized, and take measures to increase the number of employed seafarers.
Maritime education and training hub- I want to stress that Sri Lanka most of the time misses the mark or opportunity- too many words spoken with very less actions. I have personally tried my very best to make Sri Lanka a maritime training hub but due to various external constraints, I’ve not been able to succeed. It’s time that I now intervene with the officials and ministry to say that Sri Lanka with no doubt is in a better position with maritime training providers that are of the highest quality standards with state-of-the-art infrastructure and facilities in the region.
Professor Jayakody DSc (Cn), MSc (Swe), FNI (UK), FCILT (UK), FIMarEST (UK), CMarTech (UK), Master Mariner (Aus) also served as the Chairman of The Nautical Institute (NI-UK) Sri Lanka Branch and President of the Sri Lanka Association of Non-State Higher Education Institutions (SLANSHEI), serves as advisory capacity in private and public sector. He also served as Board Director of Maritime Training Centre in Seychelles and Fiji Maritime Academy in Fiji, Member – National Task Force of IMO implementation of Ballast Water Strategy, Member – Sri Lanka, Marine Environment Forum, Visiting Professor as well as an External Auditor – Dalian Maritime University in China, Program Reviewer – University Grant Commission (UGC), Auditor – CILT Accrediting Committee, Former Vice Chairman – Chartered institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT-International- Sri Lanka Branch).