Bangalore: Seafaring is losing its charm in India and failing to attract the young in sufficient numbers, even as the industry invests billions to buy new ships to carry ever increasing goods in an expanding global economy.
“People are just not available in the market,” says Kailash Gupta, director of personnel and administration at state-run Shipping Corp. of India Ltd, or SCI, India’s biggest shipping firm by fleet size and revenues.
Waning interest: A view of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port. Shipping does not figure very high in young people’s list of preferred professions, experts say. (Photo: Ashesh Shah/Mint)
“We have had instances when our vessels had to sail with one officer less than the staffing numbers prescribed by the country’s maritime regulator,” he says. SCI, 80.12% owned by the government, is buying 28 ships worth $1.64 billion.
“Earlier, we used to get an average of 3,000 applications for 200 jobs. Today, for the same number of jobs, we hardly get 600 applications,” says M.C. Yadav, director of training at Foreign Owners Representatives and Ship Managers Association, or Fosma, a body representing ship owners and managers operating in India.
The shortage is so critical that companies are even compromising on staff quality. Yudhisthir Khatau, managing director of Varun Shipping Co. Ltd, India’s biggest gas carrier by fleet size, says the company’s ships have in the past sailed without adequately experienced people on board. He admits that due to the shortage, the firm continuously ends up “compromising on the quality of officers, which is a dangerous situation.”
There are about 82,000 Indians working on Indian and foreign registered ships, of which more than 26,900 are officers, says S.S. Kulkarni, secretary general of Indian National Shipowners Association, or Insa, a body representing domestic ship owners.
The global shortage of marine officers is projected to nearly treble to 27,000 by 2015 from about 10,000 now, according to a study by the Baltic and International Maritime Council, or Bimco, the world’s largest shipping association. It estimates the global supply of officers at 466,000 against a demand of 476,000. In India, the shortage of officers is estimated to be about 1,000.
With people in traditional ship officers’ supplying regions such as north America, western Europe and Japan reluctant to take up seafaring as a career and existing officers retiring at the first available shot at a shore-bound job, the new supply was mainly coming from developing countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, Ukraine, Poland and Latvia. Not any longer, particularly in India.
The shortage is the biggest worry for local ship owners who have ordered new ships worth more than $2 billion that will become seaworthy in the next year and a half. “We have to plan our manpower requirements very critically before we buy ships. Even running existing ships is a big challenge,” says Khatau.
However, it has led to a windfall for marine officers in terms of fatter pay checks, up as much as 25% in the past one year alone, say observers. A ship’s first officer and engineer currently earns about $2,500 a month. The salaries of captains and chief engineers range from $8,000 to $12,000.
Meanwhile, local training institutes are expanding their capacities to meet the increasing demand.
“We plan to add 40 more seats to the BSc nautical science course at our training institute in Mumbai,” says SCI’s Gupta. The company currently trains 160 students at its Maritime Training Institute in Mumbai to become officers. It also plans to start a new undergraduate course in nautical science that would be affiliated to Mumbai University. SCI will also train 60 more cadets of other maritime training institutes a year besides the 200 it already trains on its ships.
India currently has some 25 training institutes with a capacity to teach about 2,700 students a year for jobs on the deck, and another 25 institutions providing marine engineering courses for about 2,300 students. The course fees range from Rs2,50,000 to Rs6,00,000.
However, attracting talent is the biggest challenge. J.K. Dhar, principal of LBS College of Advanced Maritime Studies and Research, and member secretary of the Indian Institute of Maritime Studies, says there is a “problem of getting people to opt for a shipping career.” He says a demanding job, managing costly assets, safety risks, and better career options in other sectors are few of the reasons behind young people’s reluctance to take up this profession.
Yadav of Fosma says there are better options available on shore today that did not exist earlier. “Life on a ship is not smooth sailing. They have to stay away from families for long. So, instead of working on ships, they prefer jobs in management or information technology. Shipping does not figure very high in their list of preferred professions.”
Even the lure of visiting new and exotic places is waning. Big ports are being built far away from cities. In the past, loading and unloading took longer, which meant the crew could visit the cities, which was one of the attractions of the profession. But, with more and more cargoes shipped in steel containers, that takes just a few hours. “So, the crew don’t even get a chance to step on the ground, leave alone seeing the place,” Yadav says.
Dhar, however, says right awareness of the profession would encourage more people to consider the career. “People still think, possibly from reading fictions, that seafarers are people who have either jumped bail or are ex-convicts. Awareness about the charm of this industry has to spread.”