British seafaring jobs – what does the future hold?
In late March 2017, I travelled from Douglas in the Isle of Man to Heysham Port (near Lancaster) on the Isle of Man Steam Packet’s RO/Pax MV Ben-My-Chree and then on by road to Fife in Scotland.
While in Fife, our apartment affords us a magnificent view across the Firth of Forth to Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh and the famous old port of Leith.
From the window, I can see ships berthing and unberthing at the nearby tanker jetty (Hound Point) and at the Braefoot Gas Terminal which is also close by. I have an excellent view of ships of all shapes and sizes as they make their way to and from Rosyth and Grangemouth ports in the Firth of Forth. Just around the corner, the marvellous Forth Rail and Road Bridges make a dramatic picture and now the new Queensferry Crossing is nearing completion. To me, it is a source of wonder and admiration: when driving down the motorway from Dunfermline it looks, from a distance, like a magnificent sailing ship under full canvas. I take my hat off to the designers, engineers and construction teams who have brought this immense project from plans to reality. From my well placed lookout spot in the flat, I watch with pleasure and interest as the ships constantly come and go and cannot help but wonder how these vessels are owned, managed, manned and operated – what are the working and living conditions like for their crews?
In this, the second decade of the 21st century, we still read too often of ships being detained in port for a range of deficiencies and even occasionally of crews being abandoned onboard, owed outstanding wages and lacking in facilities. In such dire situations, it is often only the support and actions of seafaring unions and charities which come to the aid of these distressed seafarers. Sadly, the treatment, pay and working conditions for seafarers – even on some of the ships operating on regular services in UK waters – leaves much to be desired.
Thinking about this, led me back to the UK Government’s “UK Seafarer Projections” (pdf link here) report published in January of this year, a study carried out by Oxford Economics following the Maritime Growth Study of 2016. The Seafarer Projections report is surely a ‘wake up’ call for the industry – it reveals the potential of a developing gap between supply and demand for British seafarers. At a time when British shipping is employing more seafarers, the number of British seafarers is actually in decline, with more non-UK domiciled seafarers working in the British shipping industry.
In this maritime nation, and especially post-Brexit, there should be a concerted drive within the industry to drive up standards and reverse the decline in Britain’s seafarer numbers, making the seafaring life a more attractive and rewarding one. Unless a dynamic and positive strategy is implemented, with significantly increased investment from government in boosting maritime skills training, allied to binding commitment from shipowners in terms of employment, UK seafarer numbers will continue to reduce.
The failure to drive through such a proactive policy will result in continuing erosion of our maritime skills base and loss of job opportunities for British seafarers. It will also mean that a great opportunity to revitalise British seafaring will have been scorned.
HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR