Education and training

'Overburdened with obsolete knowledge' – seafarers' opinions of STCW in the SkillSea project

21 April 2020

The April 2020 Nautilus Telegraph reported on a Nautilus Federation survey asking seafarers if they thought STCW is still fit for purpose. Now, findings from the EU-funded SkillSea project are adding to the body of informed opinion on the subject. Andrew Linington reports

Radical changes are required to stop seafarer training and education from falling behind the rapidly accelerating pace of technological advance in shipping, an important new report has concluded.

Research conducted as part of the EU-funded SkillSea project found that more than 50% of seafarers – many of them Nautilus members – believe important topics are missing from the international Standards of Training, Certification & Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention, and one-third consider current training is 'overburdened with obsolete knowledge'.

Nautilus is an active member of the four-year project, launched in January 2019, which is investigating ways to 'future-proof' European seafarer training in response to new environmental regulations and rapid advances in technology.

The project is developing a blueprint for cooperation to create a strategy to equip EU maritime professionals with the necessary skills to meet the evolving demands of the industry – including key digital, green and 'soft' management expertise – and also to enhance their employability.

The 90-page report gives details of research conducted as part of the project to analyse the gaps between current maritime training and the actual skills required at sea. A key part of this was a survey of more than 1,600 maritime professionals – 1,149 seafarers and 474 shore-based personnel – to get their views on the adequacy of current maritime training and education and what they consider to be the most important skills needs.

Professor Damir Zec, a SkillSea project member who coordinated the research, commented: 'New environmental regulations for the maritime sector, as well as the impact of technology and digitalisation, are changing the skill sets required for jobs at sea and in the maritime sector ashore.

'It is clear that soft and leadership skills, together with a set of new skills, will be a must if European maritime professionals and the EU maritime industry as a whole are to retain their competitive position, ' he added.

The survey of seafarers from 51 different countries – 36% of them from the UK and 16% from the Netherlands – showed that they believe the biggest gaps between current training and actual functional needs are with maintenance (reported by 47% of all respondents) and electrical, electronic and control engineering (40%).

Importantly, around 30% of seafarers said current STCW competencies for marine engineering and controlling the operation of the ship are not adequate for onboard duties. Almost one-quarter (24%) said they fell short for navigation and 20% said competencies for radiocommunications are not in line with actual onboard needs.

The survey also showed that the areas where seafarers consider the most serious skill deficiencies currently lie are:

  • subjects requiring creative thinking and problem-solving (62%)
  • familiarity with digital technologies, including cyber-security (61%)
  • teamwork and inter-personal relations (55%)
  • subjects related to maritime law, insurance and P&I coverage (54%).

The survey of 474 shore-based staff also showed concerns about STCW not addressing competences for shore-based staff training and also identified some of the skills that will be increasingly important over the next decade, including teamworking, software use, and communications.

'The accelerating transformation of the industry can be clearly recognised in the study of all the sources investigated,' the report argues. 'It is therefore beyond any doubt that the maritime industry is facing significant technological challenges. These changes will inevitably alter the required skill sets required for both onboard and shore-based jobs and positions.'

The research found a broad consensus that technology will not end the demand for skilled maritime professionals, and highlights concern about the chances of a future shortage of expertise for shore-based maritime industries and services.

New environmental regulations for the maritime sector, as well as the impact of technology and digitalisation are changing the skill sets required for jobs at sea Skillsea project member Professor Damir Zec

The report notes the economic importance of shipping to Europe and warns that 'an effective transfer of knowledge of shipboard operations and expertise needs to be assured if the present position of EU maritime industry is to be maintained'.

Well over half the seafarers surveyed said they would be keen to accept a shore-based job if one was offered to them, and the report says that better training and communications are needed to help them switch to jobs within the wider maritime cluster.

The most important skills required for such a transition are identified by seafarers as more detailed knowledge of the regulatory framework, appreciation of different management styles, nd the ability to write good technical reports and similar documents. Shore-based staff, meanwhile, believe the most important skills that seafarers should work on before making the move are the ability to use standard office software, understanding corporate culture, and knowledge of internal procedures.

Control panel and buttons of steering systems of a modern dynamic positioning offshore vessel Image: Donvictorio/Getty Images

Researchers pointed to the growing importance of digital competence within the maritime industry – with particular emphasis on cyber security and software knowledge. The survey of maritime professionals found that they strongly rate the need for skills in using computers to store, search, find and process information using standard programs, send and receive electronic mail, use word processing, and manage files, and using a broader range of computer capabilities and options, such as being able to create and modify spreadsheets, to create documents using formatting options, and to create original drawings or illustrations.

Regulatory requirements mean that seafarers are increasingly required to have a wide range of 'green' skills to minimise the environmental impact of their vessels and to ensure safe and efficient operations, the report points out.

However, the study concludes, the current seafarer training system does not enable the flexible adaptation of curricula in response to emerging needs and strengthened cooperation between employers and educators is crucial to preventing skills gaps.

It highlights the way in which technology is driving a need for increasingly specialist expertise, on top of the traditionally broad range of skills required of seafarers.

Researchers identified a number of courses which have been developed to provide training in particular types of equipment, such as Azipod propulsion units.

In addition, the report notes, other courses have been launched with the aim to ensuring safe and uniform implementation of complex procedures or improving interactions onboard – such as bridge and engineroom resource management training.

A significant number of such courses are simulator-based, with a great deal of hands-on training, it adds.

However, the researchers said they had found significant variations in the requirements across different companies. 'It seems that there is a strong belief that additional competencies are needed, but there is no consensus on which competencies are essentially needed,' the report states.

'Designing a future-proof skill set for management positions in the maritime industry is an extremely difficult task,' the report admits. 'It must be developed as an additional set of skills for those who already possess a basic shipboard skill set, accompanied by a balanced set of transitional skills as well as digital and green skills.'

Similarly, it notes, the wide variations between maritime education and training (MET) institutions in different countries make it hard to produce a uniform response to changes and challenges.

Current levels of cooperation among European MET institutions is 'irregular and of questionable usefulness', the report adds, and there are no recognised EU-wide initiatives aiming to harmonise maritime education programmes offered by different institutions or in different countries.

The researchers suggest that 'ever-accelerating technological development and the increasing number of high-tech companies who accumulate expertise' will lead to a significant increase in the number of education and training providers for dedicated applications – which will have an impact on the traditional MET providers.

New modes of delivering training, such as blended learning and distance learning, are expected to increase their share of the market and the report also predicts an increase in both the number and the scope of specialised courses aiming to upgrade or re-skill adult workers associated with the maritime industry.

In contrast, however, the report notes that the STCW Convention makes no reference to digital skills, contains only general references to pollution prevention, and has 'minimal' requirements for management-level functions. It does not consider increasingly important concepts such as problem-solving, creative thinking, analysis and evaluation, and does not specify competencies needed to manage increasingly sophisticated ships.

'Minimal requirements of the STCW Convention for the management level functions onboard contain only the basic levels of "knowing" – knowledge (recognising or remembering facts, terms, and concepts), understanding of these facts and ideas (by comparing and interpreting the main ideas) -- and application (solving problems in new situations by applying previously acquired knowledge and understanding),' it states.

The convention refers to a limited set of 'human resources' skills, which are designed solely for shipboard use, and does not address the competences required for shore-based jobs at management level in the maritime industry, or the competences needed to manage sophisticated ships. 'Education for these jobs must necessarily include subjects significantly beyond STCW requirements, either as a part of regular education or in the form of upgrading courses', the report points out.

The publication of the report coincides with increasing political pressure and maritime industry calls within Europe for a 'comprehensive and ambitious review' of the STCW Convention to ensure that it is fit for purpose and responsive to the evolving requirements of shipowners and regulators. All the 27 SkillSea project partners – including seafarer unions, shipowners, maritime colleges and universities, and public authorities – are united in their hope that this research will help to inform the upcoming International Maritime Organization discussions on the next review of the convention.