ESG: Is there too much focus on the E?

Over the past couple of years, the maritime industry stakeholders have stepped up their sustainability efforts by producing their ESG strategies and starting to publish their first sustainability reports.

Port of Antwerp/Illustration; Image by Offshore Energy

Over the board, the companies agree they need to decarbonize their operations at least by 2050, they need to create better working conditions to attract new talent and employ sustainable governance practices.

That being said, the environmental aspect of the ESG strategies seems to have overtaken the discussion, as the debate around alternative fuels and zero-emission ships dominates the discourse. Even at panel discussions, we are witnessing that the discussion around the human element of the energy transition often gets little or no attention.

Even when the strategic importance of the human element in the energy transition gets recognized, the strategy of attracting and keeping new talent in the sector remains missing.

Seafarers and maritime workers across the value chain are the backbone of the industry keeping global trade running. Their importance got under the spotlight during the COVID-19 lockdowns when an unprecedented humanitarian crisis emerged preventing seafarers to disembark from their ships and go home. Instead, seafarers have been faced with contract extensions, and some of them haven’t gone home for over a year. Prolonged times at sea, fatigue, and poor or no social interactions, even those online, took a major toll on the workers’ mental health.

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The crisis struck at a tipping point for the shipping industry, pointing to numerous faults and gaps in the maritime profession further diminishing the attractiveness of working at sea. This is happening at a time when the shipping industry is embarking on a massive transformation that will require the brightest minds and most hardworking labor force.

Improving human sustainability is at the center of making the maritime industry more appealing to new generations.

A youth seminar hosted by the Global Maritime Forum, an extension of the Future Maritime Leaders essay competition, shows that the young people feel that there are six key areas where improvement is needed:

  • the need for improved diversity,
  • clarification of the purpose and values in the industry,
  • creating more flexibility in maritime workplaces,
  • making sure the industry is more inclusive to all,
  • ensuring decent working conditions,
  • visualizing stronger long-term career prospects including transitions between sea and shore

The maritime industry must start actively engaging with and investing in the next generation of seafarers if it wants to keep supply chains intact over the next decades. Young people today are very dynamic, empowered, and genuinely passionate about using their talents to create a positive impact. They will go where they feel valued, respected, and inspired, so the maritime industry needs to step up,” says Camille Simbulan, Special Projects and Communications Head, Associated Marine Officer’s and Seamen’s Union, Philippines.

Decent working conditions, primarily fair and on-time salaries and balance of work and rest time, are crucial if the industry wants to attract millennials and generation Z to the sector, as explained by Shaharaj Ahmed, a 22-year-old student at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, from the Philippines, who is one of the winners of this year’s essay competition.

As explained, modern technologies like blockchain could be used to drive change in this sector and help bring more transparency to the recording of working hours on board ships, a sore point in the industry as seafarers’ data on working hours are susceptible to alterations by the ship’s captain to avoid detentions.

Furthermore, he noted that the shipping companies should be disincentivized from operating like this, pushing them to ‘hire more’ and ‘pay better’.

Aside from poor working conditions and slim prospects for career progression, Simbulan believes the maritime workforce of the future needs a platform where they can voice their concerns and be included in major discussions, building on the experience of the pandemic when seafarers were left to their own devices in a number of occasions. Giving the maritime workforce a seat at the table should serve as a stepping stone to improving the attractiveness of the sector.

James Helliwell, the 27-year-old Project Engineer with Shell in London, UK, also one of the winners of this year’s essay competition, believes that people need to be engaged at a much younger age.

The common target age in the industry is between 16-18 years of age, which Helliwell believes is too late to get people into the maritime industry. As explained, he was introduced to the sector at the age of 14, a time when one decides on which subjects to pursue and whether to enroll in a maritime college.

“If we really wanted to support young people to get involved in the industry we need to reach out to them at a younger age and help them realize that there is this fantastic industry that we all work in, and that there are exciting roles in the sector around the world they can pursue,” he said.

Moving forward, training the workforce to meet the challenges of decarbonization and digitalization of the industry will be equally important. As the shipping industry moves to automate its operations and become more reliant on remotely-operated operations, maritime roles are expected to become more complex requiring greater knowledge and skills.

Finally, as the industry looks into the potential of ammonia and hydrogen as the fuels of the future, numerous crew safety concerns arise due to their flammability and toxicity.

Therefore, aside from a massive investment in producing and making these fuels available, the sector will need to invest considerably in educating and training their seafarers to bridge the gaps between what green marine skills will be required and the current level of education and know-how.

Safety comes first, and this also applies to the decarbonization of shipping. The industry needs to make sure all the new fuels, technologies, bunkering, and handling procedures are safe first.

We have to remember, ships are not just objects moving goods from A to B, they are also home to up to 30 people for up to 12 months. We need to think about what the health implications of some of these future fuels are for the seafarers as well,” Helliwell concluded.