Platten: Hundreds of thousands of seafarers will need training to be able to handle new fuels

Hundreds of thousands of seafarers will require some type of new training by 2050 to be able to handle fuels such as ammonia, hydrogen or methanol and a significant number by 2030, initial findings of a massive study commissioned by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) show.

Illustration; Courtesy of Clean Sea Transport

The research study will attempt to quantify the scale of the challenge of upskilling and retraining the existing maritime workforce to handle the new fuels and provide an overview of what will this entail in terms of skills, training, and safety.

The study is being carried out by the classification society DNV on behalf of a Just Transition Task Force launched by the ICS at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. The task force comprises ICS, ITF, and key UN agencies including IMO and ILO. The group is looking at ways of supporting seafarers in making the shift from high to low-carbon careers.

For the global shipping industry to transition to a zero carbon future, it would not be sufficient to talk about research and development, building zero-emission vessels, and investing in port infrastructure: we must also look to the people. Ensuring a people-centered transition means ensuring the health and safety of the maritime workforce as there are a number of safety challenges relating to alternative fuels, including hydrogen and ammonia. These need to be given due consideration and safety guidelines need to be developed alongside the new technology,” Guy Platten, Secretary General of the ICS said during a recently held IMO-UNEP Norway Innovation Forum.

Platten insists that new training programs, standards and courses need to be created for seafarers to handle low-carbon fuels and service zero-emission vessels safely.

Yesterday’s technologies and set of skills in the maritime industry will need a massive upgrade if the sector wants to move forward with the energy transition and decarbonization of the global economy.

Moving toward greener energy sources that are likely to be more complex to handle, as would be the case with hydrogen and ammonia, as well as a greater shift toward digitalized operations, will require massive investment in training and education to acquire a new set of skills related to decarbonization issues.

That being said, too often the impact of the process on the human element has been an afterthought, and the recent developments in the shipping sector coupled with the impact of the pandemic on seafarers, have had a detrimental impact on the overall attractiveness of the branch.

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The preliminary figures of the study highlight another challenge: seafarers already face several constraints when it comes to training, Platten pointed out. What is more, there is a lack of skilled trainers, a lack of investment in technology within training institutions, and a lack of centers and facilities. All of these are likely to become exacerbated as training needs increase, he added.

A question also arises around who will train those trainers in order to transfer the necessary knowledge to the next generations of the maritime workforce, as people with that type of knowledge are likely to be in high demand in corporate sectors as well. Therefore, technical assistance from the IMO and financial assistance from its founding partners will be crucial in this respect, especially for developing countries.

“Critically, lack of clarity on decarbonization trajectories is making it difficult to invest in training. Ensuring a just, people-centered transition to decarbonization means not leaving questions around training and skills until it’s too late. People cannot be an afterthought.”

Platten noted that ICS was in the process of developing key actions and recommendations to make the transition possible for the maritime workforce, which are set to be launched in November at COP27 in Egypt.

Broken trust

Modernization of the shipping sector driven by digitalization and decarbonization trends has brought more interest to the branch. However, the pandemic has had a massive negative impact on the progress the industry has made on improving its image as an appealing career choice.

Specifically, the number of young men and women, interested in pursuing a career at sea has gone down considerably, as explained by Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou, WISTA International President.

The sector experienced a massive crew change crisis during the COVID 19 lockdowns disabling over 300,000 seafarers to disembark from their ships at one stage. Prolonged times at sea, fatigue, and poor or no social interactions, even those online, took a major toll on the workers’ mental health.

The crisis has been ascribed to governmental actions, or rather inaction, to keep the supply chain moving, and designate seafarers as key workers. The outcome of such an approach has been a diminished interest of the new talent to enter the sector, which will have to be addressed given the estimates that the industry will be 90,000 officers short by 2026.

“Governments have a role to play in this and reset that relationship toward seafarers since there was a breaking of trust over the past two years,” Platten said.

“There is a financial imperative in doing this which is keeping supply chains going.”