An ocean of opportunities

The maritime sector is booming, but at the same time, there is an acute shortage of people taking up a seafaring career. For those who are willing to take up this career, now is the time to join.

By Roland Tan



After a lull of more than twenty years, the maritime industry is back in action again in recent years. Shipyards are running round the clock to fulfill forward delivery orders to as far ahead as year 2010. More than 60% of the world’s rigs are being built by homegrown shipyard companies such as Keppel Fels and SembCorp Marine.

The rise in oil prices over the last couple of years is one of the major reasons for this boom. High oil prices make it economical for energy companies to invest in oil exploration activities, which in turn drive the demand for jack-up rigs and semi-submersibles. At the same time, our local shipyards have their hands full with the repair, upgrade or conversion of oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers, bulk carriers, container vessels, cargo vessels, and last but not least, floating production storage offloading (FPSO) platforms.

The boom has also spilled over to ancillary sectors such as shipping finance & insurance, ship brokering and chartering businesses. More ships are being commissioned for service in the world’s merchant fleets, and the demand for seafarers has gone up significantly as a result.

Every ship that is built and put to sea requires a range of skilled and semi-skilled workers to operate the vessel. For instance, there are currently around 1,800
registered ships in Singapore, and each one of these vessels requires a captain, three nautical officers and a crew of specialist engineers.

“There are three main departments on board a ship — engine, catering and deck,” Mr Lim Soo Hock explains. Mr Lim, 49, is the Managing Director of Seagull Maritime Information Technology, a leading developer and provider of computer based training programs for training seafarers.

“The engineers are in charge of the engines and all the machinery while the navigators are in charge of the ship’s deck. Then, there are those who perform support functions such as the bosun (boatswain), the able-bodied seamen, ordinary seamen, deck trainee, oiler, greaser, motorman, wiper engineer engine trainee, cook and all the sundry workers,” says Mr Lim.

In layman’s terms, the engineers and navigators are the officers on board the ship. The bosun is the foreman of the deck crew, while rest fall under the “other ranks” (known as ratings) who assist the officers.

Not enough seafarers

Mr Lim is very familiar with such technical terms because he had once been a seafarer himself. He started his maritime career as a ship radio officer, and he has
even earned a Masters degree in International Transport (Maritime Studies) from Cardiff University in the UK.

Mr Lim has plenty of fond memories of his seafaring days. “Living and working on board a ship requires coping with the elements. On one occasion when the sea was very choppy, I told myself that I was ready to pack up and go home at the next port-of-call. The next morning, the sea was so calm and beautiful. I felt like sailing forever,” he reminisces.

And because he remains intimately involved with the industry, Mr Lim is well aware of the severe shortage of seafarers today. “In a booming economy, this shortage is aggravated by the many shore-based engineering jobs competing for the same pool of graduates from the Singapore Maritime Academy (SMA),” says Mr Lim.

The shortage is so acute that the theme for this year’s biennial Maritime Manpower Singapore 2007 conference was “Crewing Crisis — A Call for Action”. It was projected that the current shortage of 10,000 sea-faring officers would escalate to 27,000 by 2015 according to figures by BIMCO (The Baltic and International Maritime Council)/ISF (International Shipping Federation) manpower study.

Moreover, this shortage is a worldwide phenomenon that is not limited to Singapore alone. The problem is not just about the lack of manpower, but also about the
lack of seafarers with specialised skills. For example, many modern LNG carriers are fitted with computerised and mechanical systems that are totally different from what the industry used 20 years ago, and very few officers possess significant working experience with these systems today.

This is partly because of the lack of training opportunities for modern seafarers. For example, Singapore Polytechnic is the only public tertiary institution in Singapore that offers formal programmes for aspiring seafarers, namely the Diploma in Nautical Studies (DNS) and Diploma in Marine Engineering, both conducted at SMA.

Career paths

The more obvious reason however, is that many Singaporeans do not regard seafaring as an attractive career. It is not hard to see why, because the job takes you away from family and loved ones for extended periods of time.

However, for those who are prepared to make the sacrifice, a career at sea offers good prospects and many opportunities. Supposing you join as a cadet engineer or a deck officer, your typical career path would start with a training stint onboard a ship, together with preparatory courses and shore certification examinations.

You would need to get a Certificate of Competency (COC) issued by the Marine Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). This is the most basic certification you must possess before you are qualified to sail as a certified/qualified officer. A diploma holder in Marine Engineering can then expect to move up the rank of an assistant engineer by chalking up the mandatory sea time, and move on to become a senior engineer and eventually, a chief engineer in about six to eight years. As for a deck cadet with a Diploma in Nautical Studies, he would typically serve a longer training stint onboard a ship after completing his COC. He would progressto the rank of junior deck officer to chief officer and
eventually work towards becoming a Captain of a ship in about seven to 10 years.

“A seafaring career generally pays well. It is a suitable career for someone who is prepared to leave his comfort zone,” notes Mr Lim.

He points out that the local industry is presently keen to attract graduates of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) to a seafaring career. Graduates from ITE’s marine technology and marine-electrical technology courses are qualified for deck and engineering ratings positions onboard a ship. SMA also welcomes ITE graduates to join its diploma programmes if they wish to further their education before joining the industry, especially if they hold relevant Higher NITEC qualifications.

There is an ocean of opportunities out there. If you think you’re up to it, now is the time to take up a seafaring career.

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