A debate is raging about the future of the superintendent’s role — much of it focusing on the thorny question of whether superintendents need to have been to sea or sailed in the highest ranks to do their job well
The Maritime HR Forum — an association of 60 shipping employers who come together to benchmark salary data for the shipping industry — has looked into the question of the role of superintendents, and specifically whether superintendents must have been to sea, and have sailed as a chief engineer or in command, to be able to do the job.
Part of the debate — but also a separate debate in its own right — is the issue of seafarer quality and competence in the present day. The same people that argue vociferously that only senior officers have what it takes to make a superintendent are often those who complain that seafarers aren’t what they used to be — and that’s why they need a superintendent who’s been there and done it to supervise them!
Of course, there are two undeniable truths in all of this. First, yes of course we need marine and engineering experience among the shore-based management team — people who understand life at sea and people who can give technical advice and support when needed. Secondly, seafarers are not all cut from the same cloth. Just as it once was, it will always be — good seafarers, bad seafarers; good training institutions/ certifying authorities, and bad ones.
The challenge for shipping employers is how to make the best use of the resources available to them to operate their ships safely and profitably.
In March this year, Spinnaker posted a blog on the shippingjobs website and on a superintendent group of LinkedIn about the future of superintendents. We asked whether the job description should change and whether superintendents must be ex-seafarers. We also highlighted that more and more shipping companies are employing fleet technical offi cers or technical support assistants alongside superintendents in order to take away much of the administrative and regulatory aspects of the role and allow superintendents to focus on areas that demand their expertise. In a time of skill shortages, this approach can allow superintendents to manage more ships.
The response to the blog was astonishing in terms of the passion and ferocity of the debate. The need for seafaring experience occupied much of the discussion but, interestingly, there was only a slight tip in the scales towards those who claim that seafaring experience is absolutely essential to carry out a superintendent role. Some of the comments included: “nowadays, seafarers don’t have the length of experience or the quality to do without their seniors – only chief engineers and masters have the expertise to manage ships and win the respect of those who report to them – the superintendent job description should change: what’s needed are good managers ashore who can motivate their staff at sea – those without seagoing experience are not as knowledgeable -the problems faced at sea are unique to that environment, and those without seagoing experience could not troubleshoot in the same way as those who had lived through that particular situation – the role is about decision-making, and so only a superintendent who has sailed onboard a ship can make complicated decisions about their company’s ship and staff – the necessity of the superintendent’s role and his position in the marine industry cannot be underestimated, and non-seagoing staff are not able to manage vessels in the same way as those who have been to sea -the friction between seagoing and non-seagoing staff was ‘one of the reasons why retention suffers’ ”
One participant in the debate said: ‘Efficient ship management can be achieved only if there is bonding between shore superintendent and senior staff on board (teamwork). How can this be done if the superintendents do not have sailing practice on senior rank (sic) and don’t have fundamental knowledge of sea practice?’ Another was ‘surprised to see companies asking for people with two to three years of sea experience’ to work in the office. ‘I cannot see the benefits of having a person who has only dealt with safety or charts, and giving him a say over matters he has never dealt with.’
Then, the flipside of the coin — one person argued against standard seagoing experience, saying ‘I have come across some fine technical superintendents and technical managers who were inducted at a third or a junior engineer level and then worked their way up building knowledge, experiences and people/ resource management skills.’ One particular individual said they could not believe the negative attitude towards young superintendents in the debate. As an assistant he had worked his way up to superintendent and felt compelled to defend people like him who had come to the job through shore-based experience alone — and still do the job well.
Finally, one thoughtful individual commented that subconsciously we engineer a downward spiral of incompetence when office staff declare the seafarer incompetent and the senior sea-staff disparage the junior staff. ‘HR has no way to assess the quality of the talent unless the managers at sea and ashore exercise their responsibility in developing talent, raise concerns and provide objective feedback,’ the respondent said. ‘Their leadership role in creating that positive environment will elevate much of the frustrations for the industry.’
This last commentator has hit at least two nails squarely on the head. In June, the shipping employer members of the Maritime HR Forum will gather for its annual meeting in London. Top of the agenda is The Leadership Challenge — where delegates will debate the leadership and talent management issues facing their organisations. The employer debate around the superintendent role isn’t so much about whether or not seafaring experience is required; everyone accepts the need for marine and technical expertise ashore.
The real debate is over efficient use of resources — getting the right people in the right jobs and playing to their strengths. Broadly speaking, the technical superintendent role can usually be categorised under three headings:
- leadership and management
It is harder to break down the marine superintendent role and it is often also hard to tell the difference between a HSEQ superintendent or manager and someone with the marine superintendent job title.
There are frequently management and training elements to the role, including responsibility for deck officer appraisals and promotions. There’s training too, as well as guidance and updating crew and company on the other core areas of the role, which are usually safety, environment, quality and port state, flag state and regulatory compliance.
Spinnaker’s HR Consulting Services is receiving more enquiries from clients who are debating re-organising their technical organisation structure rather than their marine organisation structure. One element of the debate is the suitability of seafarers generally for leadership roles ashore. It has almost become an accepted truth that ‘seafarers can’t manage’. But it’s dangerous to generalise too much — there will always be good and bad leaders among any group of people.
As a result of the Manila amendments to STCW, we are seeing the certification and training focus shift towards leadership and management training. This is a first step on a path that will hopefully lead to tomorrow’s seafarers becoming better managers, both as senior officers and later when coming ashore. It is perhaps an irony that former seafarers are blamed as much for poor and ill-considered messages from shore to ship as their dry-footed colleagues. Once ashore, it seems that they are just as likely to send mutiny-inducing emails.
Much of the problem stems from the fact that we tend to source our superintendents from the senior officer pool and then fail to equip them for their new role. The twin challenge for HR is, first, convincing their boards of the need to invest [time and money] in developing leadership and management skills and, secondly, deciding upon the appropriate talent management strategy to achieve the desired outcome. In other words, break the mould by spotting and developing potential early, maintain the status quo by hiring from among the master and chief engineer population, or smash the mould to smithereens by restructuring the superintendent role and hiring nonseafarers to take on the man management aspects.
There is no right answer, but this is a very real decision that many shipping employers are presently wrestling with.
Certainly I don’t buy the ‘credibility’ argument, which is that only masters or chief engineers have the credibility to earn the respect of seafarers. That depends upon the job you ask someone to do — get the job description and responsibilities right and match them to the skills and resources of your people. Having said that, neither do I think that it is necessary to take management away from all former seafarers. Re-structuring or ‘re-engineering’ is one option — some companies are already breaking down the superintendent role into what they see as its constituent parts and employing different skill sets for the new roles.
Enabling superintendents to focus on those aspects of their jobs that absolutely demand their seagoing backgrounds means more ships per superintendent. Not a bad outcome given the skills shortage and the rapid growth of the world fleet. But this potentially means more ship-visit travel and time away from home. Whatever the talent management strategy adopted, it’s the investment that counts. This is not a shipping-specific issue and is as much about time as it is about money. Getting the right people in the right jobs will always involve an element of hit and miss, but there is no doubt whatsoever that some people are motivated by leadership and have what it takes and some are not. Let’s not waste time trying to put in what’s not.
Co-founder and chairman of Spinnaker
Consulting, which acts as secretariat of The Maritime HR Forum
Telegraph (Nautilus International) June 2013