Tech disruption hits SA's maritime industry

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The maritime industry is a high impact sector, offering significant contribution to addressing SA's developmental challenges.
The maritime industry is a high impact sector, offering significant contribution to addressing SA's developmental challenges.

The technology revolution is disrupting SA's maritime industry, rendering some jobs obsolete.

This was the main theme at the SA International Maritime Institute's (SAIMI's) Maritime Education and Training conference in Cape Town this week.

With the global digital revolution impacting heavily on lives in SA, changes to maritime education and training to align with technological developments need to be urgently addressed, said speakers.

Experts warned of a global shortage of 150 000 seafarers by 2025 and the exponential pace of technological development which would produce serious skills development challenges, and opportunities, for the South African maritime economy.

New opportunities

They also noted climate change, technological advances and digitalisation are changing the face of the maritime industry - but rather than this being a threat to South African jobs, it opens up a myriad of opportunities, especially among the youth.

Presenting the Comprehensive Maritime Transport Policy for SA, transport minister Joe Maswanganyi recently said the maritime transport sector is a high impact sector, which offers significant contribution to addressing SA's developmental challenges.

Under the national government's Operation Phakisa, the oceans economy is predicted to contribute R177 billion to the GDP and between 800 000 and one million direct jobs by 2033.

Speaking at the SAIMI conference, the organisation's chief executive, professor Malek Pourzanjani, said the industry had a vital role to play in the country's unemployment and job creation challenges.

"The digital revolution has changed all our lives. To keep up with rapid change, we need to explore how we can meet global best practice standards," said Pourzanjani. "Skills development is needed to keep up with the global digital demand."

He said technology would also play a key role as the medium of instruction, with the rise of e-learning, distance-based learning and simulator training.

Echoing the importance of addressing the needs of new technologies, World Maritime University president Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry said: "As maritime countries, we should tailor our maritime education to meet these needs and those for a sustainable future.

"It is not enough, and short-sighted, to educate tomorrow's leaders based on today's labour market."

Collaborative thinking

Doumbia-Henry highlighted the urgency of the situation and cautioned all industry players to adjust their sails and "think collaboratively instead of competitively".

"However, there is significant disruption on the horizon. Many of the jobs currently available are forecast to become obsolete a few years from now. On the plus side, many new jobs will be created."

While technology would lead to fewer on-board crew jobs in the future, marine manufacturer Wartsila's Mattheo Natali said many more on-shore jobs would be created, involving intelligent data management, cyber security and the like, which enable ships to operate more efficiently, safely and securely.

Some of the specific impediments to SA's participation in the global oceans economy highlighted by speakers at the conference included significant skills gaps, inadequate recruitment and the need to update the ongoing competencies of active seafarers, Natali said.

Discussing the positives - and the technological challenges - that lie ahead, Graham Dreyden, representing SA's largest employer of local seafarers, African Marine Solutions (Amsol), said: "Big data and analytics will impact the whole shipping value chain and the seafarer's capacity to manage data must change. Our challenge lies in achieving this.

"We don't need fewer people on board ships - we need smarter people on board."

The solution, Dreyden said, could depend on the younger generation, who would find it easier to adjust and offer value in multiple roles in the shipping industry. He added that 35% of Amsol's 550 employees were classified as youth.

Next-gen staff

It also emerged at the conference that a major private sector partner, Norwegian-based Klaveness Shipping Management, has identified SA as its new source of next-generation sea staff, after Romania and the Philippines, the latter of which supplies 400 000 sailors to the global fleet.

According to Klaveness's head of crewing, Torbjorn Eide, the company has a long-term perspective on investment in South African maritime education and training, with engagement planned for the next five to 10 years.

To this end, he said Klaveness had signed a skills development agreement with SAIMI and invested heavily in the country's national cadetship programme.

"We see tremendous opportunities, both from a commercial engagement and people development perspective, and our target is to train more than 100 seafarers," said Eide.

But, he warned, the current retention rate of 54% of trainees could force Klaveness to re-evaluate its position in terms of skills development within the next two years.

"The quality of candidate is not the problem," said Eide. "We need to identify the right people for the industry. The sea is not for all and this is something we may need to address more proactively in the future.

"To put it in perspective, there is a surplus of 15 000 officers in the Philippines - that's what SA is competing against."

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