Shipping industry discovers human factor

Interview Mr. Kor Wormmeester, Crewing Manager Seatrade
The Dutch company Seatrade runs a global fleet, shipping refrigerated and frozen products. The company also operates a marine training center in Germany, that together with Spot On Learning develops training courses for marine crews. Online learning increasingly forms the basis for these educational programs. Things have to be done differently at sea, according to crewing manager Kor Wormmeester: “The maritime sector needs to recognise the importance of the human factor”

Can you explain exactly what Seatrade’s business is?

“We own and operate some sixty cargo and container ships called reefers. Our ships carry refrigerated and frozen produce like fruit juice, meat, fish and fruit.”

What are your main shipping lines?

“We ship bananas from the Americas, Ecuador and Peru to Europe and the Mediterranean. We also operate routes from the Philippines to China and Japan. Fruit juice is an important cargo and tuna is also a core product, which we transport in deep frozen brine from the Seychelles to Italy and northern Spain.”

How would you describe developments in your industry?

“Stormy, to say the least. Eighty per cent of our business has already been transferred to container ships. That’s why we are modernizing and reducing the size of our fleet. Five new ships will be launched in China this year: freezer ships and container reefers that hold up to 700 containers on deck. These are large ships, but they are nothing compared to the biggest cargo liners that can carry over 20,000 containers. A ship carrying 8,000 containers that used to be huge is now called a feeder, a smaller vessel that moves cargo after it has been transported between two major hubs. So it’s not surprising we are in the midst of re-defining our company.”

Can you give an example?

“One area is transhipments at sea. Squid, for example, from the big fishing ships around the Falkland Islands. We load their catch and deliver supplies at the same time so they don’t need to return to port. You need a lot of special equipment and experience to pull this off safely.”

What does your job at Seatrade entail?

“I am the crewing manager, but I prefer to call it Crew Resource Management. It’s my responsibility to provide ships with good and qualified crews. There is a lot of administration to take care off, but what I really like about it is the fact that I can give people the opportunity to develop themselves. Especially in the area of soft skills like management and communication.”

Where did you pick up this interest?

“It’s my passion. I’ve worked my way through the ranks at Seatrade, starting out as a sailor and ending up as captain, mainly with mixed crews, Dutch, Spanish and Cape Verdean. Communication proved to be an issue from day one.”

How have you used your experience to improve things at Seatrade?

“In 2008 we developed MLDP, a Management Leadership Development Program. This program teaches basic management skills, like making a schedule or conducting an appraisal. There are many technicians working in the maritime industry who have sailed for most of their working lives. They seldom have any management training. That’s where MLDP comes in.”

Is schooling crews mandatory?

“The maritime industry is largely compliance driven. There are thousands of rules on safety alone. Seatrade takes things a step further. We select people by looking at what they are good at rather than checking their diplomas. We’ve stopped using our rating system and developed a new Personal Development System. This aims to make them better at their job. What is the expertise required for the job? Which skills need to be developed? That’s an altogether different approach.”

What form does Seatrade’s training take?

“It’s a communication simulation training that takes personality traits into account. It’s called HEISS, Human Element In Shipping Simulation. It teaches people to listen rather than talk. The course is based on real case studies: a captain asks the participants for advice. They then have to work in teams to come up with a recommendation. HEISS demonstrates how the captain’s actions can affect individual members of the crew. It teaches captains to give more thought to this process.”

Why does Seatrade put so much effort into education?

“Finding good people outside the company is difficult. Experience is not always the best measure to go by. And we would rather educate our own officers.”

How many employees do you train?

“We’ve trained several hundred people over the last two years. At least eighty percent of our management has completed at least one course. Mind you, education isn’t a goal in itself. We want people to keep developing their skills.”

You put a lot of emphasis on speaking English.

“That’s because we hire mixed crews. We have people of seventeen different nationalities working for Seatrade and they all have to be able to communicate with each other. Everyone who starts working for us takes a test to determine their Common European Frame of Reference (CFER) level. Captains and officers need to have a score of C1. B2 will do too, but then they still need to improve their English. Good pronunciation is the main problem. And if the person speaking also only has A1 level of English, it can be particularly hard to understand them. This can lead to misunderstandings. Bad grammar and syntax make it worse.”

How good are new crews at speaking English?

“Half of them don’t meet the requirements. Forty per cent is fit to proceed to our course Cargo & Cargo Handling. So almost everyone who starts working for Seatrade has some studying to do.”

Is communication linked to safety issues?

“Definitely. Some eighty per cent of all accidents at sea are the result of human error. And research by Cardiff University shows that communication failures are the third most common cause. That number is even higher when it comes to groundings and collisions. All our staff have taken tests and many of them were found not to have sufficiently good communication skills. That caused quite a stir, but it gave us the opportunity to take care of the problem.”

Which measures did you take?

“You can’t force people to think about safety just by putting them on a course. They have to experience it. We’ve incorporated working with horses into one of our courses. People laugh about it at first, but they soon get the message. If on board the basics are not properly organized, no system is safe. Speaking good English is one of those basics.”

Isn’t that regulated in some way?

“On board the average ship, there are at least 250 mandatory documents relating to the crew. The Maritime Labour Convention also has many safety requirements. But certificates don’t always tell you what you need to know. We used to send employees with low CFER test scores on a six-week leave, to study English. When they came back, certificate in hand, in most cases their pronunciation was still just as bad. That got us thinking.”

English is the standard language at sea. Doesn’t that solve most communication problems?

“No. Let me give you an example. Inspectors boarding a Taiwanese ship often don’t understand the crew and the crew doesn’t understand them either. And that’s the end of the inspection, they just leave it at that. Not really a level playing field, but there you are.”

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Is safety also important to clients?

“It would be great if clients selected Seatrade for working safely or handling cargo without accidents. It would be even nicer if they chose us because we look after our crew. Most sailors that do not function well just get transferred to another ship or another company. That doesn’t solve the problem. These kind of people need to be helped to develop.”

You do not have a very positive outlook on HR in the shipping business.

“Looking back it’s fair to conclude that Seatrade also fired people for the wrong reasons. If I had to manage the crew in the traditional way, I would quit right now. All you do is ship in people with passports and the necessary certificates and place them wherever they happen to be needed. Not inspiring at all. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the business model of most crewing agents. They have over 10, 000 crew members on their books, and their earnings are based on the number of contracts. Quality is not an incentive.”

How do other shipping companies respond to your stance?

“The Netherlands aren’t in the lead but things are starting to look up. A Belgian shipping management company has a similar vision when it comes to education. Together we can show that it’s possible to improve the quality of your crew by investing in education. We already train crews from other shipping companies in our German institute, Atria Learning & Development.”

Why do you focus on online learning?

“Putting captains together in a classroom simply doesn’t work. That’s why we developed an online learning program together with Spot On Learning, It gives our people the freedom to study whenever and wherever they want, using a PC, laptop or smartphone. Online learning allows them to practice pronunciation in private, without feeling embarrassed. We monitor the progress of all the program’s participants and know exactly what level they have reached. Much better than a certificate.”

Don’t you need teachers anymore?

“In Russia we still employ teachers. We are very strict: if you don’t participate and perform well, you won’t get promoted. Do we want to hire a good engineer or would we prefer an engineer who’s fluent in English? This discussion has been going on for years. Well, actually we want both.”

Is the course content realistic and appropriate for life at sea?

“Yes, all the videos are filmed on board. There is no point in learning English for tourists. We start with general English for the maritime industry and then offer courses for specific areas like cargo handling or for the engine room. Speech recognition indicates how well you are doing. Once your pronunciation is sufficiently good, you can proceed to the next level. Anyone can do it.”

Do you develop new material yourself?

“Yes, again in cooperation with Spot On Learning. We have just developed a new culture module.”

Teaching culture? What does that mean?

“At sea, cultural differences matter a lot. This is something you learn at the naval academy but that’s not enough. We want our captains to know how to handle cultural issues. Take for example a Philippine or Russian crew that is sensitive about authority. They will never approach the captain when something is amiss at sea. If you want to avoid accidents, you have to organize things differently. Loss of face is another issue. You can’t just criticize a Philippine sailor in front of the rest of the crew. Dutch officers are notorious for this.”

Do you also have teambuilding sessions?

“Crew members depend on each other a lot and spend weeks together. But teambuilding is difficult because of all the crew changes. It’s not like managing a football team that stays together. That’s exactly why we spend so much time training our captains and officers.”

What is the biggest challenge coming your way?

“That would be digitalization. We have experienced just a tiny fraction of the transformation that’s ahead of us. Distributing freight will soon be completely data driven, with no need for companies any more. Nobody likes to talk about disruption but we try to prepare our employees by letting them think about Seatrade’s future. We’ve even developed a board game for this purpose. It may sound childish, but playing the game will give you an insight into your personal blueprint for transformation.”

How motivated are crews to participate?

“Young people seem to appreciate it when you invest in them. Others are less positive. We have many technicians working for us and they are a bit hesitant. But training is a necessity, if you don’t want to develop your skills, you will struggle to keep up.”

How do you see the future of crewing management?

“I hope the maritime industry will start to focus more on the human factor. Seatrade will develop into a high impact learning organization, with people constantly acquiring new skills. I’m sure this will result in better qualified people and a higher return on investment. Shipping companies need to have the courage to invest in people instead of in ships. For many shipowners that’s a hard thing to get your head around.”

Is Seatrade’s management open to this development?

“Yes, even if we are in the midst of a reorganization. Seatrade has come a long way, our people are much better educated than they were ten years ago, I’m sure of it.”

How do you make it work financially?

“I often get remarks about my budget; other shipping companies spend less on education. But that’s short sighted. In fact, if you look at the total costs per ship we do better! Our people are more efficient and make fewer mistakes. Shipping is an industry with low margins and efficiency quickly pays off. For many shipowners that may be the difference between losing money and making profit.”


Author: Reinoud Sluiters


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Shipping industry discovers human factor

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