Comms Onboard Determines Whether Seafarers Remain Working at Sea

February 05, 2014
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This article first appeared in the February edition of The Telegraph and is reproduced with kind permission of Nautilus International.

Poor onboard internet access has emerged as one of the most important factors for seafarers determining whether to remain working at sea, a new study had found.

Conducted as part of a major European Union project researching the shortage of maritime skills, the report warns that inadequate communications with family and friends is cited by seafarers as the most likely reason for moving to a shore-based job.

And it concludes that, combined with a 'more coherent and visionary approach' to human resources in shipping, the provision of improved communications facilities onboard would deliver a substantial increase in the seafarer retention rate.

The report was produced by researchers taking part in the KnowMe project – a three-year, €1.5m EU-funded initiative to investigate ways of improving the image of the shipping industry and to enhance the attractiveness of maritime careers.

The findings are based on a survey of more than 500 seafarers of 24 different nationalities. Almost three-quarters of those taking part were officers and just under 17% were ratings, while 53.8% had served at sea for between one to five years and 13.2% had more than 20 years' seagoing experience.

More than two-thirds of the survey participants had made seafaring their first choice of profession and 70% said they were very satisfied or satisfied with their choice – compared with just 9.2% who were disappointed or very disappointed.

Good pay, independence, love for the sea, travel and local/family tradition were cited as the most important factors in choosing the maritime profession, while poor communication with friends and family, social isolation, separation from family, poor living conditions and insufficient rest hours were named by seafarers as the most likely reasons why they would switch to work ashore.

Almost half the respondents considered that they were discriminated in various ways because of their career choice – with limited access to proper communications to shore being the most common reason for feeling that way.

Almost two-thirds said they hoped to continue working at sea to progress to the highest ranks, 40% said they would consider seeking other work in the maritime sector and 30% would like to work in shipping company offices ashore.

Asked in detail about onboard communications, more than 97% said the provision of adequate facilities was crucial for the wellbeing of crew members, with almost half stating that they communicate with their families at least once a day.

At present, two-thirds use personal cell phones to keep in touch with home, 60.3% use onboard sat phones, 43.8% use cell phone SMS and 42.9% use onboard email.

Almost one-third said they spend between 10% to 20% of their monthly salary on communicating with home while at sea – and 10% spend more than 20% of their salaries.

The survey also showed the current patchy level of onboard communications provision for seafarers. Just 36.6% had access to the internet, 50.7% had access to emails and 67.9% had access to sat phones for crew calling – and more than one-quarter (27.7%) had no email access at all.

The majority of those with access said they faced various limitations related to privacy or data usage and only three out of 10 could access their private email accounts while at sea.

The survey also showed links between ship type and the standards of onboard communications. 'The more specialised the ship, the less the percentage of those with no access to free communication,' the report notes. 'Onboard general cargoships and bulk carriers almost half the crew have no access.'

While almost three-quarters access email every day at home, barely 27% do so while at sea. Almost half said access to communication facilities at sea was the biggest barrier to keeping in touch with home, followed by cost (43%) and finding free time (32.9%).

Almost 84% said they would be prepared to extend their tour lengths if they were serving on ships equipped with access to the internet and social media. Around 80% of seafarers said they were active users of social media – mainly Facebook -- and almost 65% said internet and social media access was a critical factor in deciding on which company to serve with.

The report says the survey findings are in line with other research into communications at sea and argues that communications should be considered as a key element in encouraging the retention of seafarers.

Technological progress and services such as Inmarsat's FleetBroadband system have made it much easier and cheaper to provide good communications facilities onboard ships, it points out, and has also allowed crew communications to be separated from operational communications.

'If the existence of that kind of facilities is combined with a more coherent and visionary approach on the development and implementation of human resources management systems, retention of seafarers to the maritime industry could be increased substantially,' it concludes.

For other information on crew communications see here.

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