The current officer shortfall to crew the global merchant fleet is forecast to widen, despite the dampening effect of Covid-19. This is due to the reduced attractiveness of a career at sea and rising man-berth ratios which will inflate future manning costs, according to the latest Manning Annual Review and Forecast report published by global shipping consultancy Drewry.
Drewry estimates that there is currently a global officer shortage equating to around 2% of overall demand, though presently this is masked by the temporary idling of vessels due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, once the merchant fleet is fully reactivated this shortfall will re-emerge and represent a tightening of supply conditions compared to 2019 when the market was estimated to be in broad balance.
Looking ahead, despite moderating fleet growth, demand for officers is expected to accelerate due to a revision in anticipated employment practices to extend leave periods and reduce tours of duty, with the resultant impact on man-berth ratios. Meanwhile, net supply of officers has been slowing in recent years and is not expected to keep pace with rising demand, leading to a widening in the overall shortfall relative to merchant shipping’s requirements.
“Seafaring is no longer the attractive occupation it once was as competition from shore-based roles intensifies and the lifestyle with its associated mental health challenges becomes less appealing,” said Drewry’s senior manning analyst Rhett Harris. “The Covid-19 outbreak has dealt a further blow to the occupation’s reputation with high profile news stories of stranded crews and enforced longer tours of duty.”
The widening officer shortage is expected to put upward pressure on seafarer remuneration just when shipowners will be under pressure to trim costs in light of weak anticipated earnings. Drewry estimates that overall manning costs have flatlined in 2020 but are set to pick up over the next few years (see chart).
“Further wage pressure will arise to maintain competiveness with shore-based work, particularly following the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak which highlighted the health and lifestyle risks of a career at sea. As well as wage rates the overall work life balance dictated by tour lengths and leave rations are expected to become key considerations for employees and employers,” added Harris.
Skills and experience for specialist roles remain in demand and are in even tighter supply than the manning market as a whole. There is also likely to be increased demand for seafarers from traditional low cost supply nationalities which will further add to inflationary manning cost pressures.
“The past few years have seen good industry retention rates and a generally settled employment market. However, ship operators need to beware of officer availability trends and the deteriorating attractiveness of a career at sea. Officers cannot be recruited and trained to gain the experience required in a short period of time,” concluded Harris.