Thursday, April 24, 2008

the disconnect between chemicals and products

i've been writing today about the fact that the tankers built in the past five years or so are more flexible than tankers were in the past. in the past, if you sailed a chemical tanker, you sailed with chemicals and that was it. today, a chemical tanker is more versatile--it can likely take a wide variety of products as well--everything from palm oil (often just the first cargo) to naptha to jet fuel. this presents challenges for the crews onboard, since the deck officers, according to international regulations, must possess certain certificates for certain ship types and cargoes. if you were an old chemical guy from way back, you might have your chemical certificates in order, but when the vetting inspector comes onboard, he looks at the ships' certificates and finds that while it's certified for carrying products as well, the crew is not. and then you've got yourself a non-conformance, even if all you're carrying is chemicals. the mere possibility that the ship could carry products is enough.

this may seem a bit of a departure from my usual blog posts, which, of late, have been decidedly of the navel-gazing variety. but, this is what i do. and it is actually more interesting than it might at first appear.

shipping is a fascinating industry. it's old fashioned, it's run from austere buildings by men in suits. and it's in a period of enormous, dynamic change. it's changing so fast, it can't actually keep up with itself--probably because you can't run very fast in a suit. hence the problems like the one i mention above. the guys who are designing and building ships got together with the commercial guys and decided that the ships should be more flexible with regard to the cargo they could take--more business opportunities, right?

however, somewhere along the way, in the haste to seize this business opportunity, someone--or perhaps, more accurately--everyone forgot about the people who would have to sail the ship. that there are a lot of international and national and flag-state regulations surrounding the certificates, training and experience people need to have in order to sail a particular ship type. even the customers who own the cargoes have further demands regarding time in rank and time with the company.

so those commercial guys are now pretty surprised at the non-conformances their new more flexible ships are creating. it takes time to build a ship. they could have prepared the manning side--people could have been trained and had their certificates upgraded. but, they didn't bother to communicate that that would be needed. so now there's a worldwide scramble to equip these officers with the competencies to sail the multi-million dollar pieces of equipment with which they are entrusted.

at the same time, there is a worldwide shortage of officers and crew. there must have been another communication shortfall along the way between the shipbuilding side of the business and the manning side. as i said, it takes time to build ships. the facts were there. and what's fascinating to me in my job, which now consists of writing about these issues, is that apparently no one saw it coming! either that or no one believed it. or a combination of the two. well, they're starting to believe it now, but only after it begins to affect business.

these are interesting times in which we live and navigate the world.


Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

" now there's a worldwide scramble to equip these officers with the competencies to sail the multi-million dollar pieces of equipment with which they are entrusted."
Oh my goodness, I don't know why life has to be so complicated. Perhaps they thought they might save money in other aspects and it didn't occur to anybody to look at the most basic necessity- as you said, the people themselves. This is a fascinating story because it's a case of humans being flawed and caught out.
There's a story I read a few months back about basketball which started around 1892. It took ten years of having the ball go in the net, and people having to manually fetch it- at that time nets were closed- before it occurred to one man that if the net was open ended, it would save time and money and the ball would come straight out. Ten years. In the same way, although of course not as costly (!) people ignored the obvious thing under their noses and now somebody is having to pay a very high price for that.
"it's changing so fast, it can't actually keep up with itself"- that's a good way to sum up a disaster. It will take manpower and money and time to sort this that otherwise could have gone into other matters.
As you said, a different sort of post but no less important or fascinating than your usual :)

julochka said...

i've been working on the people/manning side of the shipping business for going on four years now and it never ceases to amaze me how those people, who are practical and capable and take such pride in what they do and who are entrusted with machinery worth millions are often treated as if they are just a piece of that machinery--perhaps a spare part--that can be shifted in or out of service. it's astonishing, actually. part of why i wrote this is that i'm still trying to get to the bottom of why that is. i'm not there yet, i'll admit that! thank you, as always, for you thoughts. :-)