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Battling shipping’s brain drain amid the Great Resignation

1 September 2022
A small pool of talent means shipyards – like other maritime companies – will need to recruit faster and smarter to meet their staffing needs Credit: Shutterstock

When Korea’s three biggest shipbuilders called on the government for  emergency talks over persistent staff shortages in August, maritime recruiters would have been unsurprised. Several factors have made finding staff and skills difficult for maritime-related businesses since the financial crisis of 2008, the subsequent decline in shipbuilding and especially since the COVID pandemic.

Since 2020 two trends have bedevilled recruitment at both the high and low ends of seniority. The ‘Great Resignation’ has seen swathes of potential leadership candidates retire early to redress their work-life balance, jaded by challenging work conditions and inspired by the quality time that COVID restrictions had gifted them. The ensuing global labour shortage has made finding even junior staff more difficult than ever.

That pincer movement may hinder one of the proposed strategies to tackle staff shortages at Korean yards. Recruiting workers from abroad is becoming increasingly difficult as people prioritise quality of life. According to Philip Parry, Chairman of maritime recruitment specialist Spinnaker Global, the trend is so pronounced that some maritime hubs – he cites Hong Kong and the Middle East – are losing ground to rivals as candidates choose countries that are closer to home or with better conditions.

The trends exacerbate a long-standing ‘brain drain’ from some sectors, notably shipbuilding as orders declined sharply from 2009. “If you look at the number of shipyards operating today compared to then, it stands to reason that there is a smaller pool of skilled people to recruit from,” says Parry.

The ICS/BIMCO Seafarer Workforce Report 2021 warned that the industry needs an additional 89,510 STCW certified officers by 2026, and is already experiencing a shortfall of more than 26,000. Maritime companies are now having to compete for new skills in sustainability and digitalisation. Some employers are adapting to the challenge, says Parry. Progressive companies are willing to choose leadership over technical experience in a growing number of roles, for example. But many still recruit too slowly and inconsistently to hire effectively in a constricted market, missing out on top candidates.

One trend points to an optimistic outlook for maritime recruitment. Parry notes that human resources roles are increasingly highly valued and strategic among maritime companies. As more savvy HR executives tackle these diverse challenges, perhaps companies worldwide – including shipyards in Korea – will be able to plug the brain drain, initiate a ‘Great Recruitment’ and find the skills they need for the future.