MNTB initiatives such as the Berth Pool and online training
are helping cadets gain the experience they need
to propel the maritime sector forward.
Kathryn Neilson, Director – Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB)
The ongoing COVID pandemic continues to pose a serious challenge to cadet training as it has prevented MANY CADETS FROM ACCESSING ONBOARD TRAINING. Not only has it forced young cadets to undertake a front-loaded version of the regular training programme, but it has compounded the issue of a growing backlog of cadets who have still not gained access to a training berth on a ship despite being on the waiting list for a while.
At the Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB), we know the value of hands-on experience, which is vital to cement the underpinning knowledge delivered in the classroom which then translates into real world behaviour. Our cadets need onboard training to ensure that their skills are demonstrated at a level that will make them competent and competitive in an international maritime market. Furthermore, the longer students wait to get a job after completing their training, the higher the risk that they find other jobs outside the sector and leave maritime altogether. This is the reason we have focused and continue to focus our efforts to secure additional berths in 2022 to ensure our UK cadets can get the sea time they need.
In late 2020, the MNTB established the Berth Pool as a tool to address the shortage of training berths. The pool works by reaching out to companies to ask them to come forward with any spare berths on their vessels. Available berths are prioritised for those students with no time at sea and the remainder are allocated in order of importance. I’m proud to say that we have sent over 65 students to sea thus far and in fact, some of these students have been offered permanent roles once they finished their training – the advantage being the companies are benefitting from this scheme as they can evaluate the cadet before hiring them.
We are now seeing a light at the end of the tunnel as companies are allowing students to go back on board. Alongside the Berth Pool initiative, the MNTB and the UK Chamber of Shipping also lobbied the UK Government to request more funding to support companies that were sponsoring cadets through their training at this challenging time. Our request was successful and this will now provide financial support to companies whose cadets have had to extend their training due to Covid.
We know how important it is for students to receive support with their training, not just from an educative standpoint but also from a mental health perspective. This was particularly demonstrated in May and June 2021, when issues with access to crew changes internationally meant that companies could not allow students onboard. demand for berths spiked and knowing that we were on the case was a relief to many cadets.
There is no set end-date for the Berth Pool programme, particularly as we are not out of the woods yet and may see the number of students on the waiting list grow again if we have another Covid surge or variant. Given our expectation that the pandemic will continue to be an issue in the next few years, the MNTB is implementing the lessons learned so far. This attitude will serve us well if we have to navigate other emergencies in the future.
A particularly valuable lesson is that much of the maritime training programme can be delivered online, particularly online assessments and exams. Seeing the number of students carrying on with their training despite the pandemic has been really heartening and I particularly praise the Maritime Training establishments who moved training to an online platform to ensure cadets were able to continue their training despite the restrictions in place. We will continue to invest in digital training in the future, while maintaining standards in areas where physical training is a necessity.
It is vital that students receive additional support when training online as this form of delivery can present challenges if students are not familiar with it. We must also consider digital poverty, particularly for young students who cannot afford the hardware or software to continue their training. Despite excellent support from the colleges to ensure their students had access to computers and the internet, many students were badly impacted in the first six to eight months of the pandemic due to digital poverty.
The drop in cadet numbers that we have witnessed in the last 18 months due to Covid will undoubtedly have an impact on future recruitment and we will need to work hard to ensure that there are enough appropriately trained seafarers to crew the vessels of the future. While the online aspect does increase the likelihood that younger seafarers will be digital natives, this benefit is set against the fact that many students are reluctant to begin a course online. Additionally, the pandemic has raised the profile of seafaring as a career, but there remains a huge amount of negativity around the struggles relating to delayed crew changes and cancelled shore leave, which is giving our sector a poor reputation as a workplace. When faced with so much uncertainty, students may choose to follow careers in other sectors. In combination with a fatigued workforce that has been kept onboard far beyond the contracted time period, we could see real safety risks for the industry.
The MNTB is exploring all options to increase resilience and we are working hard with the MCA on the review of seafarer training and education, which will be updated by September 2023. This will make the seafarer education and training programmes far more relevant for the next 20-30 years as it will include elements such as green skills, digital learning, and better leadership and management skills. We are keen to work with all our stakeholders to ensure that our industry and its seafarers are able to operate safely, efficiently and competitively.