Skip to Main Content
Marine Delivers Magazine 2020

Marine shipping labour shortages spreading

Labour and skills shortages have become an acute problem in the Canadian marine sector. Industry leaders are now launching new initiatives to attract the next generation of workers.

The alarm bells are ringing louder and louder over an increasing manpower shortage in Canada’s marine transportation sector, where some 200,000 Canadians work on ships, in ports and provide marine-related logisticsservices. It’s not only the lack of enough superior officers like captains, first mates and chief engineers to meet demands but also entry-level seafarers. It’s a problem that is echoed in the world’s shipping centres from Greece to London to Hong Kong. 

“Despite the many perks that marine offers – great salaries, interesting and varied work, technology-driven – labour and skills shortages are an acute problem in the marine sector,” says Bruce Burrows, President and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, whose membership includes shipping lines, shippers, ports and marine suppliers in Canada and the United States. “Many of our members have identified workplace development as their number one challenge.”

The Canadian Transportation Act review in 2015 found that Canadian seafarers are aging and the pool of qualified seafarers is diminishing, not just in Canada but throughout the Western world. “The problem has become even more acute, such that Canadian ship operators have had to tie up ships because they cannot crew them and call back Captains and First Mates from retirement and leave,” Burrows adds.

Canadian Marine Industry Foundation Launched

Labour shortages have also hit public agencies like pilotage authorities and the Canadian Coast Guard with the private and public sectors competing against each other within the same small labour pool.

In January, the marine industry joined forces with the federal government to establish the Canadian Marine Industry Foundation to promote careers in the marine sector and help alleviate labour shortages. The Chamber of Marine Commerce is one of the founding partners. “This is an opportunity to take a more strategic national approach to let Canadians know that marine is a dynamic, modern sector committed to innovation, sustainable best practices and ongoing skills development,” Burrows explains.

Labour shortages impacting economic growth

The overall predicament in Canada was demonstrated in striking fashion last summer shortly after Quebec City’s Groupe Desgagnés held an inauguration ceremony for two leading-edge polar class duel fuel/LNG petroleum-chemical tankers custom-built for the company in Turkey. They represented the completion of an investment plan in excess of $200 million CDN launched in 2015 for four such state-of-the-art vessels.

The new generation tanker vessels costing approximately $50 million each are the result of an original concept to optimize safety, environmental performance and operational efficiency as well as to adapt to navigational conditions in northern Quebec, the Saint-Lawrence and the Great Lakes regions. The fuel system actually makes it possible for those vessels to use either conventional bunker fuel, diesel fuel or liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a fuel.

But one of the four state-of-theart- of-the-art vessels, the MT Rossi A. Desgagnés could not begin trading once it arrived in Canada as planned because Groupe Desgagnés was simply unable to find qualified Canadian mariners with required certificate of competencies in sufficient numbers to crew the vessel, in keeping with Transport Canada regulatory requirements. For Groupe Desgagnés, the ripple effect of such an acute crew shortage was financially very costly, with the company operating only three of its four new product tankers simultaneously, as it juggled with available mariners.

“We switched to another ship and moved crews from one ship to another for two months,” explained a senior executive. “This had several million dollars of economic impact.” During those two months, the company had no choice but to resort to temporarily importing foreign flagged vessels to deliver oil products to its customers in the St. Lawrence and Arctic regions, a time consuming and costly undertaking.

Reciprocal recognition accords with France and Norway

Up until recently, Canadian marine industry interests have not taken advantage of provisions already built in to the Canada Shipping Act that allows the signing of bilateral agreements between Canada and foreign countries, providing for swift reciprocal recognition of certificates of competencies issued to mariners from those two countries. But that has changed recently. Transport Canada late in 2019 concluded bilateral agreements with Norway and France. As a result, Norwegian and French mariners will be allowed to work on a Canadian-flagged vessel with a work permit, without having to apply for permanent residency.

Those mariners must still satisfy Transport Canada’s checks to ensure they have acceptable and up-to-date certificates of competencies from their home maritime administrations.

Groupe Desgagnés has approached hundreds of candidates during an extensive company recruiting drive principally in France, in addition to continuous Canada-wide recruiting efforts to hire Canadian mariners. To date, some two dozen European mariners were thus signed up, conditional on their getting work permits or permanent residency.

Training Next Generation of Canadian Mariners

While conducting a recruiting campaign in Canada and principally France, Groupe Desgagnés made available ‘on-the-job’ training opportunities for cadets enrolled in marine related academic programs in Canadian institutions: in 2019 alone, this translated into more than 10,000 work days on a Groupe Desgagnés vessel.

Lastly and just as importantly, Groupe Desgagnés donated CDN $ 300, 000 to the Fondation de l’Institut Maritime du Québec at Rimouski, thus committing to the continued development of future generations of young Canadian mariners.

Claude Mailloux, executive director of the Quebec City-based Human Resources Sectorial Committee of the Maritime Industry, agrees that bilateral agreements with Norway and France are a step in the right direction though “not a miracle solution.”

Labour shortages worldwide problem

Globally speaking, the latest manpower report by BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) put the current shortfall at about 16,500 officers (ie. navigation and marine engineering officers) and warned there will be a need for an additional 147,500 officers by 2025 to service the world merchant fleet.

There are over 50,000 merchant ships trading internationally that are served by an estimated 1,647,000 seafarers of which 774,000 are officers. Whereas the global supply of officers is forecast to increase steadily, this is predicted to be outpaced by rising demand.

Some categories are in especially short supply, including engineer officers at the management level and officers for such specialized ships as chemical and LNG carriers. The report suggests that in the past five years the industry has made progress in increasing recruitment and training levels. But it warns that training levels must be boosted significantly.

Stepping up recruiting efforts

Mailloux raises another point: the marine sector is competing with such other industries as mining, energy and manufacturing for mechanical engineers.  To attract more young people to pursue careers as seafarers, Mailloux’s Sectorial Committee has launched an EMBARQUE campaign which makes wide use of social media.

Canada’s marine industry, in fact, offers attractive well-paying careers. Typical deckhands start off at $60,000 to $80,000, depending on the vessel. For second mates, it can reach $120,000. And higher still for first mates and masters. But these are not 9 to 5 jobs, requiring mariners to be on the water for one, two or up to three months before having blocks of time off.

In an interview, Phillip Nelson, president of the Vancouver-based Council of Marine Carriers, explains that tug operators are not yet experiencing too much difficulty in obtaining people to fill entry level positions, but the situation will change in the future as it becomes more and more difficult to attract mariners prepared to be away from home several weeks at a time.

To encourage new entrants, the Council is looking at establishing a marine apprenticeship which would provide free funding for the required schooling and seagoing assignments.

In a related development, the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada initiated a Be A Seafarer recruitment campaign in 2018 aimed at promoting seafaring careers for younger generations of Canadians amidst a manpower shortage and aging membership. “The SIU offered free education to select applicants of our programs and a guaranteed job upon completion of the proper marine course,” explains Patrice Caron, SIU executive vice president.

While the response was strong and hundreds of applications have been received, Caron acknowledges that the industry is facing a new shortage in the form of engineers and officers on board Canadian vessels. An estimated 25 per cent of the SIU members – who represent the majority of unlicensed mariners in Canada – will also be retiring over the next five years, and less than 13 per cent of the membership is under 30. In the recruiting drive, the Seafarers Training Institute is working in partnership with the SIU, Algoma Central Corporation, Canada Steamship Lines and Groupe Desgagnés.

Meanwhile, it’s a virtually identical story at such specialized training schools as Georgian College and the Institut maritime du Québec in Rimouski: relative stability in the number of cadets recruited for nautical programs but a constant decline in engineering students.