InterManager’s Mark O’Neil discusses the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the shipping industry

Mark O’Neil, President of the global ship management association InterManager, talks about the misconceptions surrounding work in the shipping industry, how technology and increased connectivity are radically changing life onboard and ashore, and the pressing need to unite the sector under a single banner.

InterManager recently launched a positivity campaign on social media as a way to counterbalance negative perceptions of working in shipping. What are the biggest misconceptions you hear about the industry?

Like any industry, the shipping sector has its share of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ operators and practices. Generally, however, operators and operating standards are rapidly improving, both onboard and ashore. Digitalisation and technological advances are the catalysts for this positive development, since cost barriers are driving away the ‘cowboys’ and digital transparency ensures that poor practices don’t remain hidden or tolerated. The biggest misconception about working in shipping is that it is limited to ‘just ships’. The shipping sector is part and parcel of the much larger logistics, energy, leisure and renewables sector. Shipping serves – and plays a vital role in – this diverse ecosystem. A career in shipping can, therefore, involve working onboard a tanker, a cruise ship, or a drilling rig, but it may equally mean working in law, finance, insurance, IT, logistics, recruitment, engineering and technology, commerce, catering, medicine and mental health, consultancy, and training. I can think of very few industry sectors that can offer such variety.

How can shipping companies better compete with onshore companies in the fight to attract talent?

Shipping is the cradle of trade and commerce. The very first legal precedents under English common law, which date back to the 15th century, concern shipping disputes and claims; shipping founded the legal principles and practices of national and international commercial interaction. One negative characteristic of this history is that shipping is also fiercely competitive within its own sector, often to the detriment of presenting itself outwardly in a consistently positive light. It lacks a single voice able to represent it as a whole. As a result, it cannot compete with other sectors that are better able to coordinate themselves and focus on attracting international talent. We need to change this extremely fast!

Succession planning has emerged as a pressing issue for the global shipping industry. What are the main challenges that companies face in their efforts to have a continuous flow of good leadership?

Talent attraction is obviously the starting point, but talent retention and development are equally important. As a sector, shipping lags behind in adopting modern human resource management and principles. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us how all-important our people are to our business continuity and why we need to look after them better. We need to adopt modern HR management techniques and processes onboard and ashore. Lifelong learning and development programmes, soft skills training, fair and competitive compensation and benefits packages, healthcare and pension provision, appraisal and career progression mentoring, and safe working environment practices are all areas that need to be improved upon if we are to retain and develop talent within the industry and provide exceptional leaders for the future. Failure is not an option! Otherwise, shipping risks being swallowed up by the larger logistics super-sector.

One of the key findings of a recent report by the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University was that women seafarers feel unwelcome and out of place on board ships. Why is the shipping industry lagging behind others on gender-related issues?

The challenge for the shipping sector is to create a safe working environment, offering its diverse workforce equal opportunities and rewards to all, whatever their gender, religion, country of origin or beliefs; this is not a challenge limited to the shipping sector. There will be roles that, for one reason or another, are less attractive (and perhaps less suited) to specific elements of the diverse mix – this is normal and, indeed, understandable. What is important is that each person must have the choice to work in whatever role he/she wants in a safe environment and that he/she is afforded equal opportunities and rewards. The majority of shipping operators have already done a lot of good work on diversity and equal opportunity but, again, the industry lacks a single voice and a directing authority to advertise this, which allows misconceptions and false assumptions to arise and grow. There are many positive stories to tell about women leaders of large shipping organisations, of the significant number of women in middle-management onboard cruise ships and commercial ships, and of the wonderfully diverse and harmonious workforce onboard and ashore. These stories are not being told, or not being told enough.

In 2022, InterManager heralded IMO’s commitment to addressing safety in enclosed spaces. What more should be done to reduce risks aboard ships?

Safety considerations must be at the beginning, middle and end of everything we do. Safety cannot be limited to specific issues or campaigns; it must be a continuous and ingrained approach to all shipping activity. Until safety assumes that status, there will always be failings, accidents and, unfortunately, injuries and loss of life. We have to view safety as a war and not a battle. Let’s get personal about safety!

As shipping enters a new digital era, facilitated by advances in satellite connectivity, how will new technologies like mixed reality affect crew welfare for the better?

Technology and connectivity have radically altered life ashore and, more particularly, life onboard. Not only are crew now able to stay in touch with their families ashore but they also feel less cut off from world events. Connectivity allows for high-quality eLearning and training to be tailored to individual crewmembers’ needs. It also allows for mental health support when needed and better immediate medical care when required. A connected vessel is a transparent vessel that is not only much closer to the shore operation but is also visible, affording shipping operators a much greater degree of interaction, identification, support and, where necessary, oversight.

In 2021, you proposed the creation of an International Maritime Committee comprising representatives from all maritime sectors to be the ‘one voice’ for the global shipping industry. What kind of response did you receive and has any progress been made?

There are too many associations and associated vested interests within shipping to readily allow for that one voice. Each of those organisations serves its members’ interests extremely well and to the best of its abilities. Their argument against a single voice is that shipping is too diverse but such an argument is self-serving and does not stand up to serious scrutiny. The majority of the challenges facing the shipping sector are big, macro issues that apply equally to the tanker sector, the container sector, the leisure sector and the commodities sector. One voice on alternative fuels and decarbonisation, training, talent recruitment, safety issues and technologies and optimisation techniques would achieve far greater results and draw far greater attention in the international halls of governance and regulation than the present divided opinion and approach. Unless we elect one representative voice we will, unfortunately, squander our legacy as a standalone sector and will be relegated to a sideshow on these big issues or be swallowed up by the wider logistics super-sector.