Maritime and military face identical recruitment challenge

Both the UK military and the £116bn maritime industry face the same tough challenges when it comes to recruiting the right people with the right skills for the next few decades.

That was the clear message that came from the afternoon session of the fifth Maritime Exchange conference held in Liverpool. Organised by Mersey Maritime, the event brought together UK maritime leaders at the Tung Auditorium at the University of Liverpool.

Two panel sessions in the morning focused on decarbonisation and digitisation of the industry. In the afternoon skills and careers were put in the spotlight in another two lively panel discussions.

Opening the afternoon period was Commodore Phil Waterhouse of the Royal Navy who is also a Board Member of Mersey Maritime.

In a keynote address Commodore Waterhouse, Naval Regional Commander for Northern England and the Isle of Man, revealed the findings of the Haythornthwaite report that was published by the British Government last week.

Written by businessman Rick Haythornthwaite, the 135-page report said the UK’s army, air force and navy were all struggling to recruit people with the right technological skills.

This, it outlined, represented a real threat to the UK’s military’s operational effectiveness and its capacity to cope in a modern conflict such as the current war in Ukraine.

The report said: “Will the people system at the heart of (the UK’s) military capability work when tested? Will it still have the strength, agility, skill, adaptability and resolve we have seen from the Ukrainian armed forces or will that core prove hollow.”

It added that the UK’s military’s “take it or leave it” approach to recruitment needed to change as it was now competing with the private sector for the same set of cyber-related and technological skills that would be critical in the next few years.

It referred to a paradigm shift where in a competitive workplace potential employers were having to tailor their offer to attract the right people.

Careers seekers now looked for employers that were welcoming and were clear about career progression and a nurturing environment. In contrast, the British military’s “company approach” is like “one size fits no one”.

In the first panel session of the afternoon Mersey Maritime’s Head of Policy and Partnerships, Simon Eardley chaired the discussion on future skills.

On the panel was Brian Johnson, UK Business Development Director at defence giant BAE Systems, Ben Murray, Director of Government and Corporate Affairs at shipbuilder Harland and Wolff, Rachel Lynch, a Strategic Organiser at seafarers’ union Nautilus International and Liverpool John Moores University Senior Maritime Lecturer Dr Dimitrios Paraskevadakis.

Brian Johnson kicked off the discussion by echoing the issues raised in the military recruitment report. Over the next couple of decades BAE will be building the most advanced warships ever designed.

They will be packed with AI and the latest technology. When recruiting they not only have to consider what skills they need right now, but the skills they will need in years to come.

“I’m regularly in meetings where I am talking about things that are one or two decades ahead… we will have to employ people who understand that technology and how it will be deployed.”

He went on: “The ships we are making are very complex. And the skills that we need for them are the same skills the software market is looking for… it is a constant challenge when you are competing with tech giants for systems engineers.”

Ben Murray said it was good the UK now had both a maritime strategy and a shipbuilding strategy.

He explained: “A few years ago when Harland & Wolff in Belfast advertised for apprentices, they weren’t getting enough applicants. But since they see ships in the yard it gives them more confidence and now we are over-subscribed.”

He added that rather than fearing the emergence of AI and new technology, the workforce at Harland and Wolff was broadly welcoming and didn’t see it as a threat to their jobs.

He added: “When it comes to automation there is a real positive view from people. They see that if we are more efficient and more competitive then we will get more orders… it is all about how we redeploy people and bring them along with us.”

There was a warning from Rachel Lynch that the Government had become too focused on technology in the maritime sector and was not paying enough attention to the welfare of its seafarers.

“The Government must start investing in people,” she said. “There is now a very high drop-out rate among sea cadets. If we want to inspire people to pursue maritime careers, then they must address the problems in the system.

“We are sending 18 and 19-year-olds onto ships on the other side of the world where they have no contact with their family or friends… Investing in maritime careers is critical. They must put people at the heart of the sector’s future.”

Dr Paraskevadakis pointed out one of the challenges faced by the maritime industry was that it was “too fragmented”.

“I see tech companies offering their own smart solutions to ports. What will happen is we will come to have too many solutions and not one common solution.”

He added that while STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) were important in terms of maritime careers but that it was also vital to focus on other skills such as net zero, leadership and logistics.

Careers panel

Diversity and inclusion were put forward as a powerful solution to the recruitment problem in maritime during the final panel session of the Maritime Exchange. This was chaired by Ruth Wood, soon-to-be interim Chief Executive of Mersey Maritime.

On the panel was Belén Ripoll, Director of People and Talent at cloud consultancy Ancoris, Richard Ballantyne OBE, Chief Executive of the British Ports Association, Jo McCaffrey, Employer Partnerships Manager at Generation UK & Ireland, Scarlett Black, a Programme Executive (skills) at Maritime UK, and Commander Robin Donavan, Head of Royal Navy Recruitment.

Generation UK & Ireland is a non-profit that helps people get access to careers where they would normally struggle to find pathways in. They may be from disadvantaged or minority communities or don’t have access to the right networks.

“Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity isn’t,” said Jo. If people don’t have an accessible route into the maritime sector then it will not be able to recruit them.

“From my perspective, looking at maritime as a huge employer in the Liverpool City Region I’m not sure it is fully representative of many of the people who live here.”

She added: “Why would you not want a diverse workforce? You are bringing in people from a variety of backgrounds all with different ideas.

“One of the issues is how employers describe entry-level roles. It often looks like they are looking for the perfect person that doesn’t exist. They also need more robust on-boarding processes to make sure they retain people.”

Richard Ballantyne agreed that more needed to be done for the maritime workforce to be more diverse and inclusive, but added: “At least we are talking about it now. It is not just the right thing to do but it will mean we will attract more of the people and skills we need.

“There was a time when someone could walk down to a port and get a job straight away.  Now ports are surrounded by fences and that just isn’t possible anymore. So we need to work harder to get the message out about how to access careers.

“It is a challenge to get everyone working together alongside their competitors but we are getting there.”

Scarlett Black used the example of her younger sister to illustrate the recruitment problem that maritime has. She explained: “She is doing her A Levels and attended an open day on STEM careers – out of 10 speakers not one came from the maritime sector.

“Maritime needs to be talking in schools and in colleges. At Maritime UK we are now working to address that. Careers need to be more welcoming and need to offer upskilling. It needs to be serious about diversity and get more women interested.”

She insisted that diversity needs to be more than just a tick-box exercise, adding: “It needs to involve everyone in the industry, not just those who are already working on diversity.”

Belén Ripoll said employers needed to think about what she called the ‘employer value proposition’. She explained: “What are the policies of your organisation, what is the culture?

“Attracting and retaining talent is a big issue in all sectors of business, not just maritime.”

Commander Donavan oversees 47 naval careers offices across the UK. He and his team have a target of finding 5,000 recruits for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines each year. And he says the challenge is getting more difficult.

“Often we are recruiting people who already have an emotional connection to the service, maybe through family or friends. But it is a real challenge to meet our targets, particularly for engineering roles.

“People are looking at potentially longer deployments. If you have someone with a young family how do you persuade them to spend six months at sea away from them? We have to look at how we adopt new working practices.”

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