Ports operators send ‘more hands on deck’ call to governments over staff

Australian shipping has an emerging crisis. Ninety-eight per cent of tangible Australian imports and exports arrive and depart by sea, yet the nation’s marine workforce is both ageing and dwindling in numbers to an alarming extent, experts say.

Some 5646 Australian seafarers are employed in the maritime industry but more than half the workforce is now aged over 45, and only eight per cent under 30.

There are now fewer than 15 Australian blue-water commercial vessels, a slide from more than 100 in the 1990s and the shrinkage has been cutting into the fabric of the sector.

With fewer ships, advocates warn, the Australian shipping industry is producing fewer of the crucial experts who work in ports following their careers at sea – fewer harbour masters, fewer hydrographers, fewer pilots, fewer tug-masters, fewer land-side operators.

Chief executive of peak industry group Ports Australia, Michael Gallacher, says Australia has to find more ways to encourage more people to gain maritime skills, as well as ways to retain crucial expertise in the sector.

“What is clear is that we need options to train Australians at sea”, he says. “What form that takes is up to the government; most likely it won’t be a silver bullet but a mix of various options and opportunities that will feed our maritime skills pool.”

The effort, advocates say, has to begin soon. Ports around Australia, and particularly regional ports, now struggle to find skilled recruits for specific roles, and many vacant positions have to be filled by foreign workers on 457 visas.

As well as boosting training pathways, Ports Australia recommends changes to the temporary skills visa system in recognition of the maritime skills shortfall Australia is facing.

Without a skilled and experienced maritime workforce, Australia is vulnerable to crises caused by extreme weather, poor judgement, and faulty machinery. Without Australian ships at sea and Australians running the ports, the nation’s increasingly important sea-borne trade would be at risk if an international conflict or even war with a neighbouring nation arose.

Ports Australia also warns of potential delays on imports and exports, cost increases for many goods, a weaker economy, danger to infrastructure and people and effects for Australian businesses.

An incident last year in Port Kembla makes the need for skills and experience clear. Port Authority of NSW marine pilot Jo Clark managed to steer a 300-metre ship through the breakwalls after its engine failed on approach.

The only female pilot in NSW, Clark had boarded the 160,000 tonne ship three kilometres offshore, as is routine. But routine went overboard when the ship lost power. Clark deadpanned to The Sunday Telegraph: “From time to time the ship’s eng­ine might fail and all of a sudden there’s an element that’s not planned. It can be a panic for the ship’s crew, who generally don’t have emergency training.’’

A former captain of bulk carriers, cargo ships and liquid natural gas tankers, Clark brought the ship to rest in its allotted space, with the aid of a mostly non-English-speaking crew and the harbour’s tugs, emergency over, tragedy averted. There are too few Jo Clarks according to those who understand the sector’s needs.

In its 2018 Seafaring Skills Census, Maritime Industry Australia paints a bleak picture of the nation’s maritime future, forecasting a 560-plus shortage of Australian seafarers by 2023.

Meanwhile, roughly half the places at the Australian Maritime College in Tasmania are currently taken by foreign students because there’s a shortfall in demand from domestic youngsters, according to the College’s new principal, one-time rear-admiral and deputy Australian Navy chief Michael van Balen.

He believes righting the skills shortage in the maritime industry has to start right at the beginning, by encouraging more school students to study maths, science, technology and engineering, and then making it clear to them that maritime skills were a passport to the world, and in demand in many nations.

“If you look at the maritime industry as a whole, it involves shipping, it involves ports and involves the logistics train elements as well”, he points out, noting that one analysis had found skilled maritime workers were usually sourced from other parts of the industry, because young graduates were only moving into the industry in limited numbers.

“We don’t have the right number of qualified people in the industry Australia-wide”, he adds, pointing out that the Maritime College had joined forces with TAFE colleges and universities to provide a broad range of maritime education, from certificates to doctorates.

To address the skills shortage, the Port Authority of NSW launched a new cadet program last year which gives young seafarers placements on sea-going vessels to get the 18 months of sea-time experience they require for their Watchkeeping Certificate — an international qualification that allows seafarers to perform vessel navigation duties. Importantly, though, Australia has to have the ships to provide the novices with experience.

Before the federal election in May, then Opposition leader Bill Shorten announced his plan for an increase in the number of Australian-flagged ships. “The government love to wrap themselves in the flag over what you should wear on Australia Day”, he said at the time, “but they’re asleep at the wheel when it comes to seafarers”.

Labor’s plans for a strategic shipping fleet were pooh-poohed by the government, which branded them a union-instigated plot, and warned any major changes could increase the price of goods bought and sold by Australians.“They seem to be more interested in doing what the MUA tells them to do, the maritime union, than what the Australian people want them to do,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, adding that a major Navy ship-building project would increase sea-faring opportunities.

Seasoned seafarer Peter Van Duyn, once harbour master in Geelong and now a maritime logistics expert at Deakin University, says Australian shipping could be resuscitated with government intervention but stakeholders have to agree to a plan. The federal government, he adds, appears reluctant to thrash out any sort of deal with the Maritime Union, which is now part of the strong and often militant CFMEU.

“The government, especially this current government, has a fear of the unions”, he says. “In some ways it’s justified”.

Australia is a high labour cost nation, but other high labour cost nations maintain merchant fleets, he adds, pointing out that union demands should not be too onerous, or nothing would be achieved.

Shipping is more environmentally friendly than road freight, Van Duyn adds, and an adjusted tax regime could take that into consideration. The European Union, for example, taxes road freight per amount per kilometre, which gives shipping a financial advantage.

Ports Australia chief executive Michael Gallacher concedes that the cost of labour can be a challenge for Australian shipping, but adds that should not prevent a rescue plan for a crucially-important sector.

“The industry has to make commercial sense, but it doesn’t need to be globally competitive for it to be an answer domestically”, he says. “It needs to be competitive with other modes of transport, providing an opportunity for more freight to move off our congested road and rail”.