Why Hawsepipers are needed now more than ever

There is a powerful belief these days that you absolutely must have an advanced higher (formal) education to be of any real value in the workplace, unless you are functionally serving only as a draft animal doing the “unskilled” grunt work that no one else wants to do. The justification for this is usually made along the lines of “today’s complex work environment demands more technical training and skills, blah, blah, blah.” To be sure, virtually all of our systems appear to be caught up in the death-grip of ever-increasing complexity that just keeps feeding off itself: we struggle to solve problems caused by today’s over-complexity by, you guessed it, adding even more of it tomorrow, ad infinitum. Even worse, the pace of this continual transformation steadily increases as well and we’re expected to regularly “upgrade” our knowledge and skills in a vain attempt to keep up. We’re perpetually behind that curve, always outrun by the increasing rate of change, and there are human limits to our ability to keep up that aren’t being acknowledged, let alone allowed for.

In the U.S. Merchant Marine, and elsewhere, this has had serious ramifications. The powers-that-be at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have continuously ramped up the training and education requirements for virtually all licenses to impractical levels, apparently without much if any regard for the practical, economic and social impacts that come with it. Manning standards, in contrast, remain flat or are reduced to make the bean counters happy. This has made the traditional hawsepiper an endangered species on a long skid towards extinction. It has become extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pursue a career as an officer by your own efforts and resources alone. This, along with a long-standing disregard for the quality of life of working mariners, has caused serious shortages of younger seafarers. While there have been some uneven improvements in living and working conditions in recent years it still has not checked the decline. Inertia can be very tough to overcome……

But this isn’t really about fairness and equal opportunity, because it’s clear that no one cares much about that. It’s about the cold, hard fact that the Merchant Marine is greatly diminished without a large percentage of hawsepipers in the ranks to ensure that the educated technicians from the academies, who possess little practical experience upon graduation, are not left to their own devices and wind up having to learn everything the hard way. Translation: increased damage, injury and accident rates. In support of my argument I offer the wise words of none other than an academy-graduate deck officer (read: non-hawsepiper) who actually sails for a living and has avoided drinking the Kool-Aid. He clearly sees the value in having hawsepipers around in more than token numbers.

I am continually impressed by the younger mates I have worked with that began sailing as apprentice seaman and took the initiative to study and test for a third mate’s license. Their education at sea brings a set of skills unattainable at maritime academies into the workplace. Any lacking knowledge in the theory of nautical sciences is amply made up for by a zeal to learn that theory while being able to run circles around academy grads on deck.

I couldn’t agree more, and I would also say that this applies doubly so when it comes to towing vessels. The paragraph above was excerpted from the post Human Resources on the Deep Water Writing blog. Clear vision like this is uncommon amongst academy graduates and I hope that it spreads and sinks in.

Can you hear this, IMO? Are you paying attention, U.S. Coast Guard? Are you capable of understanding the great damage you’re doing while continuing on the current course? It’s long past the time to alter that course substantially to avoid a collision with reality. The 2010 STCW International Diplomatic Conference is being held this month in Manila, and they’ll be deciding where we go from here. While the U.S. Coast Guard has temporarily backed off from implementing the latest round of changes to fully implement STCW ’95, largely due to industry and possibly even mariner’s objections, it is unknown if they truly get it yet and are willing and able to advise Congress that maybe this international treaty we signed wasn’t such a great idea after all. So we’re still very concerned about what may come out of STCW ’10. Stay tuned……

Coincidentally, the afore-mentioned blogging seafarer also just commented on my last post about Transocean’s moronic no-knife rule:

When I was in college everyone on campus in a marine licensing program carried a knife. I remember thinking to myself “This must be one of the only schools that doesn’t prohibit students from carrying blades”. That wasn’t just tradition, it was a safety measure when half of the school week was on, in or near the water.

I’m not sure if that policy has changed with all the new security measures in place around collge campuses but if I am ever restricted from carrying my Spyderco at sea I’ll start sending my resume to Starbucks.

Half a dozen of my friends work for Transocean and are entrusted with operating multi-million dollar exploratory drill ships but are not allowed to carry knives? That is absolutely asinine.

I think a lot of good things could come out of the intense scrutiny the O&G industry in the GOM will undergo in the next few months. I pray that one result will be the realization that when you try and take all the risk out of seafaring with robust and voluminous safety managment systems you may actually end up endangering those that have to live with the system.

Writing, delgating, enforcing and auditing SMS policies has created a lot of jobs ashore but let us not forget who pays the price when the system becomes unreasonable in the name of risk reduction.

I repeat, the various authorities need to pay much more attention to what the knowledgeable grunts in the field are trying desperately to alert them to.

Editor’s Note: this seafarer’s writing just keeps getting better and better, and I’ve had him on our blogroll almost from the beginning of this blog. I encourage any mariner who has something to say to consider starting their own blog and share their ideas with a wider audience. Our Working Mariners blogroll, located in the 4th section down on the right-hand bar, has grown to include international coverage from a variety of sectors of the marine transportation industry. I’ll be happy to add to it, all you have to do is write.