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Flying high

13 July 2021

Nautilus International spoke with Commodore David Eagles on why qualified seafarers should consider a career with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), a major employer of Nautilus members

It is clear when you meet Commodore David Eagles, head of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), that he has both eyes set firmly on expansion of the service and that people and skills are resolutely at the heart of this strategy.

Any Nautilus member who has lost their job, been furloughed, had their pay and conditions curtailed during the pandemic, or who just fancies a change, should consider the RFA. It is actively expanding its fleet with three solid support ships due for delivery by 2032 and the recent Defence Command Paper offers opportunities that could see exciting new capabilities and ships coming into the fleet. Viewed through the prism of its existing 11 vessels, six of which are currently on active duty with two more poised to go on operations, the need for highly trained crew becomes clear.

With workforce recovery on track to deliver crews for 13 ships by the middle of the decade and the potential growth through new capabilities identified in the Defence Command Paper of March this year, the RFA is looking to grow UK seafarer numbers from the current total of 1850 across all ranks to around 2200 by the end of the decade. An ambitious aspiration with the RFA at the heart of the UK seafarer community.

'For the first time in probably two working generations we have the opportunity to grow both the size of the RFA, and the number of UK registered seafarers as we develop the Integrated Programme (IP) of the next 30 years,' Cdre Eagles said when he visited Nautilus head office in June.

Financial security

The RFA pays for the full costs of all study leave, professional certification and mandatory training for all its personnel and any individuals with Deck, ME or ETO certificates of competency who wish to transition from the Merchant Navy will be fully trained and encouraged to achieve senior certification with all training costs met by the RFA. 

It provides specialist military training for all newcomers and maintains a fully funded study scheme with paid study leave for career development – which is vanishingly rare in commercial shipping these days. 

'That combination,' Cdre Eagles said 'will deliver a very highly qualified workforce to meet the demand'.

With pay negotiations on hold at many commercial shipping operations during the pandemic, an historical gap between RFA and private sector salaries has decreased. As an example, deck officer and engineer officer jobs are currently advertised with initial earnings starting at £35,000, while a motorman grade 1 will start at over £27,000.

Another reason to consider the RFA is its generous pension and bonus scheme for officers, negotiated with union support. Pair that with a guaranteed salary for 365 days of the year and job security, and a transition to its ranks could prove welcome for the right candidates.

Cdre Eagles acknowledged that some seafarers may be slightly daunted by the military aspects of the job. But he remains confident that the opportunities on offer at all levels from ratings to officer – are comparable with and in some cases better than the commercial maritime sector.   

Covid support

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s reputation as a quality employer has been exemplified during the pandemic as it worked with officers and ratings to mitigate the many challenges faced by merchant navy seafarers.

Like many vessel operators with large fleet and crew moving from multiple locations, there have been cases of COVID-19in RFA ranks during the pandemic. But unlike some commercial operators that cut sick and travel pay, including for mandatory self-isolation or quarantine, the RFA fully supported its seafarers.

'I am incredibly grateful for the loyal support and the hard work of our workforce throughout the pandemic,' Cdre Eagles said.

'We have managed to achieve all of our defence outputs throughout the duration of the pandemic and this has been due to the loyalty and incredibly hard work of our workforce, supported by their families and loved ones.'

Cdre Eagles is keen to express his gratitude for RFA officers and ratings for their flexibility in undertaking COVID-19 testing and isolation requirements. 'It has been first class and it's enabled us as a team to deliver all we've needed to during 2020 and 2021.'

Reimagining the future

Linked to the expected fleet growth, long term career prospects at RFA will improve over the coming decade where previously stagnant fleet levels have created a ceiling to promotion.

'We're seeing the changing demographic of our senior officers, where the right people with the right skills and drive can be in command or chief engineer in their late 30s,' Cdre Eagles said.

There are more female officers reaching the top ranks too. Nautilus member Susan Cloggie-Holden was named the first female RFA Captain in 2020 and the RFA is about to announce its first female chief engineer.

The RFA is actively looking at how it can improve the prospects for seafaring mothers to combine both their duties at home with a worthwhile, fulfilling seafaring career. It was a founding signatory to the Maritime UK Women in Maritime Charter in 2019. 

The RFA is actively looking to be more inclusive across its fleet.

This year the RFA will refresh its Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) and its LGBTQ+ champions programmes and is also producing a transgender policy to ensure it is a fully diverse and inclusive employer. The organisation will also extend training to cover mental health awareness and safeguarding, and revitalise ethical behaviours training to ensure seafarers are aware of the impact of their actions on other people.

De loco smoko

In a major step change and after six months of consultation with unions, the RFA in line with Ministry of Defence policy, introduced a smoking cessation programme on June 1. Starting with education, small working groups and with the support of a business partner, a medical team and the safety team at RFA HQ, it is seeking to encourage behavioural change across its ranks.  

'This is a significant change to people's working habits and there will be difficult short-term changes required,' Cdre Eagles said. 'But the medical advice is clear: smoking has long term health implications.

'This is a positive step forward as we as we strive for a healthier working environment.'

Nautilus members seeking help to quit smoking can contact liaison officer Marc Williams.

Members seeking independent advice on any matter pertaining to the RFA can contact their industrial official: industrial@nautilusint.org

For the first time in probably two working generations we have the opportunity to grow the size of the RFA, and in tandem with our well-established workforce recovery programme, increase the number of UK registered seafarers as we develop the Integrated Programme (IP) of the next 30 years

RFA jobs

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) is the Ministry of Defence owned logistic shipping organisation consisting of civilian-crewed ships operated by the Ministry of Defence as an integrated part of the Royal Navy. It provides vital logistical and operational support to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. That includes medical care, transporting kit, fuel, and other essentials all over the world. The RFA also provides humanitarian aid, undertakes counter piracy patrols, counter narcotic operations, and defence diplomacy together with assisting in preventing conflict or safeguarding the flow of international trade as single units.

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