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Education and training

Recruit and retain: report shows shipping must face up to officer shortage

12 August 2021

The latest Seafarer Workforce Report reveals a shortfall in STCW-qualified officers globally. Rob Coston looks at what this means for maritime training

Launched by BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping, the 2021 edition of the Seafarer Workforce Report – previously known as the Manpower Report – has a clear message for the maritime industry: it must not neglect recruitment and training if demand for officers and ratings is to be met.

In addition, the report emphasises the need to retain current maritime professionals – and highlights the effect that Covid-19 and the crew change crisis will have on retention. It should remind the industry that companies must provide attractive jobs with good pay and conditions if they are to keep the experienced officers and ratings they need.

The report – which gathers data from flag states, maritime administrations (countries), educational institutions, shipping companies and industry – specifically regarding STCW-certified seafarers, was launched in 1990 to analyse developments in officer training. The first edition identified a serious shortage globally of qualified officers and therefore played a part in stimulating the expansion of maritime training that has taken place over the past 30 years. It also contributed to the decision by governments in 1995 to completely rewrite the IMO STCW Convention concerning seafarers' competence and certification standards.

The supply situation

The report, as in previous years, looks at both the supply and demand for seafarers and makes predictions for five years into the future (2026).

Qualified seafarers

The global supply of both officers and ratings has increased since 2015, with officers increasing by 10.8%. There are now 857,540 STCW-certified officers worldwide, and 1,035,180 ratings. The Philippines, Russia, Indonesia, China and India are the largest suppliers.

Gender diversity

The estimated global supply of female STCW certified seafarers stands at 24,059 (including 7,289 officers), an increase of 45.8% from 2015 estimates. This represents a significant rise in the number of ratings. However, this is not matched by officers, with number of female officers qualifying actually dropping in 2020. This is probably because nearly 80% of female seafarers worldwide are in ferries and cruise – sectors hit hard by the pandemic.


Officer turnover rates have dropped from 8% to 6% since 2015, and the number of years officers spend at sea has increased, which has caused the average age of operational-level officers to rise.

Current demand

The report estimates global demand for STCW-certified seafarers as approximately 883,780 officers and 997,540 ratings. That represents a total increase of 336,320 since 2015, with the demand for officers increasing by 11.8% − 1% higher than the rise in global supply, which has created a shortfall.

'We believe this is first and foremost a matter of increased demand as the world merchant fleet continues to grow,' Georgia Spencer-Rowland, policy adviser at the ICS says. 'Even before Covid-19, demand for certified officers was outstripping the natural pace of growth of the workforce.'

The sectors most responsible for the demand are general cargo ships (26%), bulk carriers (19%) and offshore vessels (13%).

Companies that reported trouble recruiting said that 'experience on a specific ship type' posed the greatest challenge. Some officer categories are already in especially short supply and therefore in high demand; in the tanker and offshore sectors there is a reported shortage of management level deck officers, for example.

Shortfall of officers

There is a current shortfall of 26,240 STCW certified officers.

Demand for officers has clearly outpaced supply, with companies struggling to recruit engineering officers and electro-technical officers in particular.

The report's authors suggest that the overall shortage may be due to an increase in the number of officers needed onboard each vessel (due to factors such as larger ships and technological change), with an average of 1.4 officers required per berth.

Officers needed

Looking ahead to 2026, the demand for officers will continue to grow, in part because the world merchant fleet will expand by 6.4% over that time. Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) carriers, container ships and passenger ships lead percentage increases in officer demand for the next five years.

As well as the current shortfall, the report estimates that, to meet the predicted demand for officers in 2026, an additional 17,902 officers need to join the workforce each year. This is roughly a 2% annual increase, which fits with current rates of growth. There will also need to be an increase of 6,866 ratings every year to meet demand.

'If current trends continue, we could see a serious potential officer shortage by 2026,' Ms Spencer-Rowland says. 'We already know there is a shortage of certified officers available now, and looking at the workforce as a whole, we are incredibly close to reaching "capacity", where total demand for seafarers outstrips supply. This year, we've seen what can happen when fragile supply chains are disrupted, with incidents like the Ever Given for example, but governments need to realise the severity of what could happen if we face a global shortage of seafarers.

'Both governments and industry need to invest in seafarers of the future now. It's clear from the findings of this report that shipping will continue to be a major employer and represents a growth market for many countries. Governments need to recognise this and invest in training. Shipping too must invest in skills and training to attract and retain talent, with a specific focus on the green and digital skills needed for the future.'


The report states that in the wake of Covid-19, as the predicted demand for officers in 2026 will require continued high intakes of STCW-certified officers:

  • Maritime education and training and careers at sea must be promoted
  • Any negative trends in seafarer retention must be addressed
  • Levels of seafarer recruitment and retention should be closely monitored by maritime administrations to inform the industry and policymakers

The report does note an encouraging training trend; since 2015, there have been positive indications that availability of seagoing berths for officer cadets has increased, with the ratio of officer cadets to qualified officers standing at 1:4.8, up from 1:7.6 in 2015. However, Covid-19 has affected this.

'Unfortunately, the pandemic has disrupted many recruitment programmes and we are still seeing cadets and trainees unable to secure berths at sea,' Ms Spencer-Rowland says. A number of maritime education and training institutions have had to shut their doors, and not all have had the infrastructure to operate online programmes. Not to mention the real concern that existing officers and potential new cadets could turn away from careers at sea because of their experiences during the pandemic. This makes it even more important for industry to focus on recruitment and ensure that seafaring continues to be an attractive career.

'Over the last 10 years we have as an industry been targeting wider audiences in schools and colleges. We should also be targeting top technical universities to ensure that we attract officers with the right skills for the future, those that are familiar with future fuels, with digital technology, coding, AI and automation.'

Ms Spencer-Rowland says that different approaches to training may also be required to ensure that officers have the skills they will need in future. 'With that goal in mind, ICS is championing a comprehensive revision to the STCW Convention to ensure that new technologies are encompassed and basic standards of training are fit for the needs of the 21st century.

'Traditional classroom teaching certainly has its place but so too does hybrid and non-traditional classroom teaching. Augmented reality and virtual reality training as well as concepts such as gamification are now seen as excellent tools to train seafarers in technical topics as well as training in more dangerous areas such as firefighting. It's also more in line with how younger generations are used to or prefer to learn. '


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