Insights on Maritime

By Isabella Tian Ye

The Discovery+ Series is a series of events, delivered through online digital solutions, which give students the chance to speak directly with working professionals, and learn about careers they aspire to enter. Given the developments in the COVID-19 situation, Advisory is keen to provide support to the many students who are experiencing woes in this time of disruptions, by digitalising professional mentorship.

The Discover+ Panel on Maritime, held on 21 July 2020, was graced by Evelyn Seah (Moderator), Assistant Vice President (Workforce Strategy & HR Tech) at PSA Corporation Limited; Catherine Lai, Senior Manager (International Maritime Centre Promotion) at the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore; Benny Lim, Fleet Superintendent at A.P. Moller Singapore, Maersk; Naveen Sharma, Project Engineer, LH2 (Liquid Hydrogen) at Shell. Attendees included students at various levels of education with a desire to know the different career paths in the maritime industry, and how to best position themselves for such roles.

The maritime industry is a diverse industry that drives a large part of the global economy and our daily lives. More than 80% of global trade is made possible by sea transport. Three principal components constitute the bulk of the local industry in Singapore. First, port management. The port is a central point from which the goods leave from and arrive on our shores. Second, ship transport. The ships that physically transport the goods across the oceans are essential too, of course. Third, the supporting network of companies that help to ensure the smooth running of operations. Within this third category, there are a broad range of careers which include the people who design, build and repair the ships, buy and sell ships, handle logistical arrangements for cargo, work on the finance and accounting elements of businesses, and so on. Some roles require a good balance of commercial and technical skills.

In Singapore, the maritime industry constitutes around 7% of Singapore GDP. Our proximity along key shipping routes and busy port support a strong local marketplace where customers and all types of maritime services congregate. The maritime sector in Singapore comprises more than 5,000 establishments, including international shipping groups like ship brokers, banks offering financing for ships, law firms, insurance providers and so on. It remains an essential service, as it facilitates the flow of goods. There are issues that the industry has to tackle in the near future — decarbonisation and digitalisation.

People always have a misconception that working on board a ship is more hands-on and does not require as much ‘studying’. The truth is that you have to know quite a lot to be ready to sail, with loads of material that you need to master, in order to understand the working environment.

Shore-based work would tend to feature management roles. For example, a vessel manager works with the captain and chief engineer of a vessel to solve technical, safety or compliance issues, as well as to keep operations within budget.

Cost efficiency is definitely a concern. Companies tend to do this with more engagement with engineering and information and communications technology (ICT). Leveraging on data insights can increase technical efficiency and even reduce emissions. Thus, data has become the next big commodity in the maritime industry. For instance, in the port sector, data could be used as an optimization tool for maintenance schedules of equipment. 

In Singapore, we have also embarked on a ‘Digital OCEANS’ strategy to encourage Open or Common Exchange and Network Standardisation. This aims to allow different digital platforms to link up, so that businesses, government agencies and vessels can connect seamlessly between different digital platforms. There is strong commitment from the Government to put in place the requisite infrastructure and resources for industry players to push forward with their respective digitalisation initiatives, and to help to develop the maritime tech ecosystem. Many start-ups and traditional tech companies are trying to venture into the maritime space since this is a rapidly growing market opportunity.

There are two immediate options: would you like to sail, or would you prefer to work at a shore-based role? Sometimes, the skills are transferable between these two segments of the industry. However, as a beginner, you have to try out different things to know what you really like to do. Students can apply for internships even just for two or three weeks to get the gist of a particular job.

Additionally, don’t be constrained by what you study, unless you want to go into a very technically specialised role. Maritime-specific educational qualifications are not necessarily needed to start a career in the maritime industry. Don’t fixate on getting the ideal job from the get-go, it will only evolve with time depending on your life preferences and priorities. There is no set of restrictive career structure to follow, whether it’s from moving offshore to onshore, or vice versa. It is always your personal interest and aspiration that will get you to where you want to be. Moreover, seeking out a mentor who can provide personal perspective to your professional journey would also be helpful. Don’t be shy to reach out to someone working in the industry on LinkedIn.

Renewable energy sources and decarbonisation are big concerns for the maritime industry. In order to make the use of renewable energy a possibility for the industry, project engineers must manage risks by eliminating barriers to ensure the safe transportation of cargo; if something goes wrong, it ruins the confidence in the industry, and the supply chain as a whole. This is an exciting new area of development, which involves chief engineers, ship captains, space agencies and scientists who are experts in using alternative energy sources like hydrogen, as well as management professionals who need to focus on long-term supply chain development.

Environment sustainability is not just about the fuel used, but also about the wider regulatory framework. This includes components like policy making and enforcement, as well as infrastructure building. To truly decarbonize the industry, a holistic approach needs to be implemented. In Singapore, we adopt a multi-prong approach, including introducing incentives, establishing a regulatory framework and ensuring infrastructure is in place, to nudge the industry along. In 2017, the Maritime Energy and Sustainable Development Centre of Excellence was launched at NTU, to deepen Singapore’s maritime R&D capabilities. An International Advisory Panel on Maritime Decarbonisation — which draws on the expertise of leaders from shipping companies, port operators, academia, class societies, insurance and finance players, energy companies, engine makers, shipyard, shipping associations and government — was also established recently to develop a strategy that would support the industry in achieving GHG emissions reduction targets set out by the International Maritime Organization.

The main reason for these initiatives is to do our part to ensure the sustainable operation of our businesses. In addition, decarbonisation provides opportunities for companies to evolve their value propositions, as the need for expertise in sustainability solutions creates value. This creates high-quality jobs, which also pay well.

Shipping companies will want to keep costs as low as possible, and this includes the cost of manpower, which would be one of the biggest sources of incurred cost for the industry. Further, there is also a universal shortage of qualified seafarers globally. There is a need to 1) improve the value proposition for the guys who are going to sail on board, in order to attract suitable people for the job and 2) at the same time, cut down on the number of employees where possible. And that’s where automation comes in. Entirely new professions in clean energy and new forms of systems engineering that enable automation have therefore been created. For example, instead of having multiple people look out windows to manage incoming ships, now you may just have one employee managing operations from a control panel. It can be a very powerful enabler. For instance, digitalisation can help logistics companies to create a complete supply chain by connecting lots of different dots together, from initially processing the raw material for the delivery, to making the product and to finally shipping the product to consumers. In general, the ability to constantly be at the forefront of innovation is crucial. Resilience and proactivity are what many companies value, because you will probably need to figure out new ways of doing things. 

There is natural resistance against change. Not all companies have the mindset that digitalisation can help improve the efficiency and competitiveness. Especially during COVID-19 when people are focusing only to survive, cost management is the priority when compared against investment in digitalisation. Another barrier is the lack of digital talent. Lastly, for digitalisation to work, it needs participation from every stakeholder — if you plan to engage in trade through digital platforms, we would need banks, suppliers and end-users to all be on board the platform, which, at times can be a big challenge.