Less Captains More Ships — Decline of the Shipping Industry

Causes and solutions of the attrition in terms of trained sea officers in the maritime/shipping industry.

An old light house in Norway (September, 2018)

Sailing the seas was a dream of every young individual. The passion of exploration and compelling adventurous stories of brave men inspired many of us to think about being a captain.

The seas may be rough, but I am the Captain! No matter how difficult I will always prevail.
Jack Sparrow.

Shipping or the maritime industry helped in fueling the industrial revolution, taking the peak of transport industry. With the introduction of new means like the roads, railways and airplanes, the shipping industry might have felt a competition. However, research shows that the demand of shipping through seas has actually increased [1].

Despite interest, laws and opportunities, there is an attrition of trained sea officers. Which is posing challenges for the maritime industry since there are more ships than captains for operating them!

This article highlights the causes of this shortage of sea officers and discusses how this can be improved through modern technology. First let’s see how important the shipping industry is for the world. Then we’ll discuss why maritime is not a suitable career path and finally discuss some solutions that can help.

The Shipping Industry

The maritime industry has been at the pinnacle of trade and commerce. It has an important role in making a more connected world, the exploits of Christopher Columbus helped us create the map of the world and that of Charles Darwin brought us scientific breakthroughs.

The importance of maritime can be realized from this quote from The Deputy Prime Minister of United Kingdom:

The Government … does not accept that the long decline in the British merchant navy should simply be allowed to continue. It seems inconceivable [to me] that, as an island nation, we could contemplate abandoning our historic involvement with the sea.

John Prescott, 1998 (at the time MP of UK) [2]

During this time, the declining industry concerned the government to this extent. Now, it was become even worse. I had a chance to witness one of these situation in Tønsberg Norway, when I was visiting for a conference. I saw three ships standing at a distance from the shore, called End of Sea Passage (EOSP), waiting for a trained captain to arrive on a small boat to embark these ships one by one to port. Since, there was only one trained captain for those waters (September, 2018).


The Challenging Career

The sea is cruel, one needs to get through an arduous training process to be able to command a ship. However, in the information era, fast processing is catching significance. Ask yourself, would you be willing to spend four years in full-time training without being paid?

The major reason for less interest in the maritime field as a career [3], is attributed to longer training and assessment times. The current generation of young individuals prefer not to have a career that takes a prolonged time [4,5] for training. The economic conditions demand that people start earning at a young age in order to make a decent living. The shipping industry, on the other hand demands a challenging four years at sea (after formal education) to be able to make a living.

Interviews conducted by Gekara, V. in 2009 [3] peeks into the sentiments of aspiring individuals aiming for being a sea officer:

It was a choice between wasting four years with a high possibility of not getting employed afterwards or pull out in good time and move into a career that was more promising… So I left and now I am doing my second year of engineering at university.
Cadet interview, April 2006 [3]

From another cadet,

Why complete four years of training when you know that you might not get the job you want? … Yes, I really wanted to be a ship’s officer and maybe rise to be captain but there was too much risk.
Cadet interview, April 2006[3]

Job insecurity is part of any educational training and studies, however, such sentiments provide us a reference to the prolonged training programs which contribute to the resistance of taking the sea as a career.

Let’s say you are a motivated individual who is in it for the long haul. The challenge doesn’t end here. Maritime training is still governed by human instructor methodology [6]. Meaning you’ll be doing whatever the instructor or captain says. This student gives you a hint about the duties you might face.

I realised that I was there just as part of the crew; cleaning and scraping most of the time. When I approached the training officer about it he got very cross. He concluded that I was arrogant and troublesome.
Cadet interview, April 2006 [3]

If this is still something you might expect from the training process, have a look at the story of this young cadet.

My father died while I was away at sea the first time… the captain complained that I had overstayed when I rejoined the ship… I was really unfortunate because halfway through my next sea phase I was informed that my girlfriend had miscarried. This time I was told I could not get time off work; if I did I should not expect to re-join.
Cadet interview, April 2006 [3]

This is a glimpse of what it takes to become a sea officer. The study shows that a holistic change is required in terms of training as well operations in the Maritime Industry.


We Need Technology

Let’s learn from history. The aviation industry is the best example, since we know that if not more it is as challenging to train an air pilot as a sea captain. Technology helped in keeping aviation at it’s peak. Air pilots are trained through complex simulators and assistive equipment like auto-pilot. However, the maritime industry is still relying on textbook human instructor methodology [6] with little or no assistive technology.

A group at the University of South-Eastern Norway (USN), lead by Salman Nazir is looking into the possibility and impacts of autonomy and simulation based training methodologies. In a recent workshop, I was invited to explore the challenges and efforts being done in this direction. Following are the important studies of this workshop along with some of the research I have put together.

  • Traditionally, maritime captains are trained through supervision by seasoned captains. Buys et al. [6] show that a training and development program is essential for filling higher supervisory positions and reduce the cost of replacing skilled employees. However, this work is largely relying on training supervisors. Whereas, new technologies such as autonomous shipping would reduce the number of required sea trained captains. Moreover, modern training tools like AR/VR will reduce the reliance of training cadets through supervisors.
  • Im, I. et al [7] states that 85% of marine accidents are human caused and that Fully-Autonomous and Semi-Autonomous shipping is a viable solution to the problem. The study defines a Semi-Autonomous ship to be independently making decisions between full away on passage (FAOP) and end of sea passage (EOSP), while being captain controlled elsewhere, as shown in Figure 1. A Fully-Autonomous ship, on the other hand, will be making independent decisions in the areas between the respective ports to FOAP and EOSP as well.
Figure 1: Semi-Autonomous Shipping Operation Zone (taken from [7])
  • Autonomous shipping is an interesting and demanding field of autonomous systems. One of the major researches undergoing the topic incorporates The Autonomous Maritime Navigation (ANN) project [8]. The ANN group is working on sensor fusion among Lidar, Radar, Automatic Identification System (AIS) with GPS to achieve autonomous navigation through aquatic vehicles. Yara Birkeland [9] is to build a zero emission fully autonomous container ship in the Skagerrak strait, which aims to replace 4000 trucks on the road. Rolls-Royce [10] is working on the development of an unmanned remotely operated ship by 2020 and a fully autonomous ship by 2035. These projects depict the interest of maritime industry to invest in autonomy. Which leads to the demand of a more technology-oriented staff and crew.
  • Mallam et al. [11] addresses the need of autonomy in the maritime industry by interviewing people in academia and maritime industries. Their research explores the level of autonomy required at this point and how much it would affect the maritime industry. Nevertheless, their work explores the willingness of the maritime industry regarding the use of (a) autonomous ships or unmanned ships and (b) the unsupervised training methodology.
Maritime Simulator Training at USN Norway (September, 2018)
  • Some applications for training maritime captains are already under way. Xue, H. [12] uses Augmented Reality for real time assistance of captains on vessels. The study used markers on instruments for identification and displays information regarding the controls on to the user. Xu, Q. Y. et al. [13] Introduces an intelligent system for evaluation of ship management performance. This system provides feedback regarding the expected and current behavior of the ship. Kongsberg Group [14] produces high quality simulators for ship environment and controls.


The future of the Maritime Industry is calling out for technological revolution and we are already seeing it happen. Big names like Rolls-Royce [15] are realizing the importance and are working towards more autonomous and interactive solutions.

Maritime is embedded deep in human history and it’s not going anywhere. We should look forward to how autonomy will reshape this industry. It’s not about stealing jobs by artificial intelligence but using it to create new ones. I’ll be looking forward to a new era of autonomous and semi-autonomous ships.


[1] Loaded freight — international maritime trade 2017 | Statistic. (n.d.). Retrieved January 9, 2019

[2] Britain, G. (1998). British shipping: charting a new course. Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

[3] Gekara, V. (2009). Understanding attrition in UK maritime education and training. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 7(2), 217–232.

[4] Meister, J. (2018, June 21). The Employee Experience Is The Future Of Work: 10 HR Trends For 2017. Retrieved September 25, 2018

[5] Employee Tenure Summary. (2018, September 20). Retrieved September 25, 2018

[6] Buys, J., & Louw, J. (2012). A process evaluation of a supervisory development programme. SA Journal of Human Resource Management, 10(3), 1–13.

[7] Im, I., Shin, D., & Jeong, J. (2018). Components for Smart Autonomous Ship Architecture Based on Intelligent Information Technology. Procedia computer science, 134, 91–98.

[8] Elkins, L., Sellers, D., & Monach, W. R. (2010). The Autonomous Maritime Navigation (AMN) project: Field tests, autonomous and cooperative behaviors, data fusion, sensors, and vehicles. Journal of Field Robotics, 27(6), 790–818.

[9] Batalden, B. M., Leikanger, P., & Wide, P. (2017, June). Towards autonomous maritime operations. In Computational Intelligence and Virtual Environments for Measurement Systems and Applications (CIVEMSA), 2017 IEEE International Conference on (pp. 1–6). IEEE.

[10] Datta, S. K. (2017). CE Society Future Directions Bootcamp: The Internet of Things and Connected Car [Society News]. IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, 6(4), 12–13.

[11] Mallam, S. C., Nazir, S., Sharma, A., & Veie, S. (2018, August). Perspectives on Autonomy–Exploring Future Applications and Implications for Safety Critical Domains. In Congress of the International Ergonomics Association (pp. 396–405). Springer, Cham.

[12] Xue, H. (2017). Augmented Reality Application for Training in Maritime Operations. A Proof of Concept AR Application Developed for Microsoft HoloLens (Master’s thesis, UiT Norges arktiske universitet).

[13] Xu, Q. Y., Meng, X. Y., & Wang, N. (2010). Intelligent evaluation system of ship management. TransNav, International Journal on Marine Navigation and Safety od Sea Transportation, 4(4).

[14] Maritime, K., & Simulator, E. R. (2005). ERS L11 5L90MC. Operator’s Manual.

[15] Baron, J. (2019, January 09). Rolls Royce’s Autonomous Ship Gives Us A Peek Into The Future Of Sea Transport. Retrieved April 18, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jessicabaron/2019/01/07/rolls-royces-autonomous-ship-gives-us-a-peek-into-the-future-of-sea-transport/#519ae48f659f