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Getting maritime industry shipshape

The Business Times by DAVID HUGHES

YEARS ago, it was quite easy to recruit youngsters to go to sea, and thus maintain the manpower needs of the wider maritime industry. Many teenagers were interested in ships and the sea, and were attracted by a maritime career.

Now, things are very different. The entire maritime industry has to work hard to attract recruits. That is precisely why we now have the Maritime Singapore Connect (MSC) Office which was set up with a S$4 million commitment by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore in 2016. It purpose is, by complementing efforts by the Sectoral Tripartite Committee for Transport (Sea), to attract more Singaporeans to join the maritime industry,

A couple of weeks ago, MSC Office held the annual MSC Connexions Forum, bringing together some 120 maritime employers, representatives from the government and trade associations, and those working with students and job seekers in schools and career centres.

The half-day event and panel discussion focused on the role of employer branding and the importance of creating an employee-centric environment.

Michael Goh, chief corporate services officer of Jurong Port, was the forum moderator. He emphasised that every industry is competing for talent, and in this digital age "we can expect disruptive business models that will force companies to rethink and re-evaluate the way we attract and retain talent". He added: "The HR (human resources) function must adapt and adopt new ways of looking at employer branding and enhancing the employee experience. If we are not employee-centric, the company risks being left behind."

Jason Ho, head of group human resources at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Limited (OCBC Bank) and director, Institute of Human Resource Professionals (IHRP), explained how the HR function will play a critical role in driving organisational digital transformation. A future-ready workforce would be created in doing so, he believed. That set the theme for presentations from several HR and maritime specialists.

Competition for talent

Kenneth Chia, executive director of the Singapore Maritime Foundation (SMF) commented: "The forum aims to kick-start conversations around manpower and HR-related issues in the light of the increasing competition for talent and the growing pace of change in the industry.

"This is one of SMF's many platforms to strengthen local maritime capabilities and build a pipeline of quality manpower where the industry is seen as committed to support students and job seekers through internships, scholarships, job opportunities and best HR practices to ensure a competitive maritime Singapore."

To some extent, opportunities have been missed in the past. Melissa Kee, chief human resources officer of Kuok Singapore Limited Group noted: "There has been a lot of effort from the government and key partners to raise the profile of the maritime industry. The recent IMC2030 strategic vision was very exciting and encouraging. However, we need more capable leaders to see it through. Our challenge is that the sector has lost one to two generations of pipeline talent due to lack of focus on developing local maritime talent. We have to catch up fast and be willing to bet on the younger talent to take the lead.

"Competition for the best talent will be fierce. Employers need to focus on their brand and value proposition to ensure they are attracting the right talents, and engaging the staff well to retain them. This means a greater focus on the intrinsic values of the job that goes beyond the monetary compensation and benefits, and more on the long-term prospects of the jobs in the fast-changing environment."

Added Taneal Roach, global head of human resources at The China Navigation Company: "The biggest investment a company can make is in its people. Singapore is a global maritime hub, and we need to build local talent to support the global mindset. In this digital age, HR must be viewed as less administrative and transactional but more transformational, helping employees upskill for the future."

Ongoing challenge

It is good to have expertise focused on the maritime sector, but to obtain sufficient numbers of young people with practical sea-going experience that Singapore needs is going to continue to be a challenge.

Recently, I was speaking to a major Singapore shipowner, and I asked how many Singaporean officers were employed on the company's fleet. The answer was: "Very few."

Even though few Singaporean may have long-term careers at sea, there is a real need to enthuse young people and get them interested in ships and the sea. To be a proper maritime nation, you need mariners.