We live in a globalized world where workers are competing more and more directly against each other. The fate of the Pittsburgh steel industry is well known; now, China is the world's biggest maker of that essential construction material. Other industries have met similar fates, thanks to cost pressure and the demand for rationalization. Furniture, textiles, household appliances, automobiles and electronics are just a few of the product categories that used to be made in high-wage, high labor standards countries. These same products have driven containerization and the cyclical, decades-long growth of ocean shipping.
In other words, it is the unending push of global competitive pressure (largely through containerized ocean shipping and the concomitant drop in transportation costs) that has upended and remade the industrial landscape in many Western countries. And this same pressure has generated employment and opportunities for those involved in shipping. Even as the sector enters into hard times, growth in container and trade volume continues.
It is somehow ironic but also fitting that sailors, who have played such a pivotal role in the globalizing process that has impacted other workers (and entire economies), are now themselves caught up in the same high-pressure environment. Perhaps more than any other type of work, employment on ships is international in character and the positions available are almost nationally fungible. The Philippines provide almost 1/3 of all ship crews; but there are sailors from every nationality, all of them competing with each other for the same positions. This is an environment that many land-based industries are still protected from by regulation.
Like software programmers who can only maintain their living standards by offering a truly excellent product that is worth the price, and whose jobs would otherwise be subject to swift outsourcing, I tell my students that their qualifications and skills are decisive. The grim truth is that German shipping companies are flagging out ships every day; just this year, NSB announced that dozens of its vessels would no longer sail under the German flag. The job losses that go hand-in-hand with such decisions primarily impact German sailors. This is similar to the falling-away of the protective tariff barriers that sheltered the old U.S. steel industry.
Going forward, pressure for new students will come not just from foreign sailors but also experienced German sailors who have been dismissed and are looking for new positions. Young German sailors will need to aggressively compete in the areas where their skills trump those of foreign sailors and their older countrymen: their ability to communicate (verbally and in writing) in English and their better familiarity with technology, not to mention their eagerness to work, their relatively lower starting salaries and their success in specializing.
My opinion is that German shipping companies are making a huge mistake if they only look to cost savings in hiring crews. A ship is only as good as its crew. And when the value of the goods one is transporting are out of all proportion to the freight rates, the liability exposure means that one only wants the best crew possible manning the vessel. This will vary on the basis of geography and the kinds of goods being carried. For this reason, I think the future of maritime training is to help young sailors become specialized for certain voyages. At the State Maritime College in Cuxhaven, we have been offering specialized training in U.S. law (Carriage of Goods by Sea Act, Harter Act, etc.) and maritime English. This includes treatment and formulation of loading papers, sea protests, log books, letters of indemnity, etc. It is a comprehensive and rigorous program that ends with a hard examination. When students are finished, they are in a superb position to handle a variety of demanding legal situations in English and to formulate their responses in an appropriate and liability-avoiding manner.
Such a training program is ideal for German shipping companies who trade with the U.S. or anywhere else in the English-speaking world. And since the program goes beyond the STCW Convention, graduates of the State Maritime College in Cuxhaven have real leverage. Several of my students have come back to me later and informed me that their employers were especially impressed by their completion of our program. These are the kinds of truly valuable skills that will enable young sailors to get jobs and demand high wages in this tough economy. In a global industry, one has to play to one's strengths. Luckily, we have a lot of strengths - and for that reason I remain confident that it is the right decision to hire German sailors.