In the second part of my interview with Intermanager Secretary General Kuba Szymanski we get off topic. That is to say, beyond Intermanager’s work with VSAT vendors and into an area of arguably greatest interest for maritime satellite providers: crew communications and the use of social media onboard ship.
The latter appears to have the communications industry captivated. Crew are reportedly demanding greater access to the internet and the industry is responding, citing its importance in retention and the risks of ignoring such requests.
The perceived shortage of skilled and qualified crew is driving demand for bandwidth far in excess of that for business use. In doing so, it skews the VSAT demand figures, not least because the kind of applications seafarers would like to use are so bandwidth hungry.
To Kuba this puts the cart and horse in the wrong order. The potential of social media tools is huge and growing, but to use a shortage of seafarers as a driver to growth is to misunderstand the current situation.
“First of all, I don’t think this effect is happening as much as some journalists say and as much as some shipping industry ‘politicians’ claim. People are saying every day that the younger generation will not go to sea. I’m being very honest with you now, but the younger generation has no choice, because there is no other employment at the moment,” he says.
The popularity of cadetships at the UK’s Trinity House is growing year by year, not least because of the introduction of tuition fees but Kuba says across Europe, the realisation that a junior officer can earn £35,000 a year tax free is enough for them to make the leap and if that means no internet access, so be it.
“I’m not very popular for saying things like this. I’m seen as being controversial but this is how I see it,” he says. “I also believe that a lot of youngsters are clever enough to know how to communicate whenever the vessel is in port or near shore, so the periods with no communication might be quite limited depending on the trade they are in.”
The ‘bring your own device’ trend where more youngsters have their own laptops or smartphones means they are increasingly adept at getting online. But he says lack of signal is only half the problem.
Also at issue is that owners are increasingly looking to crew to share the cost burden of crew calling, providing the best possible way to accurately measure demand. “The owners are saying OK, but you need to pay half or a percentage and that immediately shows you that youngsters can do without it. If it is free of charge then everybody uses it, but as soon as you have to pay something, then all of a sudden you find that they can do without it,” he notes.
He mentions a large tanker company which put a lot of resources into free onboard internet for crew use but found the cost so prohibitive that they were forced to put more and more restrictions in place as the price for free access. The result, to coin a phrase is neither public nor convenient.
But Kuba’s iconoclasm doesn’t stop there. The industry needs to understand the simplest of drivers – supply and demand.
“I think it is very important to understand there is no shortage of seafarers,” he states. “There is a surplus of seafarers, even in the LNG sector. Owners are not struggling to get crew and some are asking why should I go the extra mile, they will come to me anyhow.”
That’s a big statement in an industry where ‘shortage of crew’, like ‘high fuel costs’ and ‘too much regulation’ is an article of faith. Is Kuba really saying the industry has all the skilled and competent seafarers it needs? Just as in communications, you get what you pay for, he thinks.
“If you want a good quality crew they are there. If you want the best, well, that’s hard because everybody is after them. If you pay the bottom of the market, that’s what you will get. It’s like having sex and not imagining you might have a child. Owners are getting very cheap crew and expecting to have excellent standards and quality,” he adds.
But as to their expectations, he sees the potential of social media as the glue that can bind seafarers together, and maybe let their would-be employers in on the game too. He contests whether Facebook and Skype are truly household names onboard ship, but says the effect on seafarers is immediate and obvious.
“If you think from the psychological point of view. I might work with you for four months and then there is a chance then I will never work with you again. But we became friends and we want to keep in touch. Facebook is a beautiful solution to that, which is why seafarers use it so much, along with things like CrewToo or MyShip.”
Intermanager is hardly the first industry body to have a Facebook page but he has noted that it gets double the traffic than the official website, primarily from seafarers.
“I was asking myself the question why and the answer is it comes with age. In shipmanagement, you’ve got people my age or older and onboard the vessels you’ve got people my age or younger and to these guys it’s what they grew up with.”
The desire to keep in touch and the availability of the tools to make it happen provides a natural win for an organisation so interested in the crew that make world trade go around.
“The most successful companies realise that Facebook does not have to be an enemy. It should be a tool to tap into seafarers, so listen to them, see how morale is, what is motivating them, to keep a finger on the pulse,” he suggests.
It is that – rather than outfitting the ship with a fat communications pipe and footing the bill – that he believes will make a difference in getting the best crew to work with your company. And as he adds, compared to Inmarsat or VSAT, the investment is far lower.
“Still, when I talk to people, people say Facebook gives you no return on investment. First of all, the investment is minimal; it’s time not money. But what it brings is a lot of traffic, a lot of interesting stuff. It is difficult to measure, but how much would you pay to get to five thousand people on your database, most of whom are potential employees? All I know is you would have to spend a lot of money on advertising to achieve anything similar.”