International population movement restrictions caused by covid19 caused some unexpected problems for sea transportation. At the start of the covid19 lockdowns in early 2020, there were 1.9 million qualified mariners and officers to operate the 75,000 ships of the international merchant fleet. That’s only 25 personnel, most of them men, per ship. The job pays well and even the largest ships rely on automated equipment to keep crew sizes small. This automation and small crew size had been around for decades as the merchant fleet grew larger and ships spent more time at sea.
Even before covid19 there was a shortage of qualified crew, especially officers. Typically, officers are 15-20 percent of the crew and skilled specialists another 15-20 percent. Most crew come from less affluent countries in South and East Asia as well as Africa and South America. For those sailors the pay and living conditions are very good but the time spent away from family is a major minus. This became catastrophic during covid19 because many ports would not allow a ship to enter unless the crew was certified free of covid19. This meant shipping companies could not replace the crews as often as usual and as many as 200,000 mariners and officers were literally stuck on their ships months longer than usual. This made the officer shortage worse. Before covid19 there were about five percent fewer officers than needed. This is now headed for 20 percent because of all the problems involved with seemingly endless voyages caused by covid19 lockdowns and difficulty in getting the crews vaccinated. This led to calls for merchant sailors to get priority in receiving the vaccines. Most of the available vaccines required two doses, taken three to four weeks apart. This made it more difficult to get sailors vaccinated.
While there was some decline in work for merchant ships during the 18 months of lockdowns, once the lockdowns began to be lifted demand for seaborne shipping rapidly grew and shortage of sailors and officers was one reason why there are still not enough ships back in service. Operating these big ships with smaller crews just makes the job even more unattractive while also causing potential problems with the insurance companies that compensate owners for damaged or lost ships because of the many risks encountered.
Raising wages is not as effective a solution as programs to recruit and train additional mariners and officers. There are also problems in some countries with dishonest brokers who match mariners with ships. In some countries shipping companies going bankrupt or committing fraud can abandon crews overseas.
While the hundreds of shipping companies can justify more money spent on wages and recruiting, a training program requires joint efforts to work, at least with those countries that supply the most crew personnel. This is one of those problems that cannot be ignored because the world economy depends on maritime transport. Most likely some nations that already supply most of the mariners and officers, like the Philippines and India, will seize the opportunity to train more mariners and officers to make life more bearable for these seagoing specialists and encourage more of them to stay in the job, at least part time.