Look Beyond the Flag

The global nature of the maritime industry, embodied in the STCW Convention, makes it unique.


Published Mar 23, 2018 7:27 PM by Erik Kravets

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2018 edition.)

[This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 edition of The Maritime Executive Magazine]

What’s the measure of a merchant marine officer?

Trick question: There isn’t one measure, but many. Although requirements vary from country to country, merchant marine officers have in common that they are subject to the 1978 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).

In theory, thanks to STCW, all merchant marine officers meet the same essential requirements, and all possess a baseline of skills and capabilities. As a student, it can be tough going. When I pick up the STCW Convention, I sometimes get tired just reading the chapter headings.

A Common Standard

In the past, each nation could set down its own rules and regulations and exclude others. Now and again I run into people who want to turn back the clock and return to the old ways. I’m sure the few non-signatory states, like North Korea, would be quite grateful to have some company. Critics are often easily answered with a reminder of why STCW was implemented in the first place: Because a career at sea, even under the best conditions, is a dangerous one.

After all, it’s a bit unusual to find professional standards written down in an international treaty. But as I’ve often suggested, shipping is indeed special, and the fact that all merchant marine officers play by the same rules is another piece of evidence that demonstrates the uniqueness of our industry.

If you want to be a contractor or a lawyer, you must go through the process to become certified, generally in a specific geographic area. Then you can build houses or litigate there, but not elsewhere.

If you want to become a merchant marine officer, your certification is, in principle, valid globally and will be recognized in all 161 signatory states of the STCW Convention. Part of the reason why is because all STCW signatory states are obligated to uphold its training standards: From stowage to lashing, from medicine to English, from navigation to nautical rules of the road, merchant marine officers learn a range of skills that they’ll need on the job.

That being said, there are differences between countries as to their individual STCW training requirements, and this has created not an insignificant amount of conflict when it comes to recognition of qualifications received outside an individual country’s borders. Nevertheless, merchant marine officers trained in accordance with STCW benefit from a common foundation of knowledge and a shared professional ethos. Basically, they all ought to be equal.

Cross-Border Flexibility

For each graduating class of the Maritime Academy in Cuxhaven, where I teach, this is great news. The German market on its own is generally not able to provide careers to all its new officers, meaning we help graduates find employment abroad each year. Whether in Denmark, England, the Netherlands, the U.S. or elsewhere, there are many opportunities, and that kind of cross-border flexibility is mainly the result of STCW.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s work in offshore, on board passenger ships, on tankers, in towage or salvage or in traditional container shipping. Your passport matters less than that you be good at your job and have the right attitude and right qualifications.

The majority of students in my graduating classes used to not have jobs when receiving their certificates at the end of their program. Since the start of the international program in 2014, however, almost all international program participants have offers waiting. I love the renewed optimism, but shipowners love it even more because these students have had extra instruction in English and commercial law, not to mention specialized training in the areas of work they want to enter.

Flag Fervor

With reward, however, comes risk. When there’s a global market for talent, as for merchant marine officers, there will be more competition. The tension between low- and high-wage countries is familiar from old school industries like steel or textile production, but this impact is also keenly felt in shipping, where the labor market is one big pool.

If graduates in Germany and the Philippines have similar qualifications, why pay more to hire a German? The only way to justify high wages is to add commensurate value. You must pull your own weight and bring in at least your own cost. STCW asks us to challenge our own nationalistic feelings of entitlement and helps us recognize the fundamental humanity in all people seeking work.

The flag of a vessel may nevertheless prevent two similarly trained, qualified and experienced merchant marine officers with different passports from being interchangeable. This is because the applicable labor law on board a particular vessel depends on that vessel’s flag, which means that U.S.-flagged ships sailing under the Jones Act must be crewed by U.S. citizens and ships flagged under an E.U. member-state’s flag must have a minimum number of officers who are E.U. member-state citizens.

Because of this, the flag chosen for a vessel by its owner is often controversial and politically charged. It’s a statement about who can work on board.

Even individuals well-versed in the nuances of the shipping industry tend to become suddenly patriotic when contemplating ships sailing under their own national flags. If they see the number of nationally flagged ships drop off, they become concerned about the health of their nation’s shipping industry. In truth, the two have little to do with each other.

For example, according to the official statistics of the German Maritime and Hydrographic Office, on January 31, 2017 the German merchant marine had 332 German-flagged vessels and 2,284 foreign-flagged vessels under charter. On December 31, 2017, the German merchant marine had 326 German-flagged vessels but only 2,017 foreign-flagged vessels under charter. In other words, in 2017 the German merchant marine lost 273 vessels, but only six (!) of those were German-flagged.

Of course, 2017 was a pretty bad year for the German shipping industry: It shrank by nearly 6.8 million gross tons. Plus industry stalwart Bertram Rickmers filed for insolvency and Hamburg Süd was taken over by Maersk. It’s revealing that big industry casualties like these can go hand-in-hand with the number of German-flagged ships staying more or less the same.

Ownership of vessels, and thus the right to exploit such vessels economically, is usually distinct from the flag of the vessels. The dialogue about bringing vessels under a certain flag belies the truth that this says remarkably little about the health of a nation’s shipping industry.

In fact, it’s commonly known that the top three major flag states – Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands – have little to no shipping industry. As these so-called “flags of convenience“ prove, it should not be regarded as an economic achievement to have a large number of vessels under a nation’s flag.

And yet recently, at the christening of two new German-flagged fishing vessels, I overheard several comments to the effect that these were “at least two new ships under our flag.” That kind of nationalistic thinking is a problem when it distracts from the real issues.

Beyond the Flag

Because it’s a team effort, having a strong, competitive shipping industry means that the whole start-to-finish logistics chain must work properly and be in good shape. The value created on board a given vessel is what creates millions of jobs, both upstream and downstream, irrespective of what nationality on board the vessel is creating that value.

Ports, freight forwarders, brokers, railways, truckers, teamsters, shipyards, equipment manufacturers, translators, surveyors and even educators all ultimately benefit from the economic activity generated by the shipping industry. A discussion about flag states should be less important than a discussion about all of the above.

We should, therefore, be wary of demanding that the crew of a ship be a certain nationality. We owe it to the process to trust that the most competent, best people for the job – who are also the most cost-effective – will ultimately end up at the right place at the right time. The adoption of the STCW Convention by 161 countries, representing roughly 98 percent of the world’s global tonnage, shows that the nationals of one country, even if they are not legally allowed to do so, are at least sufficiently competent to work on vessels flagged in any other country.

My time with recent graduates has shown that shipowners are looking for practical, hardworking, capable, educated, professional and diligent merchant marine officers who are good at writing, punctual, and have excellent working and conversational English. If cost plays a role at all, it’s usually only a topic when the work is low-skilled. Otherwise, quality is the top priority, and shipowners will pay well for good work – but for good work only.

In a tough market where shipowners must always fight for an edge to survive, newly graduating merchant marine officers must do likewise. As excellent as STCW is, and for all its merits, it nevertheless only puts forward the minimum requirements that we must all strive to exceed.

Common Purpose

It’s difficult to judge where anxiety about globalization ends and nationalism begins, but among the many redeeming aspects of shipping is that it brings together all nationalities for a common purpose. In a conflicted world where this is becoming rarer, we should guard against nationalistic barriers and legal obstacles designed to pit people against each other or consign them to categories.

The STCW Convention helps us remember that shipping is about people, not the colors on a mast. – MarEx

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.