Despite growth in qualified mariners, Malaysia's maritime industry is facing a shortage of local high-skilled talent, due in part to fewer young people taking up shipping careers.
But the country, and its largest shipping company, MISC, in particular, have taken steps towards redressing this shortage in the long-term.
MISC subsidises the Akademi Laut Malaysia (ALAM), a maritime academy designed to train officers and crew members.
ALAM was part of a government initiative to make Malaysia a leading maritime nation and produce more seafarers. As MISC expanded its fleet, the country needed more capable seamen. For its part, the government offered incentives such as tax-free salaries. In the mid-eighties, however, the campaign lost steam, as Malaysia's economic boom led to opportunities equally lucrative onshore.
MISC is again enjoying a growing business, particularly in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) transport sector, and is in need of large numbers of qualified manpower. It plans to add seven tankers to its fleet by end-2008, boosting capacity to 3.6 million cubic metres.
MISC CEO Shamsul Azhar bin Abbas told OBG there are two options under the circumstances, "You can spend money on training mariners or on poaching from other companies. We prefer training."
But the company appreciates that other shipping firms, particularly in the Gulf, have deep pockets and fewer scruples about poaching talent trained elsewhere. MISC has adjusted accordingly. "For us it is simple, if we need three we train five. It's a better way to spend money than engaging in a bidding war. The latter is a quick fix, we want to build a broader base of talent," Shamsul said.
Moreover, MISC is offering more lucrative packages to those willing to go to sea, and the tax incentives put in place three decades ago persist.
ALAM has also invested in upgrading its facilities to attract the best talent. In 2005, the academy re-vamped its curriculum to include training well-beyond the minimum international standard. The facility has spent close to $4m on new simulators for ship handling, engines, and liquid cargo handling. Additionally, a regimented system was put in place among cadets, to encourage teamwork and discipline.
ALAM's teaching syllabus and its exercises for LNG simulator training have recently been adopted by the UN's International Maritime Organisation as the global model course for LNG training.
ALAM is not the only front on which MISC is moving to train the next generation of qualified staff. In August 2006, MISC signed a cooperation agreement with Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) to produce skilled and industry savvy graduates as well as to promote research activities in the industry in Malaysia.
But having the proper infrastructure in place is only half the battle - Malaysians have to consider a career in maritime transport.
If enrolment is any indication, signs look good. In 2007, ALAM plans to admit 550 new cadets, a jump from 370 in 2006, and 215 in 2005. Equally, there are fewer misconceptions than before about the risks of a career at sea. M. Adthisaya Ganesen, CEO of ALAM, told OBG, "We are back on track. People are becoming more aware of what jobs at sea are really like."
According to Ganesen, one of the primary limitations is the space companies are affording for ship-berth training, undertaken in the second year of a cadet's three-year course. MISC is one of very few regional shipping companies to host trainees on its ships.
Once a cadet finishes his training at ALAM, he or she is under contract to work with their sponsoring firm for a set period of time, usually ten years.
It is after that ten year interval that things get difficult, as the lure of opportunities on land, including family obligations, often lead young Malaysians to abandon the industry. "I would say the highest rate of attrition is for those married and having children," said Ganesen, "even more than the temptation to work for other companies."
This exodus has created a dearth of talent at the top. According to Ganesen, "This is a world-wide problem. According to a 2005 report, the shortage of officers worldwide in estimated to number around 10,000, and 40% of existing officers is over fifty years of age."
In the meantime, though numbers of new cadets are increasing, companies will continue to rely on foreign workers to supplement Malaysian crews.
Said Shamsul, "In Malaysia particularly, with the economic boom, it is still difficult to attract Malaysians to a career at sea. But we are a global company so it is no surprise we would have multinational crews."