Shipowners are not employing, training or retaining enough seafarers to satisfy their industry's explosive growth, warns the United Nation's Geneva-based International Labour Organisation.
"There is undoubtedly an urgent need to recruit and retain more seafarers and the immediate prognosis is not good, since recruitment and training are already inadequate to meet existing demand," say researchers from the ILO and Seafarers International Research Centre.
There is a world shortage of 4 per cent, or 16,000, officers in meeting current crewing needs for the world merchant fleet's estimated 87,000 ships. This shortage is expected to triple by 2010. The ILO singles out the UK as an example of the inadequacy of recruitment and training to meet the presumed needs of the shipping industry.
The UK, the ILO asserts, recruits around 400 cadets a year, a figure updated this week by the Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB) to 622. On some estimates, UK employers will need to train about 1,200 officer cadets each year if they are to meet the explosive growth the ILO sees, particularly in the cruise industry.
Shortages of trained seafarers are now opening up opportunities for women, although as most of them are employed in hotel and catering roles, the "opportunities" involve long working hours, dependence on "tips" as wage supplements, crowded living space, lack of privacy and much else.
There are thought to be up to 250,000 women seafarers worldwide, or up to 2 per cent of the world's estimated 1.25 million civilian mariners. Most women work in the merchant fleets of Western Europe, but some are recruited from further afield.
"In China," the ILO says, "a country with an apparently abundant labour supply, shipowners have been so frustrated by the increasing difficulty of recruiting seafarers from port cities and the coastal provinces, that the country has begin recruiting women."
During Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, Chinese women crewed what was claimed to be the world's first women-officer-only cargo ship, the Fengtao.
In the mid-80s and for about 15 years, however, shipping companies lost interest in women when the industry slumped. Even today, company responses to pregnancy range from "immediate dismissal to offers of alternative shore-side employment", the ILO reports.
The UK has 1,202 seafarers, the ILO estimates, about 8.3 per cent of total seafaring employment, and comes fourth in a table of European maritime countries headed by Sweden (23 per cent), with Italy the laggard (1.2 per cent). So far, most women seafarers work in hotel and catering roles in passenger ships, particularly ferries and cruise liners.
Demand for seafarers in general is mushrooming with the rise of cruise lines, whose tonnage expanded tenfold between 1970 and the late 1990s.
Cruise lines employed about 92,000 seafarers in 2000, about 70 per cent of them hotel and catering staff. The requirement could be as high as 168,000 if all the present orders for new vessels materialise.
Turnover, unfortunately, is just as high among hotel and catering staff as on land, although, says the ILO, arguably more serious aboard ship where retaining staff familiar with complex accommodation layouts is "critically important" in the event of an emergency.
In the UK, the training and qualification of school-leavers recruited by shipping companies or their agents is developed and promoted by the MNTB.
It provides entry routes and training programmes for seafaring careers at officer cadet, undergraduate and graduate officer trainee levels. As the economic outlook improved, 622 officer cadets were recruited by shipping firms in 20023, 29 per cent up on the previous year. More than 40 are women.
There are more than 100 shipping companies or recruitingtraining companies acting for them, and sponsorship of would-be seafarers is offered at FE and other institutions which include Blackpool and the Fylde college, Glasgow College of Nautical Studies, National Sea Training Centre and South Tyneside College and Warsash Maritime Centre.
One international body which offers professional development courses to mariners is the World Maritime university, a UN institution whose job is to increase the number of highly-trained specialist seafarers across the world.
The WMU is based at Malmo in Sweden, and although it sees itself primarily as a higher education institution, professional development courses lasting from three days to nine weeks are offered on subjects such as damage stabilitycontrol and tanker safetypollution prevention. A professional development course devised for employees of Nigeria's National Port Authority, combines tuition on port control and implementation of international maritime directives with field study aboard ship and in Swedish harbours.
Between 1995 and 2001 the total number of female students at the WMU had risen from 8 per cent to 21 per cent, a trend described as "of pivotal importance" to the future of the shipping industry by the UN's International Maritime Organisation, based in London.
Women Seafarers: Global Employment Policies and Practices. Contributing authors P Belcher, H Sampson, M Thomas, J Veiga and M Zhao. International Labour Office, with the Seafarers International Research Centre, CHF25 (pound;11)