Weathering challenges to competence in changing times

What skills will be present in the operations centre in 2050? Is shipping facing a crisis in competence in a rapidly changing technology landscape? Some would argue the existing Standards for Training Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) have served the industry well and there is little need to change them. Others look forwards into the not so distant future and see increased levels of automation, remote operation, even autonomy and wonder what new roles and skills will be required. They may also ask whether the regulators and industry are adapting fast enough to identify and support these new roles. Standards could look very different when we consider the need for more nautical and engineering remote operation roles, IT/OT systems developers, system security specialists and a host of others.

Undoubtedly some of the functions we recognise today will be present, but in addition there will be others who, whilst applying their skills in a shipping environment, will not necessarily have earned their stripes at sea. If the human presence at sea is scaled down whilst the requirement and scope ashore increases, how do we compensate? Since StratumFive’s purchase of FleetWeather last year we have experienced some of the challenges the industry may face in adding maritime domain specific competences to essential, but unregulated roles.

This competency issue arises from the generally positive trend of moving to increased connectivity, automation and efficiency, or “digitalisation”. There is an associated risk of over reliance on, or failure to understand data outputs afloat and ashore. For example, the widespread availability of numerical weather prediction (NWP) data on computers and phones could be compared with the proliferation of data more generally. Mariners may have no idea of the original source or vulnerabilities of their data and may be relying on inappropriate or out of date guidance as a source of truth. This was a factor in the loss of the El Faro and all her crew on 1 October 2015 in Hurricane Joaquin. 

There is an increasing trend to push NWP data to sea for use or display on bridge systems. Doing this places additional pressure on already busy bridge teams, who may not have had any training on the nuances of using this information source. More recently the introduction of automated dynamic speed routing algorithms based on a single deterministic model run may compound the issue.  All NWP models and data more generally have their limitations and biases, and no one model can be trusted as 100% correct all the time. A non-expert user may have the choice to switch models but without expert guidance or knowledge this is simply guesswork or nothing more than a personal preference. It is important the industry addresses the human factor challenges posed by increasingly automated systems and equips people to contextualise complex data in a marine operations environment. There is likely to be an increasing requirement for a variety of “mission specialists” whether ashore or afloat.

Perhaps as a result of this complexity we have seen considerable growth in demand for shore based weather services. Recruiting Operational Marine Forecasters (OMF) with maritime domain specific competences has not been straight forward. Ideally we would have regulation to follow; the WMO and International Maritime Organisation are working together to ensure that marine weather providers are regulated in a similar way to aviation weather providers, but this is going to take time. Unfortunately the demand is already here. This is undoubtedly true of numerous new technology roles in the shipping industry. 

It is not a trivial problem; our shipping clients and the general public rightly expect OMF to have appropriate maritime grounding as they fulfil a vital function providing forecasts relied on to operate ships more effectively, efficiently and safely.  OMF human input adds value in a number of ways; by understanding atmospheric and oceanographic model strengths and weaknesses, using their scrutiny and diagnostic ability to select the best model or adopt a consensus of forecast models or trends and patterns. This understanding is then applied to the ship’s voyage performance objectives. While there are clearly great advantages in employing automation along with artificial intelligence and machine learning processes, it is our strong view this cutting-edge machine technology still requires a human expert in the loop who is accredited and up to date to make sure data is properly interpreted and system safety maintained.

OMF and others must have confidence in their competence to perform safety critical and technical roles. Development and recognition of their professional status is an important part of their employment experience. In the absence of a regulatory framework, providing employees and stakeholders with the necessary assurance of competency can be challenging. StratumFive invested extensively in its own competency regime and some service providers may also have developed routes for on-boarding an OMF. The most common is to hire graduates with a related degree and combine them with master mariners or train them in-house with significant mentoring and on-the-job training. World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) Marine Forecast competences are often adopted.  An alternative is to employ ex-military meteorological and oceanographic (METOC) specialists who require very little training by comparison. Both routes have potential deficiencies in terms of accredited competence and/or sustainably meeting demand.

The maritime domain deficit and the need to address it applies to other roles within our organisation and to any number of others in the operations centre of 2050. The industry may need to look elsewhere in the short to medium term for specific competence frameworks for these new industry participants. Fortunately this is not an entirely new issue for shipping and organisations such as the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers have long done a great job of providing recognised qualification pathways for those seeking to enter the industry with non-marine backgrounds. The Nautical Institute and Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology have undoubtedly made positive contributions to skills and can do more. We looked for the right partner and found one.

The initial approach for the OMF role was to have our comprehensive in-house marine forecaster and ship router training and professional development programme WMO accredited by an external authority. We discovered there is currently no applicable set of competences for a Ship or Marine Router.  Joining a professional institution and obtaining general certification without the Ship or Marine Router sub-speciality would certainly be a good step, but would not meet our ambition for OMF specifically.  We approached the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) and its professional accreditation program for assistance.

RMetS uses the knowledge specified in the WMO’s Basic Instruction Package for Meteorologists (BIP-M) and Meteorological Technicians (BIP-MT) competences for becoming accredited as a Registered (RMet) or Chartered Meteorologist (CMet). The RMet designation is awarded to persons pursuing a career in meteorology or working in a role supporting meteorological services and RMetS recognises some 50 sub-categories of meteorology activity, including Marine Meteorology, Marine Forecaster and Physical Oceanography, amongst others.  The RMetS recognised the importance of the OMF role and added Marine Routing as a sub-category after reviewing the training program developed by StratumFive after acquiring FleetWeather.

In founding the designation “RMet – Marine Routing”, RMetS and StratumFive have been able to provide a professional qualification for OMF. This assures industry individuals have attained and continue to maintain a specified level of relevant professional knowledge and experience.  We believe this approach is good for RMetS, FleetWeather and the industry at large.   Additionally, this may prove a model for developing frameworks for adding maritime domain competences to other new technical roles through relevant membership organisations. This work may in turn assist the regulators, permitting them to reference or adopt industry developed standards. Finally and importantly it also ensures the sustainable presence of a human expert in the loop as we adopt more digital solutions.

Everyone wins!

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