My Year in MET : A Mariner’s Perspective

No, not weather, that’s meteo…but, Maritime Education and Training (MET).  Through an unusual set of circumstances and job changes, I found myself attending over four months of training and classes in the past year at facilities up and down the East coast of the United States.  As an actively sailing mariner, required training – whether mandated by regulation or company – is far from unusual.  This quantity in a year was, but did allow a unique insight into the variety of maritime training options available.

For me this year, those options ranged from government to top tier maritime education facilities to, what I would consider, second and even third tier maritime training facilities. It has been an interesting ride.  What I found along the way was that the maritime education and training field is wide and diverse – and different in so many ways.

The differences range from the facilities to the instructors to the curriculum to the students (or attendees) – any category contains a broad range of factors.

My year started out with a security course that I have taken many times over the past decade, the majority with the same instructors.  The delivery of this course was impressive, as the instructors present the course the same way today as they did ten years ago.  Maintaining the enthusiasm and quality of a course for a prolonged period of time is difficult.

Moving on, my next course would be bridge resource management (BRM).  Many companies and organizations have training requirements in excess of that required by Flag State or STCW Code (Standards of Training Certification and Watchstanding).  This would be one of those courses for me.

I had hoped for a course with lively debate about the latest in human element research and some time in a simulator.  Unfortunately, what was delivered was so much less – four hours (of a scheduled eight!) per day in a classroom with the instructor reading a rudimentary BRM manual to us.  Ouch!

Operational Risk Management, Safety Officer, basic safety refresher and many more would follow bringing my tally for the year to the aforementioned four months of training.  As I was working for an organization with deep pockets and a robust training program (and requirements), I feel privileged to have participated in so much training.  Aside from the professional mariner benefits, it has been an education in education to observe such diverse facilities, instructors and curriculums.

Facilities I attended ranged from storefronts in marinas to combined hotel/education/simulator facilities to government buildings (some comfortable, some not-so-much).  The physical facility sets the tone for the quality of training.  If it appears well kept and the initial paperwork process is orderly, chances are the training will be the same.  If the setting is kitschy and homey, the training might not be on par with more professional facilities.

Curriculums for different courses are an interesting topic.  Many courses of training that are mandated by regulation will have a model course created by either the IMO, an industry-recognized organization (OCIMF or BIMCO come to mind) or flag state.  These model courses are then fleshed out by the maritime training facilities and placed in use after being vetted by flag state.

It’s unfortunate that many institutions or organizations do not go beyond the “model” or even adhere to their approved curriculum – whether officially or unofficially.  The best curriculum in the world is worthless without the proper delivery.  Not infrequently this year, I witnessed instructors flipping through Powerpoint slides stating, “You don’t need to know this part.”  Interesting, being that the curriculum developer put it in there for some reason.

Which brings us to instructors.  There’re great instructors, good instructors and not-so-good instructors.  What makes a MET instructor great in my mind and experience?  Presenting the material in a genuine, honest manner, while allowing input from attendees.  Never, ever faking it.  If you don’t know the answer, be honest and then research it to death, so that you DO know the answer.  Use humor, but don’t tell the locker room jokes – that’s very 1980s.

Not-so-good instructors?  Do the opposite of what great instructors do.  Stifle conversation and interaction between attendees.  Fake it at your own peril – you never know who is in your class.  Pander to students with extensive breaks and early days – students who are looking for education invested their time and money in your institution and you.  Tell those locker room jokes…

The Race for the Bottom

A recent discussion with the director at a top tier maritime training institute highlighted some of the challenges of providing quality maritime training.  With the plethora of training currently required to obtain and maintain merchant mariner documents, there has been an influx of schools to the market, all looking for a larger market share.  This has lead to a reduction in class length and costs to a minimum, which is great for the mariner who simply desires a certificate, but not so great for the mariner who desires an education.

The reduction in costs can also translate to a reduction in maritime instructors’ qualifications.  As Prof. Capt. Stephen Cross of the Maritime Institute Willem Barentsz wrote in 2012, “The educator should hold at least the same qualifications as the trainees he/she is supposed to instruct. But the higher or more specialized the training, the more difficult it becomes to find educators holding the same qualifications as the trainees.”

With the race to the bottom in costs, we either have highly motivated instructors who are willing to work for less or we find ourselves with persons with operational level licenses instructing management level trainees.  This year, I have seen both.  The highly qualified and motivated instructors are greatly appreciated, as their experience and enthusiasm add depth to the training.

The race for the bottom or market share is not unique to U.S. training facilities.  Some institutions in some countries have actually gotten pretty close to that proverbial bottom.  Concerns were raised at high levels about mariner training in countries such as the Philippines and India.  These countries provide a large percentage of the world’s merchant mariners and have undergone extensive audits of their maritime training programs.

The Philippines position on the White List of countries fully implementing STCW-95 was challenged as a result of an audit by EMSA (European Maritime Safety Administration) in 2014.  Ultimately, reforms within the Filipino maritime training institutions were successful in maintaining their position on the White List.

Is the United States at risk of falling off the IMO White List?  The answer would be a most resounding, “No!”  However, quality control of maritime training programs is key.  Self-assessment by training facilities, as well as audits under ISO 9001 and the U.S. Coast Guard should be maintaining these quality standards.

Recent reports of dynamic positioning training certificates being sold by an instructor at Beier Radio are raising some serious questions.  I suspect this is an isolated incident, but with the U.S. Coast Guard stretched relatively thin on auditing of maritime training facilities, perhaps there are issues falling through the cracks.

Companies and P&I clubs might also have a role to play.  William H. Moore, Senior Vice President, American P&I Club recently noted, “Unprecedented financial pressures on shipowners resulting from the difficult global markets…makes it difficult for shipowners to invest in safety training…”  So, not only should companies (and their P&I clubs?) be looking at the training they are requiring, but the quality of the training on which they are spending their money.

The good and the bad?

The good side is that there is a lot of training going on out there.  From risk management to small arms training to leadership and management to firefighting, there are a plethora of classes and training courses available.  The majority of this training is required by or for government agencies or employers as a condition of employment or documentation.

For the mariner pursuing continuous professional development (CPD), there are also options.  Aside from the courses required by regulation, top tier maritime training institutions provide a wide range of training.  Whether it is a course on safety management systems, practical defense tactics or internal auditing, merchant mariners can be exposed to a wide range of topics that enhance their professional skillset.

That brings about the bad.  The downside of all this training?  Much of it is a simple check the box, do the time, get the certificate mentality of training.  Whether the test is taught, the hours or cut or the curriculum is the most basic, there are issues that must be resolved moving forward.

Is it all bad?

The answer is no.  There’s a wide range of maritime training institutions available.  If you want an education or polishing of a skill set, there are facilities to attend.  If you simply want to check the box and get the certificate, there are options for that as well.

Consider those that purchased their dynamic positioning “training” through Beier Radio, however.  What might the value of those certificates on your resume be now?  As the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.  So, are you looking for an education or just a certificate?

What’s the future?thoughtful-mariner

In a word, assessments.  Over the past 15-20 years, there has been an overwhelming emphasis on knowledge-based evaluations of mariners’ skills.  Critical safety metrics have not reflected this emphasis on classes and test taking to the degree expected.  Perhaps, the race to the bottom – the shortening of classes and the emphasis on just getting the certificate – has not served us well.

The next revolution in MET will be focused on competency–based assessments of mariners’ knowledge and skills.  As Mark Bull of Trafalgar Navigation Limited put it, “…the high point [of the year] was the publication of the Nautical Institute’s “Navigational Assessments”…I think we may see such assessments linked to P&I membership.”  Strong words, indeed!

Assessments and, in particular, navigation assessments have been around in a couple of forms for quite some time.  NSAP or the Navigation Skills Assessment Program offered by MITAGS-PMI (Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies – Pacific Maritime Institute) was originally developed starting in 2006.  It is now a mature program offered in at least four countries around the world and offers a rigorous assessment of an individual’s skills.  It is one thing to pass a rules of the road test with 90%, it is quite another to put those same rules to use in a carefully choreographed simulation.  COLREGS are but one area where practical assessments might be a better judge of a mariner’s skills than a written exam.

Navigation audits have been the flavor-of-the-month for a growing number of shipping companies.  During these audits – sometimes integrated with an ISM internal audit – the auditor will observe the deck officers and bridge team during routine transits.  These audits are now being rebranded and reconsidered as onboard navigation assessments.  Why, might you ask?  To better focus on the positive attributes of the program and to promote a more open exchange of information with the mariner would be the answer.

Whether it is the NSAP, which is conducted in a simulator or the onboard navigation assessment, a debrief is conducted to ensure the mariner has an idea of what could be improved, as well as what they are doing correctly!  The benefit of a simulator-based assessment is that mariners being assessed can be exposed to a full range of scenarios in a short period of time, better highlighting strengths and weaknesses.

We can safely assume that assessments will start taking the place of more and more of the multiple-choice exams at the end of classes.  Already addressed in Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circulars (NVIC) from the U.S. Coast Guard concerning training, the competence of the trainee mariner is as critical as their knowledge retention.

Perhaps, the maritime industry might even go the route of aviation where periodic simulator assessments are required to demonstrate competence.  We need to ensure our officers and crews are able to apply their knowledge effectively!

For those great maritime educators out there whose classes I have taken this year, thank you!  For those whose classes I have attended for 5, 10 or even 30 years, thank you for your dedication.  You’ve had an impact on untold numbers of mariners.

Have a safe and secure New Year!




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