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Few takers, despite a sea of opportunities

Goh Chin Lian
The Straits Times
28 Sep 2006
(c) 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Limited


 Ms Jolyn Tay

WITH her svelte figure and long hair, Ms Jolyn Tay hardly fits the image of a mariner. But for 10 years, the 30-year-old sailed the high seas.


They were good years, says the Singapore Polytechnic diploma holder.


She was paid well from the start, taking home between US$1,500 (S$2,395) and US$1,800 a month.


Rising up the ranks, she became one of Singapore's youngest ship captains at 27, in 2003. Her pay: at least US$3,200 a month.


Shipboard life was comfortable, too. She had her own cabin with attached bathroom.


'If you are a senior officer, you may even get a bath-tub,' she adds.


She was undeterred by harsh weather, where hurricanes could whip up waves five-storeys high, or having to command a giant-sized container vessel or an oil tanker.


Along the way, she also met the man who is now her fiance, a seaman too.


In 2004, she moved to a shore job and is now a marine safety controller with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).


It is not uncommon for Singaporeans to sail for some years and then switch to jobs on shore.


But given Singapore's ambitions to grow as a global maritime centre, there is a need to attract more Singaporeans to seafaring jobs.


Their experience is needed for leadership positions in the public and private sectors.


The pool of seafarers has shrunk significantly over the years.


About 30 years ago, Singaporeans made up half the officers on ships flying the Singapore flag, the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union says.


Today, only 3 per cent are Singaporeans, it adds. The rest are from India, the Philippines, Indonesia and China.


In the past five years, fewer than 40 seafaring certificates of competency were issued to Singaporeans annually. Last year, just 28 were given out.


Further, six in 10 of the 582 certificates issued went to those aged 40 and older.


To overcome the shortage, the union plans to go to other countries to offer training to maritime college cadets who will agree to work on Singapore-registered ships upon graduation.


The Baltic and International Maritime Council and the International Shipping Federation estimated a global shortage of 10,000 officers last year. By 2015, the shortage is expected to swell to 27,000 officers.


Minister of State (Transport) Lim Hwee Hua believes the profession is misunderstood here.


She tells The Straits Times via e-mail: 'There is a misconception that a seafaring career is unglamorous, low skilled, dangerous and lacking in prospects for advancement, whereas in reality, ships these days are comfortable, safe and high-tech.


'Seafaring experience will be highly sought after for many shore-based services.'


Former ship captain Ms Tay agrees on the last point - she landed her MPA job even before she quit sailing.


But convincing Singaporeans to take a job at sea is an uphill task, say current and former seafarers.


Where once youngsters became sailors to see the world, affluence has removed that attraction as Singaporeans start travelling young.


'Even students are going overseas for exchange programmes,' pointed out Singapore Maritime Academy director Roland Tan.


Other obstacles: pay and competition from many 'more glamorous' career options in areas such as corporate finance, investment banking and biotechnology.


Take pay. In the 1980s, a 16-year-old with O levels could obtain maritime qualifications in three years, and earn $2,200 to $2,600 a month, whereas a fresh general degree holder commanded $1,500 to $1,600.

Since then, the pay for graduate jobs has caught up.


Also, marine engineers earn less than their peers in other fields, and catch up only after three to five years.

However, among diploma holders, Transport Ministry figures show seafarers do better. Their starting pay is between $2,000 and $2,700 a month, compared to the average of $1,659 to $1,941.


By age 26, they can take home between $4,000 and $5,400 a month as a second officer or third engineer.

Typically, those who stay can rise to be a ship master or chief engineer by age 31. The monthly pay: between $7,000 and $10,000.


Life at sea has become more bearable too. Satellite communications, cellphones, video conferencing and e-mail have made it easier to keep in touch.


Mr Tan, who was a cadet in the 1970s, recalls how it cost him $2 to $4 to send a telegram just two or three sentences long.


'My salary then was $300 a month, so I sent telegrams only on birthdays, Christmas and Chinese New Year,' says the 52-year-old.


Although families are allowed to accompany officers on a voyage, having to spend long spells at sea remains a key reason many cite for returning to shore.


Ms Celeste Yeong, 28, is among them. Explaining why she quit after eight months, she says: 'My mum said if I went back to sea, she would move house and not tell me.'


She is now an assistant manager in an engineering firm.


Mr Syn Keong Kong, 30, sailed for seven years until last October. He stopped because he wanted to spend time with his two nieces, aged three and four, and a nephew, aged seven.


Now an operations manager in a marine offshore services company, he also wanted to improve his chances of finding a wife.


The possible danger at sea, say, from pirates or potential terrorists, is low on the list of reasons for going to shore.

Mr Syn notes: 'We take the precautions and have lookouts.'


The MPA is tackling the dearth of seafarers on several fronts, including:


Initiating an $80 million maritime cluster fund, with $50 million set aside for maritime education and training. It has given about $2.4 million worth of scholarships to 22 students.


Launching degree programmes in maritime studies and offshore engineering at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in 2004.


Contributing $16 million for four MPA professorships - two at the National University of Singapore and one each at NTU and Singapore Management University - to help develop expertise and offer programmes in maritime business, economics and law.


Running outreach programmes to make students aware of the industry.


The efforts are showing results, says the Singapore Maritime Academy, the main training ground here for officers.


Based at the Singapore Polytechnic, it is attracting students with better O level results than a few years ago.


Third-year maritime student Goh Zhi Biao, 20, who did well enough to go to a junior college, chose this over a hospitality course.


He is drawn by the career options. 'I can do a shore job or an ocean-going job, or work on an oil rig,' says the young man, who hopes to become a ship captain.


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