Agribusiness & Food, Logistics, Ports & Terminals

Fighting the marine surveyor skill shortage

Marine surveyors are a vital part of Australia’s export process, but there are limited pathways into the profession. ABHR investigates the skills shortage and what the industry is doing to solve it.

Marine surveyors are a vital part of Australia’s export process, but there are limited pathways into the profession. ABHR investigates the skills shortage and what the industry is doing to solve it.

Australia depends on its exports for its economic wellbeing, with exports responsible for around 20 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

While ores and minerals make up a large majority of the country’s exports, the United Nations Comtrade database named Australia as the 10th largest exporter of cereals (by value) in 2018.

Marine surveyors play a vital role in the export process, inspecting bulk shipments to ensure the vessel is safe and the cargo will arrive unharmed. 

Traditionally, bulk vessel marine surveyors have seafaring backgrounds such as master mariners, a broad role that involves the coordination and supervision of a vessel and its crew.

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Stacey Taylor, general manager of the Australian Institute of Marine Surveyors (AIMS), said the industry was facing a major skills shortage.

“Most marine surveyors don’t start in the role until they’re halfway through their careers,” she told ABHR. “We have a large percentage of highly skilled marine surveyors that will be looking to retire in the next 10-15 years.”

“Australia is reliant on exports, most of which is via shipping. This poses a serious risk, because if we have a shortage of skilled surveyors to protect those shipments, it may lead to serious safety concerns.”

The Australian seafarer population is relatively small, and when looking for a career change many in the industry either seek out an offshore job or become a ship pilot – positions that traditionally come with a higher salary

On the other side, younger people tend to not be attracted by a job with no set shifts, 2.00am starts, and the need to be on call 24 hours a day.

John Holden, chairman of the AIMS board, adds that, due to the declining number of Australian seafarers, there are limited pathways for Australians to enter the industry.

“There are companies that take on marine surveyor trainees, but it is entirely up to them to fund that,” he said.

“When you look at other trades, there’s lots of different government assistance provided. There’s nothing like that to becoming a marine surveyor.

“Training is expensive, and it is a long-term investment. If the trainee decides that the early shifts and crazy hours aren’t for them, you could have wasted 12 months of time and money.”

Holden began his career as a marine surveyor around 20 years ago. Originally a boilermaker, he decided to make the change to follow his passions as a boat builder. He believes that while a seafaring background is certainly helpful for the position, it’s not the be all and end all. 

At the time Holden made the move to marine surveying, there were no courses available to be qualified for the role. Instead, he worked alongside an ex-master mariner who taught him the skills he would need.

“A lot of what we do is interacting with people,” Holden said. “It’s one of the more interesting aspects of the job – meeting people from all parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds.

“You also need an enquiring mind, need to be reasonably capable in the areas of maths and science, and have a reasonably good general knowledge. Everyone brings their own skillset to the role.

“People are surprised to hear me say you don’t need any qualifications to become a marine surveyor. 

AIMS has been advocating for federal and state governments to make bringing people into the industry easier. It is believed that recognition of a Diploma of Marine Surveying as an acceptable qualification for those applying for Skilled Employer Sponsored Visa’s as well as recognised government supported traineeships for new Australian entrants will provide additional entry pathways and avoid future surveyor shortages.

AIMS is also supporting the training side of things, offering a range of Marine Surveying courses which, when coupled with supporting mentorship, provides a framework model that can be presented to government as part of its lobbying efforts.

Training includes a mixture of skill-based theoretical modules and practical components covering the fundamental aspects of the role. These include report writing, workplace health and safety, stability requirements, and more.

Taylor said from there, surveyors can specialise into the different areas within the industry.

“Whether its surveying dry bulk vessels, liquid cargo vessels, or insurance or warranty surveys, we want trainees to have the skills to specialise in the sectors of the industry they are most interested in,” she said.

“They should come out with skills learned on paper and the practical capabilities to apply them.”

Despite the challenges faced, Holden remains optimistic about the industry and appreciates the businesses that have encouraged new surveyors from non-traditional backgrounds.

“You look at the industry and you can see that our exports aren’t going to be stopping any time soon – in fact, they’re likely to increase,” he said. “There will still be safety requirements and the value of new minerals means surveying will remain an essential part of the process.

“We need experienced people to do the job really well, and it’s great to see support from businesses investing into training and mentoring.

“There needs to be more government recognition and assistance to develop this. AIMS is pushing hard to see the industry get the support it needs.” 

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