Apprenticeships or graduates? Felicity Landon considers the way forward in the ports industry
We know there’s an ageing workforce and we know that the ports industry needs new recruits – so where should they come from and how should they be trained? Is there a definite advantage in work-based training over degree-based training, or vice versa? It seems not – the answer is generally ‘a bit of both’.
“I believe both work-based and degree-based training has its place in this context,” says Han Ozturk, operational and technical director of the bulk shipping and terminals specialist Nectar Group. “It is important to have hands-on experience in a port environment, irrespective of whether an individual is involved in technical, operational or any other discipline, such as health and safety.
“Degree-based training provides a strong foundation on which to build a framework where processes, systems, policies and procedures can be developed in any major discipline within a port environment. However, without work-based experience and training it will be difficult to put any process into action, to test it in reality and to make necessary amendments to ensure that it becomes a workable and practical way forward for an organisation.”
Terminals are ideally looking for both qualities in individuals, says Mr Ozturk, who has responsibility for the operational and terminals part of Nectar’s business. However, he says: “Most of the time it is quite difficult to find individuals who possess both qualities. We therefore end up compromising and plan for training and development of individuals in areas where they need further development.”
There are also clear geographical challenges. “The training requirements and programmes for personnel based in, for example, the UK, are rather different to similar personnel based in a developing country such as Sierra Leone. Individuals operating in a developed country terminal are likely to have a better understanding of the basic concepts as well as a higher level of experience in many areas under their responsibilities,” he says.
The scope of any training in a developing country environment is likely to be substantially greater, longer term and may require more frequent topping up in order to maintain a level of standard achieved through the training, he adds.
Another important aspect, says Mr Ozturk, is the big cultural differences in different countries, which affect attitudes towards training. “This means that the way a training programme is put together and delivered may be rather different in different countries.”
Finally, organisational structure and management style of a terminal has an influence as to the extent and type of training to be delivered within the organisation.
Revaluing work-based training
Forth Ports, in the UK, supported a total of 73 apprentices on programmes in 2017, covering disciplines ranging from business administration and operations to management and leadership. However, this is only one part of its training strategy, which also includes further and higher education, vocational qualifications, professional accreditation and continuous assessments run through its own training academies in Tilbury and Scotland.
Human resources director Jackie Anderson says: “We reintroduced our graduate programme four years ago because long term we needed to look at our succession planning. We have an issue coming up in terms of service and age – with 48 being the average age and a significant number of people aged 41-60. Rather than wait for the actual problem to hit us, we took the decision to act. So we carried out resource planning and identified the gaps, and reintroduced graduates, taking on two or three a year.”
When joining Forth Ports, graduates spend two years rotating around the group in various functions, doing a mix of technical training and soft skills training. “This is a significant programme in its own right,” says Ms Anderson.
Graduates have subsequently slotted into business development, port operations, supervisory, sales, project planning and IT roles, to name a few. As for their degree subjects, while some have been graduates in port operations or maritime and business, for example, others have graduated in subjects such as history or chemistry.
“When they go through our assessment centre, it is about what research they have done on the port and how they come across,” she says. This year, Forth Ports has received 137 graduate applications; 27 were selected to attend its two assessment centres, and eventually two or three will be appointed.
Value of apprenticeships
Apprentices are also a major part of the mix. “We have a very mixed range, with the widest definition of apprentices,” says Ms Anderson. “All must comply with our formal programme and they get full support. We focus on apprenticeships because it gives us technical skills but also off-the-job training. We would certainly advocate apprentices as the right thing for our business; they are our engineers, operators, supervisors and managers of the future.”
Forth Ports is investing in a new, purpose-built Training Academy to be located within the Port of Grangemouth. This will mirror the successful Logistics Academy already well established at the Port of Tilbury. Forth Ports says the new facility is a key strategic investment in its long-term focus on skills, qualifications and personal development for all employees in its Scottish operations, including Dundee, Leith, Rosyth and Grangemouth.
In Tilbury, meanwhile, a new fully immersive training simulator has been installed, providing full simulation of crane and straddle carrier operations.
Meanwhile, we’ve all heard stories of people with humble beginnings sweeping the floor, who rise to the top; and, conversely, people highly qualified on paper who, frankly, don’t have the qualities or insight required for the real-world job. Is that still the case in today’s employment market?
As to the latter, Nectar’s Mr Ozturk says: “This could be the case. The only way to address such a deficiency is to gain experience on the ground and get your hands dirty. I do not believe an individual can be successful in a port environment in the long run unless they have the practical [experience] to go with it.”
In general, it is possible for individuals to work their way up the organisation, starting from the quayside or operating mobile equipment and moving up to (for example) an area manager level, he says. “There may be some examples of individuals going all the way up, but this probably is not the norm. This is also very strongly tied to the management style and culture of an organisation. That really determines the degree of openness and number of opportunities open to willing individuals to move up an organisation.”
RISK OF OVERESTIMATING EXPERIENCE
Recruitment specialist Phil Parry believes we are in danger of mis-selling the value of a degree to a lot of youngsters. “Of course, I am a big fan of education, but I don’t necessarily think it needs to be graduate/university level,” he says. “I think what we lack in the UK, and in many other shipping countries, is a respected and understood system of apprenticeships. Compare that with Germany, where a lot of candidates – shipbrokers, charterers, and so on – refer to their merchant apprenticeships.”
Pushing youngsters towards university can make them feel that they are more equipped when they enter the workplace than they really are, he says. “Youngsters can be made to feel that a degree is the key to the door – when in many places, frankly it isn’t. And I think, from talking to employers in ports, agencies and shipping, they don’t think it is either.”
Mr Parry, chairman of Spinnaker Global, says a lot of employers are saying they want to hire for personality, potential and experience, rather than academic qualifications on paper. “We are definitely seeing more of that and there is definitely a greater willingness on the part of employers to look at non-graduates.”
He says that anecdotally he sees more in the way of industry-specific courses and training in overseas CVs. “What we are seeing is more vocational education at 16-18, which I think is an extremely good idea. I can’t help but think that we send too many youngsters to university to run up debt when a job that combines work with training/external supervision might be a better way to go.”
Ports are also becoming more interested in collaborating in order to improve skills within the sector and share other aspects of human resources, says Mr Parry. “This is HR not from the perspective of managing our unionised workforce but from the perspective that we are a service business nowadays. Automation means fewer staff; employers therefore need to get the very best out of their staff as they rely upon them to an even greater extent.”