Merchant shipping sector expects gov’t to offer solutions, not set up committees

News that the Greek merchant shipping sector – the country’s major foreign exchange earner – is projected to bring in $13 billion this year coincided with the Athens Olympics and the achievement of new world records. As a result, the news did not receive much publicity, although the amount will be about double the cost of the Olympics. The 3,500 oceangoing, Greek-owned vessels, totaling a capacity of 150 million deadweight tons (dwt), are indeed an invaluable «national capital.» Their leading position in the world is due to the dedication, hard work, inventiveness and seamanship of Greek merchant marine crews, especially of the officers. Merchant shipping’s international character and the fact that employment in the sector is not limited by national boundaries leads to many foreigners working on Greek-owned ships, as their owners seek to make up for the shortage in domestic human resources. This practice, however, leads to the loss of the Greek «profile» of the country’s merchant navy, amounting, in a sense, to the exportation of jobs at a time when the younger generations face unemployment. The Greek shipping sector expects neither financial assistance from the government nor favorable treatment in business orders, such as provided by other countries to their national fleets. It does, however, expect proper organization of the sector’s job market and the required education and training of its seamen. Merchant Marine Minister Manolis Kefaloyiannis decided recently to set up a committee to report on the subject. However, his party had also formed such a committee when in opposition, which worked – without remuneration – for four full years toward the same purpose, leading to proposals which were endorsed by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis when he announced his government’s program. The current general secretary of the Merchant Marine Ministry was in fact a member of that committee. So, the question arises as to what the new committee will seek to achieve. Moreover, what will the ruling party have to say to its own people who offered their services free in preparing policy papers for the current government? Will it be: «Thanks but no thanks. We now have a new committee… your efforts are not appreciated?» In Greece, education and training for people wanting to work in the merchant navy depends solely upon the public sector. It is not organized in such as way as to be supportive to the sector, but in order to serve the aims of special interests which no one dares to touch. Another internationally unique feature of seamen’s education and training in Greece is the complete absence of the private sector. The Merchant Marine Academies (AEN), a part of the country’s higher education system, attract young people not because they wish to become officers on merchant ships, but because they are able to enter these schools with extremely low grades. Almost no other tertiary education system admits students with such low grades. In all other countries with a merchant marine tradition and according to the international agreement STCW/95, academies train officers through specific, set programs which include training at sea. It is only the most able who make it through the three stages of training to the A-class diploma. It is often heard from people with supposed seagoing experience: «How can you entrust an oceangoing vessel with 1,500 passengers and more than 1,000 crew members to a captain without a university degree?» Of course, they forget that seamanship and knowledge require «contact» with the subject that cannot be acquired by sitting in a classroom. Besides, the sector today is developing fast, technological applications are spectacular, while the conditions for sea trading and ship operation are also changing. All this means that people employed on ships must in fact be trained and retrained throughout their professional lives. However, the new government, instead of proceeding to upgrade and modernize education and training for the merchant navy, has assigned the issue to yet another committee. This shows a perpetuation of the old mentality and maintains the widespread impression in the sector that the ministry does not tackle the real problems. In the six months the government has been in power, it could have done so much on the basis of the comprehensive report that was prepared after the broadest possible consultation with interested parties.