Massive. Multi-sectorial. Multi-faceted. Multi-tiered. Mind-blowing. Forever evolving. There is always a great deal to say about the maritime industry that currently transports just under 63 trillion tonne-miles around the world every year. This accounts for 90% of global trade. While seaborne trade is expected to remain dominant, it will radically change over the next two decades.

Dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab, we are living at the dawn of an era where emerging technologies are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds impacting all spheres of human activity in everyday life and challenging our very comprehension of the essence of humanity.

At this very moment autonomous vessels, digital ports, drone technology and robot repair are already a reality in a number of forward looking countries such as Finland, Holland, Norway, China, Singapore, and South Korea Although these technological advances illustrate the surge in our evolution, they are unique because they are totally disruptive. Their impact cannot be merely compared to containers and gantry cranes making stevedores obsolete, or computerization demanding basic and not-so-basic computer skills worldwide.

It is no coincidence that A.I., I.o.T, I.o.V. and digitization are termed 'disruptive' because they are galvanizing paradigm shifts, unleashing a world full of promise and peril.

'Disruptive' is the keyword because rather than reacting to it and ending up disrupted, our mindset has to anticipate transformation and preempt problems before they arise. Although this demands extraordinary mental agility, creativity as well as cultural shifts, foreseeing possible scenarios is pivotal in a world of ever-changing technological frontiers. This is the millennial way of creating business value.

Regarding the labour force, the main issue is reskilling current and training future seafarers while struggling to find an unprecedented balance between technological and human input. Unprecedented because A.I. is outpacing human performance in both mundane tasks as well as making inroads into thinking briefs. This is instilling fear on TWO accounts:

  1. Mass unemployment as crewless vessels, digital ports, drones and robots are forging ahead,
  2. Dehumanization brought about by changes in digital and mechanical techniques.

We also need to factor in another FIVE major challenges:

  • Sustaining a balance between technological benefits and safety & security issues.
  • Addressing increasing legal concerns because laws and regulations are struggling to catch up with the lightning speed of today's technological advances.
  • Embracing a circular economy within the scenario of climate change & demographic shifts.
  • Envisaging the socio-economic and psychological effects of tomorrow's transport systems and trends which will definitely impact current trade routes.
  • Preempting the widening gap between developed and developing countries/regions which will also reshape current trade routes.
  • Preempting the socio-political impact of the widening income gap between the different gradations of qualified and non-qualified personnel.

Today's maritime labour force stands at approximately1.6 billion. The current worldwide shortfall of shipping senior officers is particularly manifest in gas shipping – which will be further aggravated by emerging technologies particularly when A.I., I.o.T, I.o.V. and digitization become mainstream and we will all wonder how we ever did without them. Nevertheless, a totally new way of thinking is the key to enable us to adapt and progress while minimising the risks of taking the wrong decisions and paying heftily for them.

What is vital is for us is to understand the issues relevant to tomorrow's jobs and incorporate our findings and insight into a holistic debate that will enable us to sail on in future calm and stormy waters. Nor should our eye on tomorrow's labour force totally ignore today's employees

From a panoramic standpoint, job losses will be largely offset by the creation of new jobs. The maritime industry is no exception. Nevertheless, the consequent automation-driven shift leaves low-skilled workers more vulnerable to joblessness and ultimately to obsolescence. Dockers and baggage handlers are a case in point since their current form of work is likely to disappear by 2040. How quickly these jobs will be phased out and morph into something else depends on how prepared a country/region is to take on automated technologies. A similar though less dramatic picture is envisaged for today's medium skilled workforce, namely supervisory and administrative roles. Although a very small amount of the high-skilled group (including ship officers and professionals) are likely to be made redundant by mainstream automation, they too will need to be highly conversant with emerging technologies.

As in all industrial sectors, the solution lies in setting the ball rolling for future-proofing, meaning an overhaul in the imparting of education and training so as to ensure a suitably qualified workforce for tomorrow's jobs, including jobs that have still to be created.

While technological innovation is normally spurred on by reducing costs to remain competitive, safety, efficiency and environmental concerns are now notable catalysts and motivators especially in transport systems which are heading towards greater automated interconnectivity.

Significantly, the expected increase in seaborne trade over the next twenty years will be at a slower rate and will be characterised by:

  • Utilising cost efficient vessels,
  • Utilising cleaner fuels & prioritizing renewable energy resulting in a reduced transportation of oil and derivative/related products.
  • The emergence of new trade routes
  • Increased vessel traffic in the Indian and Pacific Oceans reflecting the escalation in Asian trade,
  • Decreased vessel traffic in short distance routes since other modes of transport will be used
  • Increased use of inland waterways especially in Europe and South Asia as a result of new emissions policies.

Regardless of sensational media coverage, it is important to keep in mind that disruptive innovations – as overwhelming as they are – do not resemble an untamable, ravenous beast all out to devour everyone and everything in its path. Rather they are tools made by people to benefit people.

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