Shipowners pin hopes on economic downturn

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 August, 1998, 12:00am

Shipowners are hoping promises of adventure and a lucrative career down the line will lure more people into becoming seafarers.

And they are pegging their persuasion power to the economic downturn, which they hope will make the once-popular career attractive again.

With the help of the Government, shipowners next month will launch a pilot programme to train 240 unemployed men to work on ships.

They hope the 14-week programme will eventually churn out a steady supply of local seafarers.

Hong Kong, with one of the busiest ports in the world, lacks local seafarers.

In the past two decades, young men have turned to jobs on land due to the economic boom and shipowners resorted to recruiting workers from abroad.

Only 10 per cent of the 30,000 seafarers hired by Hong Kong shipping companies are locals.

The problem is more serious than it looks.

It is about fostering local talent in one of the most important industries in Hong Kong, experts say.

Seafaring is the mandatory training needed for a variety of senior jobs in the maritime industry, ranging from work in port management, cargo handling and ship management to admiralty law.

'If we don't kick-start this . . . in 10 years' time, who will run our port?' said Jack Haworth, manager of the Vocational Training Council's Seamen's Training Centre.

Locals are preferred because they undergo more rigorous training in the SAR.

Better training in skills such as firefighting can help save the cargo and the ship.

Under the pilot programme, the Government will pay for the initial 14-week training and part of the additional six-month on-board training.

Students will receive $4,000 in the first 14 weeks and $8,000 during the six-month hands-on training.

The Government is eager to promote seafaring as it is facing increasing pressure to create jobs.

George Chao Sze-kwong, a shipowner and chairman of the Maritime Services Training Board, said locals would get the same starting salary as foreigners because shipping companies had to remain competitive.

The job, however, offered many other attractions, he said.

It offers a free room and board, a chance to get off and visit all ports of entry, and an opportunity to pursue careers that pay up to $85,000 a month.

Eventually, shipowners hope to offer distance-learning programmes on board.

But Mr Chao said that to persuade more locals to enter the profession, he must first dispel many misconceptions.

'A lot of mums think it's too dangerous to send their sons out to sea and he might have a hard time finding a wife, being out there for months at a time,' Mr Chao said.

He added, however: 'Now ships are more modern. They are safer than planes. And it's a chance to see the world.'