The world is grappling with the social and economic effects COVID-19 has brought. The pandemic was unforeseen by most, and its global impact was something few, if any, were prepared for.
For shipping, the virus has sparked high freight rates at one end of the spectrum, to the need to prematurely scrap certain vessels at the other, and left many seafarers stranded onboard and unable to disembark and get home after their tour of duty is complete. All in all, the extreme immediate effects of the virus have made for a turbulent first half of 2020 for the maritime industry.
But it’s a vital sector, and resilient too, although some areas will be reeling from COVID-19’s ramifications for some time to come. As we adapt to a “new normal”, the full long-term impact of the virus will remain to be seen.
The pandemic has forced the shipping industry to step back and scrutinise its ability to continue its business in the same way. It challenges us to adapt. And along with efforts to recover economically, we are seeing a new emphasis on building on the lessons learnt from the pandemic, promoting innovation, cross-industry and sector collaboration, and a greener approach to operations.
Changed ways of working
Around the world, national and regional governments responded with investment and aid packages in a bid to prevent the economy from falling into a deep and prolonged recession, bringing a fresh raft of challenges and opportunities.
A clear example of this is the shipping sector’s delicate new balance between digital insight and human knowledge. Innovation and the increased digitalisation of the traditional workplace – necessitated in many cases by the pandemic, as offices shut down and social distancing became common – has significantly reduced face-to-face human interaction, at least in the short term.
As companies seek to mitigate the effects of economic downturn by reducing costs, working remotely – where possible – has become an increasingly practical option for both employers and employees. The workplace of 2021 could look a lot different to that at the beginning of 2020.
But in the shipping industry, many do not have the luxury of being able to work from home. The “frontliners” bear the greatest burden of changing times. Crew members find themselves unable to board or leave their vessels and others like port workers, ship agents, boarding representatives and more, have to continue their duties under much tighter restrictions, and in protective equipment to protect themselves and others from possible exposure. Those often undervalued workers are vital cogs in the machinery that keeps our industry and global trade moving.
The value of knowledge
The pandemic has shone a new light on the valuable local knowledge that these key personnel provide, showing us just how much of our industry relies on expertise and decisions made ‘on the ground’.
Local agents meet incoming vessels to inspect and monitor the safe loading or unloading of commodities or crew, performing the role of the ‘middle-man’ in between the ship and the port. Good ship agencies draw on their wealth of local experience, expertise and networks to achieve the fastest turnaround with least disruption to a vessel’s port call.
Ship agency has adapted to and continues to adopt technology, to make operational and strategic decisions supported by data. Whether it is live-stream operational tracking, or a simple WhatsApp group to keep in touch, digitalisation is coming to the fore, even on the ‘hands-on’ frontline. as shipping adapts to disruption.
New technologies such as big data, automation, robotics are bringing in a new era of ‘smart shipping’. Those who embrace them unlock greater operational efficiencies, gain greater flexibility for when things don’t go according to plan and an important competitive advantage.
Ship agents, the vessel owner and their charterers, can now access the wealth of data that a ship generates, which serves as the foundation of smart real-time decision making for anything from route planning to avoid foul weather, to advance preparation for new requirements introduced at their planned ports of call. With improved vessel tracking and route optimisation utilising major advances in satellite communications, a vessel’s port call can be accurately calculated to allow for minimal time lost at anchor, saving valuable time and money.
However, as operators seek to reduce short and medium term costs, the risk is that customers may accept heavier reliance on data at the cost of reduced human support and service quality. That’s why human capital must remain at the heart of every good ship agency.
The first half of 2020 has taught us some big lessons. Rules and regulations in ports are changing almost daily. There is an understandable, heightened concern for personal and public safety as ports try to manage the challenges the pandemic has presented. That, in turn, has put much greater value on agents’ local knowledge and expertise to ensure the correct protocols and guidelines are being followed.
Increasing shipping’s operational efficiency is vital in a capital constrained market, so the speed with which the sector is embracing digital technologies makes sense and should be welcomed. Simultaneously, this pandemic has shown the whole world the importance of the human touch in conducting our day-to-day business. That’s why truly progressive ship agents must be prepared to embrace a new blend of human capital and digital insight if they are to thrive in a new era for shipping.