Stricter guidelines for mariners who want to become dynamic positioning operators (DPO), combined with the reluctance of the offshore industry to take on trainees, are creating what one DPO calls "a horrible catch-22." Companies desperately need qualified DP personnel, but personnel can't get the experience they need to become qualified.
The London-based Nautical Institute, the organization responsible for DP standards and certification worldwide, implemented new training requirements Jan. 1 to align with the Manila Amendments of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention and Code. Prospective DPOs must now have more maritime experience to get into the program, but even when they are accepted, many find it difficult to get the sea time they need with DP equipment to become fully certified.
The training to become a certified DPO — what the Nautical Institute calls the "DP scheme" — starts with induction and a five-day basic training course. After the trainee earns the basic certificate, he must log 30 days of DP time aboard a vessel at sea. That is followed by a five-day advanced simulator course, the awarding of an advanced certificate, and 180 days of DP sea time. A confirmation letter from the company that operates the vessel is then required before the candidate is issued a full DP certificate.
Chad Fuhrmann, DP engineer assurance lead (Americas) for GL Noble Denton, a technical service provider for the oil and gas industry, said the new guidelines have raised the bar considerably for prospective DPOs.
"Prior to Jan. 1, anybody regardless of their background, regardless of the qualification, was fit for DP basic training," he said. "Now you have a minimum requirement of a 200-ton master's ticket (license) or a designated-duty engineer qualification in order to even get to the basic course."
Fuhrmann said another significant change involves what the Nautical Institute accepts as DP time prior to basic training.
"Before this year, they allowed all previous (DP) time to be counted toward the 180 days if you had received your advanced certificate, but now you can only take 30 days. The rest (150 days) must now be on board the vessel."
The Nautical Institute defines a DP day as any day when operations with DP equipment are undertaken by a vessel for at least one hour.
Regina Bindao, accreditation services manager for the Nautical Institute, said in the past few years there have been "some discussions and concerns regarding the safety operations" on board DP vessels, which gave rise to the new requirements.
"A DP system does not operate in isolation, and any DP operator has to have a good understanding of the ship's operation, including the engineering component, and of course bridge watchkeeping," she said. "Therefore, the new DP operator needs to be better qualified than perhaps was necessary in the past."
Growing concern about safety and liability in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon accident in April 2010 has put a premium on experienced DPOs at the expense of trainees. Many find it difficult to get their required sea time after basic training.
Capt. Jill Friedman, a DPO who earned her certification in 2002 and has worked on oil and gas rigs and pipe-laying ships in the Gulf of Mexico, said many companies insist on hiring only experienced personnel.
"They complain that they can't find DPOs, but they're not allowing anyone to get their training," she said. "It's really hard for people to be able to get on board a ship without that full DP certificate. It's a horrible catch-22."
Bindao called it a "paradox" within the industry.
"Do you pay for training and perhaps suffer the cost and danger of the trained person leaving at the end of the training to go to a better-paid position, or try to lure trained operators from other companies?" she said.
The shortage of qualified personnel and training slots has given rise to another problem for the offshore industry: fraud involving records of DP sea time and the verification of candidates' logbooks.
According to Bindao, the Nautical Institute has uncovered falsified sea service where the candidate was not even on the vessel for the time claimed. In other cases, masters responsible for verifying sea time have signed logbooks when they hadn't been aboard the vessel or the vessel had never left its berth.
"Who suffers because of this? The shipping industry for one, (which is) employing people who are less qualified and unprofessional, and the person who fraudulently obtains a DP certificate," Bindao said. "But for me, the worst (are) those masters who are acknowledging and signing for false sea time and are employed by the DP industry and are part of the DP scheme."
Despite the hurdles facing DPO candidates, Friedman said the job will remain attractive to mariners as long as offshore vessels suffer from a shortage of qualified personnel.
"It's a good career, but you can't get the time," she said. "I have friend, a chief mate from Canada, who's been trying for more than two years to get that 30 days (between basic and advanced training). The industry's growing, but it's very, very hard to get certified, and the Nautical Institute just made it harder."