Training facilities keep pace as STCW milestone is reached

A momentous set of new training regulations for mariners has arrived. The full impact of those regulations, however, won’t be felt for months or even years.

Students at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum Heights, Md., conduct life raft exercises. These classes are part of basic safety training required under STCW. MITAGS saw its enrollment surge to about 4,000 last year, an increase of about 60 percent.
   Image Credit: Courtesy MITAGS

After seven years in the making, the 1995 amendments to the International Convention on Standards for Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers – or STCW ’95 – went into effect on Feb. 1, 2002.

Thousands of mariners have received training for their STCW certification, and industry sources say the worst fears of immediate and widespread labor shortages in the United States are probably unfounded. There will probably be some shortages of certified mariners, but in all likelihood they will be isolated, not widespread.

While no serious shortages of certified mariners seemed to be developing in the United States, other countries were having problems meeting the STCW provisions.

As a result, in late January, the International Maritime Organization asked port control officers not to detain ships whose officers lacked STCW certification until Aug. 1, effectively extending the deadline by six months. The IMO recommended that port officers instead issue warnings to shipping companies and notify seafarers and flag states of violations.

The U.S. Coast Guard said that it would abide by the IMO recommendation for the delay; however, STCW requirements other than crew certification would be strictly enforced. ‘Vessels may still be detained for other reasons, including demonstrated crew incompetence, such as failure to perform critical drills,’ the Coast Guard said.

Still, questions remain about how the new rules will affect the industry in the future. Will the demands of STCW discourage mariners from upgrading their licenses because of the financial costs and time demands? Who will pay for the training? Will there be sufficient resources to perform the skill assessments that are required under the new rules? How exactly will those assessments be performed?

Chris Sawin, training manager for Crowley Marine Services, a company based in Oakland, Calif, that operates more than 300 vessels, said STCW is positive in one regard because it raises industry standards and makes sure mariners are qualified to do their jobs. But the industry already has a tough time finding trained personnel, he said, and the new rules will make it even tougher down the road.

‘I think the real impact comes in the future,’ Sawin said. ‘We struggled to find qualified mariners before STCW. We’ll struggle post-STCW.’

Most people would agree that the long-awaited – some say dreaded – STCW rules are the most sweeping set of maritime training regulations ever implemented. The Coast Guard estimates that the new rules will affect around 20,000 U.S. mariners and will forever change how they receive their training and demonstrate their abilities.

STCW requires all current and future mariners who sail beyond U.S. waters on commercial vessels to take a regimented set of training courses and to demonstrate that they are qualified. In some cases, mariners will have to take hundreds of hours of courses – which could cost thousands of dollars – to fulfill the requirements.

‘I’ve been involved in training for 15 years, and I’ve never seen such an all-encompassing program like this,’ said J.C. Wiegman, the assistant director of education at the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in Piney Point, Md. ‘This covers everybody from entry to master. There’s nobody left out in STCW.’

The roots of STCW go back to 1978, when the IMO adopted international training standards for masters, officers and watch personnel on seagoing merchant ships. Those standards, known as STCW ’78, went into effect in 1984.

The United States didn’t become a party to STCW until 1991. Today, 133 nations participate, representing roughly 98 percent of the world’s merchant-vessel tonnage, according to the Coast Guard.

In time, though, the IMO felt the STCW ’78 regulations weren’t doing the job. That sentiment was further fueled by the December 1992 grounding of Aegean Sea, which spilled 21.9 million gallons of oil off Spain, and the grounding of Braer, which a month later, spilled 25 million gallons in the Shetland Islands.

Shortly thereafter, the secretary-general of the IMO asked that the STCW convention be revised. This resulted in the 1995 amendments to the original set of regulations. Following seven years of rule-making and preparation, the rules went into effect in the United States on Feb. 1, 2002.

The new rules require more training in navigation, cargo handling, first aid, survival skills, meteorology and other core subjects. They demand that mariners be able to demonstrate that they have the skills and abilities that qualify them to serve aboard seagoing vessels. Additionally, they establish new rest-period requirements for watchkeeping personnel.


Students at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum Heights, Md., conduct firefighting exercises. These classes are part of basic safety training required under STCW. MITAGS saw its enrollment surge to about 4,000 last year, an increase of about 60 percent.

In response to the rules, thousands of mariners, from masters to deckhands, have flooded schools to receive the training that is now required.

For example, the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (the school of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots) in Linthicum Heights, Md., had 4,000 students pass through its doors last year, up from an annual average of 2,500. About 6,000 students attended classes at the Simulation, Training, Assessment and Research (STAR) Center (for the American Maritime Officers) in Dania Beach, Fla. The Paul Hall Center (for the Seafarers International Union) added new facilities and classes, and hired more instructors to accommodate the 3,000 students that came for training last year.

Those types of numbers give people in the industry confidence that there won’t be any widespread labor shortages.

Stewart Walker, chief of the licensing evaluation branch of the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center, said many in the industry were initially concerned that they wouldn’t have enough mariners to man their ships. Those fears have been allayed since the Coast Guard extended its deadline until Feb. 1, 2003, for certification of U.S. mariners on vessels in near-coast domestic trades. The deadline extension has allowed training centers and the Coast Guard to focus on training and certifying those on seagoing vessels.

‘The number of those comments has declined precipitously,’ Walker said.

Glen Paine, executive director of MITAGS, said the Gulf of Mexico is the one place where there might be a scramble for certified mariners. He said the industry in that part of the country was slower to accept that STCW ’95 regulations were here to stay. The Coast Guard certification centers in the Gulf area, particularly in Miami and New Orleans, have backlogs that are weeks and even months long for certifying mariners who have been trained.

‘Everybody had five years to prepare for this,’ Wiegman said. ‘It’s become a problem for some people because they procrastinated until the last minute.’

Educators expect the demand will continue for STCW-related courses, at least for a few months. The STAR Center, for one, has been in ‘surge operations’ for the past year, to accommodate all the demand for training. That has meant offering day and night courses, arranging off-campus housing for students and hiring more instructors.

‘We’re already planning ahead, and we can see we’re cresting here,’ said Tom Johnson, the school’s director of training. ‘We think there’s going to be a continuation for a number of months, probably to April and June of 2002.’

Others predict that the biggest impact will be in the years ahead when mariners decide if they want to upgrade their licenses. After all, STCW requires at least 11 weeks of training to upgrade to chief mate or master. Below deck, some upgrades will take up to 10 weeks of training.

Capt. Lee Kincaid, assistant director of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association engineering school in Easton, Md., said there are still unanswered questions on how mariners should have their skills assessed, or whether past training will be applicable to future training requirements.

Kincaid knows of some mariners who retired early from the profession rather than going through the STCW requirements. He said it will take time for others to get used to the new rules. Although mariners already go through extensive training, they will have to adjust to how they receive that training and how their skills are assessed.

‘It’s going to take a whole new mindset of the mariner,’ Kincaid said.

Wiegman said other professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and even teachers, have to continually go through upgrading and training. ‘Now mariners have to do the same thing,’ he said.

For now, the Coast Guard is continuing to issue policy statements of its interpretations of the regulations and how they apply to mariners. And those in the industry are bracing themselves for these unknowns.

Sawin wonders how mariners who are at sea for extended periods of time will find the time to complete training to advance their careers. Within the industry, many still question whether STCW ’95 is truly needed, he said.

‘I think there’s a split feeling in the industry,’ Sawin said. ‘Some people think it’s overkill. Others think it sets a level standard for everyone.’

That may be true, but in the long run, Kincaid said, the regulations will probably make for a better industry.

‘We’ve always had the best mariners in the world,’ he said. ‘We’re just going to make them better.’

By Professional Mariner Staff