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On Course: Training in ‘soft skills’ important for newer generations

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On Course: by Kevin Petrovsky

When we think about training crew, we immediately think about the technical areas of competence needed aboard ship – boat handling skills; ability to properly and safely handle equipment, operate electronics, navigate, and maintain and repair engines and mechanical systems; emergency response; and so on. All of these skills are critical for the safe and efficient operation of the vessel. However, just as important can be the crew’s development of their “soft skills” – their ability to communicate, think critically, problem solve, work in teams, manage stress and emotions, lead others, and develop a stronger sense of self-awareness. These are traits that cannot be learned through a single course, but are developed over time with proper guidance, instruction and practice.

A deficiency in these abilities could affect the operation of the boat and the experiences of owners, charter guests and crew. This has become more apparent as younger crew – millennials and the iGeneration (those born after 1980) – have entered, or are soon to enter, the industry.

As with any generation, there are generally recognized positive traits, as well as traits (or lack thereof) considered less desirable. Millennials tend to be confident, self-expressive and open to new ideas. The iGeneration, though still quite young, are showing signs of being self-reliant, goal-oriented and pragmatic. Both groups show a tendency to multitask well and are obviously adept at using technology.

However, the development of soft skills for these two generations has been of concern for educational institutions and employers for some time. Though it is not always prudent to generalize about a population, research shows that a significant percentage within these generations tend to lack basic interpersonal skills, as well as critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. These individuals have grown up in the digital age, where communication with friends and family is done more in 140 characters than face to face. They live much more of their lives online and via their smartphones. In fact, one study showed that the iGeneration will engage with a smart device every 7 minutes.

These are also populations that have never not known the internet. They have instant access to information and entertainment. As such, they tend to have shorter attention spans, appreciate speed over substance and believe they can access whatever information they may need at the moment they need it. This can make formalized training and learning a real challenge, especially when trying to develop deeper understanding of a particular subject.

For example, consider how crew size may be affected by the modernization of vessels. As boats become more technologically advanced, there may be a need for fewer crew on board. The remaining crew will be called upon to do more – to analyze more data coming in from the equipment, take responsibility for more shipboard functions, and be required to make decisions based on all of this input. In practicality, what has been found is that these generations are quite good at operating equipment – say, ECDIS or radar – but they do not take into account the possible fallacy of the data. So they can obtain the data, but they tend not to take the time to make sure the data makes sense or to verify the data with information from other sources.

So as a captain or senior officer responsible for crew, or even as a crew member looking to develop your own individual skills for advancement in your career, there are training techniques that can and should be employed onboard. By acknowledging these generational traits and using them to an advantage, vessels can employ effective training programs that include development of these soft skills.

In general, any training must be focused and of short duration. It is best if topics that lend themselves to it can be addressed at the time required for use. Training sessions also need to be less formal. Of course, use of technology is always helpful.

Within the specific training topics, trainers should:

  • Use scenarios in training. Allow crew to think through solutions. Allow them to work in teams to develop solutions and then discuss those solutions to help identify any missteps or oversights.
  • Allow individual crew members to take the lead in certain training exercises. Give them an opportunity to explain to their peers the relevant points and processes.
  • Allow interested crew to participate in shipboard planning or operations when they have free time. For those crew who show an interest in advancing their career, allow them to sit in on passage planning sessions, maintenance or refit planning, or provisioning planning. Allow crew to spend time on the bridge or in the engine room to learn more about overall operations.
  • Include team-building sessions in the training regime. There are many team-building exercises that can be found online and easily adapted to specific settings.
  • When possible, give crew short writing assignments. Ask them to develop standing orders, emergency procedures, instructions, etc., then provide feedback on those activities.
  • Provide feedback and mentorship. People appreciate it when someone takes an interest in their success. First, any training without assessment and feedback is useless. Make sure that as a trainer or leader, you are giving constructive and supportive feedback to your crew, both as a team and individually. Also, if you have crew members who clearly show an interest in the industry, help them by mentoring them along.

If you are a junior crew member, ask your department head or captain for assistance in developing your skills. Show a genuine interest in every aspect of shipboard operation. The more you understand how the entire system works, the more opportunities you will find for yourself going forward.

Developing the soft skill set of your crew will have countless benefits. Crew confidence and satisfaction will increase. In turn, this will encourage crew to stay aboard. Greater retention means less time finding and training new crew. Safety and efficiency will improve, and satisfaction among owners and guests will increase.

Kevin Petrovsky is chief academic officer of Bluewater Crew Training USA (formerly ICT) in Fort Lauderdale. Comments are welcome below.

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