RECRUITMENT OF MARINE ENGINEERS

Perusing back over old copies of marine journals such as the Motor Ship etc, it was striking the volume of correspondence and editorials pertaining to the difficulty in recruiting, and retaining, marine engineers.

BY JAMES POTTINGER (SCOTLAND)

In an effort to overcome this problem, a number of shipowners took part in an apprenticeship scheme whereby candidates spent periods ashore in, firstly, heavy and medium marine workshops, then for a spell in a recognised technical college with the aim to gain National Certificates before joining a ship for a period. As the candidate would have wages subsidised by the shipowner for the whole period of apprenticeship, obviously it was the usually larger companies who could afford this expense. At the end of their apprenticeship, they were under no obligation to remain with the company and if for any reason they were unhappy they could leave and join another shipowner.

Some considered that phases one and two should be reversed as, whilst the candidate would have recently spent time on the more theoretical aspects of the trade, it was felt that a more recent focus on the nuts and bolts would have been more beneficial for the apprentice and the shipowner at this stage.

A number of whys were put forward as to reasons for the shortage; in the years just after the end of WWII, it would not be surprising if many who had experienced the rigours and traumas of the conflict at sea would be looking for a more restful occupation ashore when restrictions were removed by the Ministry of Transport in late 1946. By virtue of their trade, there were inevitably more attractive occupations for experienced engineers ashore in a variety of industries than there were for certified deck officers, a situation that continued in the succeeding years.

During the era that I am referring to, National Subscription was still in force with a deferment to complete an approved apprenticeship and if joining the Merchant Navy, you had to stay until you were 26 years of age to avoid the call-up. It is no secret that many availed themselves of this opportunity to avoid conscription. However, National Subscription ended just as we docked after a deep-sea voyage in January 1960. To their eternal shame on hearing of this, many shot down the gangway without even waiting for their reliefs resulting in a number of ships, including our own, being shorthanded.

I WORKED ON MANY SHIPS DURING MY MARINE ENGINEERING APPRENTICESHIP, INCLUDING THE HMS PUMA SHOWN HERE. A SELECTION OF PHOTOS OF OTHER SHIPS I SERVED ON DURING MY APPRENTICESHIP ARE ALSO FEATURED WITHIN THIS ARTICLE. [AUTHOR’S COLLECTION]

Some may have had a different experience, but my own experience, having sailed with a number of first trippers or those who joined the Merchant Navy out with these schemes and background, was far removed from marine engineering. Provided they had some natural mechanical aptitude and willingness, there was little difference after some early tuition. I may have been lucky, but apart from a few no-hopers, I would be hard-pressed to guess which type of industry they had served an apprenticeship ashore. The more capable novices, if asked to repack the gland on such or such valve or fit a new gasket on a leaky pipe joint, would immediately have the nous to ensure or enquire if the associated pipeline had been isolated and not live or under pressure. This, to me, indicates that the innate common sense was as important as a degree of learning pre-sea service.

HMS SCYTHIAN WHICH I WORKED ON AROUND 1955 DURING HER REFURBISHMENT. [AUTHOR’S COLLECTION]

“YOU KNEW WHAT YOU WERE IN FOR WHEN YOU JOINED”

There were those engineers who looked at a career at sea as a wonderful way to see the world and be reasonably well paid 365 days a year for the privilege. Notwithstanding the fact that there was no defined working week. Watchkeepers on company contract had a minimum of 56 hours a week, with added hours for standby when entering and leaving port. Inevitable breakdowns or stoppages and when in port it was 0800 to 1700 excluding meal breaks, five days and half-day on Saturday, the so called “day aboard” man was also on call in port outside the working day, all without any paid overtime etc.

NOWSHERA WHICH I WORKED ON DURING 1955.

EBOE COMPLETED IN 1952. [MALCOLM CRANFIELD]

BORDER REGIMENT WHICH I WORKED ON DURING 1953. [MALCOLM CRANFIELD]

There was many who took all this as part of the job and given a reasonable level of intelligence and willingness to learn, could, after gaining the requisite experience and certification, look forward to advancement with the requisite financial reward. It was, in my opinion, fallacious to compare these conditions with a shore job. Basically, you knew what you were in for when you joined, not that it was acceptable to endue extreme conditions afloat.

In general, the accommodation for all officers was gradually improved from the 1950s onward, and it has been said that one of the reasons for leaving was that it did not match what they could expect ashore. With one exception, I never felt that the accommodation on any ships I sailed on could be categorized as inadequate. An adjoining shower and toilet would be nice, but, to be honest, not all houses ashore had en suite appointments.

There were those engineers who looked at a career at sea as a wonderful way to see the world.

As I understood it during the years of WWII, if not on contract to a specific shipowner, you could be directed to join any ship. Obviously, there were good berths and some not so good and others downright bad. This was not the case later when you had a choice as you usually had a good idea of the conditions to be expected. Different skills were required when comparing watchkeeping on a ship having a triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine and Scotch boilers from those with large diesel or high-pressure steam turbines. Skills that really, in the main, can only be gained by actual experience.

I was fortunate in that I served five years marine engineering with a well-regarded shipbuilding and engineering company who, at that time, manufactured slow speed diesels, turbines and boilers and all the associated machinery, and were building cargo ships, naval frigates, RFA Replenishment ships, tankers and refitting submarines. This included an initial nine-month spell in the training centre, where the very basic fitting jobs on a variety of components and use of hand tools were carried out. During the above, and then later when out in the workshop and shipyard, at no time were my employers looking to encourage my skills formally as would be immediately appropriate to that needed in a ship’s engine room. They did not see it was their job to provide such training, although, naturally, the assembly of a large diesel engine would be helpful when serving afloat and similarly, when engaged in actual installation of machinery on a ship in the fitting out basin.

It was on my own volition that I arranged for transfers to spend a year each on outfitting of the above differing types, my requests usually being grudgingly granted with the comment, “you are always wanting a shift”! With such a wide range of types being built, there were ample opportunities to gain a variety of experience. When all is said and done, we were cheap labour especially in the final years of an apprenticeship when we were more experienced and were undertaking the same tasks as the time served journeymen.

PATANI WHICH I WORKED ON DURING 1954. [MALCOLM CRANFIELD]

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