Skill shortage leaves port industry all at sea



Howard Flint, managing director, Omni RMS, Manchester, England.



As port equipment and operations have adapted to and incorporated more advanced processes, the sector’s ability to place competent, well-trained staff familiar with the technology has not kept pace. Sophisticated operating systems demand that in-house teams possess a wider range of knowledge and ability than ever before, which means that the sector relies heavily on young graduate talent. Howard Flint discusses upcoming challenges this reliance poses for the industry, and looks at how recruitment process outsourcing could provide a more efficient recruitment model for ports.

Graduate decline

Highly specialised and technical industries face fierce competition for a talent pool that appears to be diminishing. News that many experts have highlighted looming shortages of graduate talent with technical skills will surely worry recruiters within the port industry, who have depended on people possessing those unique abilities to drive innovation. The Confederation of British Industry and Education Development International conducted a survey in 2011 which highlighted a key concern among employers of graduates, namely that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills shortages are widespread.

According to the report, 43 percent of UK employers had difficulty recruiting staff, with more than half of employers (52 percent) expecting difficulty to rise in the coming three years. This is by no means limited to the UK, with other domestic markets similarly competing for prized talent. From general operations and safety to marine services, staff with specialised skills are at a premium for dock operators. Those ports that discover an immediate solution to the shortfall will undoubtedly gain a competitive advantage, allowing the operator to compete on an international level.

Uneven keel: inefficiencies in recruitment

Traditional methods of recruitment are of little use when faced with such a widespread deficiency in talent. Recruitment agencies, which historically have not been ideally placed to find suitable candidates for specialist sectors such as the port industry, cannot be expected to unearth upcoming talent which, increasingly, is not there.

Recruitment processes that have previously proved successful are outmoded in the face of the global shortage of suitable candidates. Driven by the allure of cheaper web-based recruitment, many organisations task their HR department or recruitment agency to advertise roles on the multitude of job websites available. This usually leads to being inundated with large numbers of candidate CVs, with a miniscule percentage suitable for the job. Additionally, if HR teams are given independent authority to recruit, inconsistencies in the application experience will inevitably arise, leading to poor brand perception.

The International Labour Organisation writes that, once a sector relying on “mostly occasional and low-skilled labour, dock work now requires more highly skilled workers”. Historically, unskilled stevedores and dockers could be recruited offline with relative ease, and the cohesiveness of the process was not a priority. But the sector has rapidly advanced, and so has its need for sophisticated recruitment. It is both time and cost-inefficient to search for skilled employees in the traditional way, especially when considering the upcoming critical shortage of suitable candidates. Such static processes are no longer enough to fulfil the flexible, adaptive shipping industry’s needs.

Full steam ahead: outsourcing as a solution

While the outsourcing of administratively intensive HR functions is not a new concept, niche industries such as ports have been notoriously reluctant to engage. But the leap to outsourcing is not as difficult as many imagine. A quality Recruitment Process Outsourcer (RPO) should be able to provide end-to-end, flexible, scalable recruitment, crucial for the continuing growth of port businesses.

With the right person for the position harder to find than ever thanks to a decreasing pool of talent and more competition over those candidates that are suitable, port companies need to tap into RPO expertise to move away from being HR generalists to recruitment specialists. An organisation can completely overhaul its recruitment process either in-house, through consultation with a RPO, or by outsourcing the work to them directly. From the initial search, through candidate filtering and potential selection, to actually onboarding staff, RPOs are incentivised to achieve unprecedented levels of direct recruitment on behalf of clients, dramatically reducing agency reliance and cost.

An outsourcing company will be able to place the best possible candidates for the most demanding, skilled specialist roles such as those increasingly required to design, operate and maintain port machinery. Essential to this is the understanding of the importance of the unique requirements of the port sector, maximising the use of direct sources and effectively managing agencies to provide a tailored list of ideal candidates. This begins with extensive market analysis on the availability of the best type of candidate, producing a bank of talent exclusive not only to a sector, but to a company, allowing for a far more efficient recruitment model.


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