Hong Kong Marine Department meeting challenges head on

In an exclusive interview, the deputy director of the Hong Kong Marine Department, SF Wong, discusses initiatives to meet customer expectations, the latest campaign to overcome chronic staff shortages, and the chances of creating overseas offices as suggested by shipowners.

In recent years, the Hong Kong Shipping Registry, under the Hong Kong Marine Department has been subject to considerable feedback from members of the territory’s maritime community to further improve its services. The levels of service provided by the Marine Department have often been unfavourably compared with that of the renowned and competitive flag administrations. Once such a mood is created it can take time to dispel, even when actions are taken to respond to the feedback. But as Mr Wong explains, action is being taken and should be recognised.

Recruitment and the creation of junior ranks

First the challenges, chief of which is staff shortage of the two professional grades in the department, i.e. the Marine Officer and the Surveyor of Ships: “Our problem for the past few years has been how successful we could be in recruiting the right person with the qualifications and experience we require,” says Mr Wong. Up to now the short answer is, not very. Although it hasn’t been for the lack of trying to conduct recruitment exercises, the results are not promising.

Between 2015 and 2017 the Marine Department conducted four recruitment campaigns for each professional grade with the aim to recruit about 10 marine officers and 10 surveyors of ships in each campaign. Ultimately just 2-4 marine officers or surveyors were recruited in each exercise. In general, the Department employs about 60% of marine officers it requires and 70% of the ship surveyors it needs.

Mr Wong believes one reason for the dire staff shortage would be the civil service requirement that suitable applicants have to be Hong Kong permanent residents. “In the past 10 to 20 years there have been very few Hong Kong youngsters going to sea and gaining the required qualifications as a master mariner or senior marine engineers necessary for the posts. With regard to the naval architecture discipline under the Surveyor of Ships grade, the supply of right candidates is also very limited as degree programme for this discipline is not available in Hong Kong and that there are also no major shipbuilding shipyards in Hong Kong,” he says.

In a push to source potential applicants in Hong Kong with residency but not of Chinese ethnicity the Department had once relaxed the Chinese Language proficiency requirement for a certain number of posts, to no avail, despite there are clear benefits in working for the Department.

“Our salary is very competitive compared to similar positions in the commercial sector,” insists Mr Wong. “The posts should also be attractive to those who value their family life as the need for foreign travel is not that very often as compared to a classification surveyor.”

In May 2013 the then-Secretary for Transport and Housing set up the Steering Committee on Systemic Reform of the Marine Department. And in 2014 the Department hired an overseas maritime consultancy to benchmark the Department against similar maritime administrations around the world. In view of the consultant’s advice taking into account the Department’s recruitment and succession problems, the steering committee strongly supported the creation of a new assistant rank through the conduct of a grade structure review for the two professional grades. In December 2016, the Government invited the Standing Commission on Civil Service Salaries and Conditions of Service to conduct the GSR. The Commission commenced the GSR in February 2017, and submitted its report to the Government in October 2017.

Under the pre-existing regime members of two professional grades – marine officer and surveyor of ships run the Department. A candidate qualified as a marine officer must have a Class 1 Certificate of Competency (i.e. qualified as a master mariner) with at least one year’s experience as chief officer on a sea-going ship. , A surveyor of ships must have a degree in engineering or relevant technology and relevant class of engineering Certificate of Competency with required sea-going experience at the rank of second engineer. With regard to naval architecture, the candidate should have a degree in naval architecture or related technology, a corporate member of a naval architecture institute and certain years related work experience.

Now two new assistant ranks have been introduced, as a result of the GSR. They are: assistant marine officer and assistant surveyor of ships. A new recruitment campaign will be launched very soon with the inclusion of these new ranks alongside that of marine officer and surveyor of ships.

Services enhancement

Among the feedback expressed by shipowners has been in regard of a longstanding rule that imposed a limit of 14 days stay in Hong Kong for any seafarer arriving in the territory to join a ship. There are instances where a vessel may be delayed in leaving the port either due to port State control detention or in cases of ship arrest, of which the number of ship arrest accounted for about 20 in 2017. Urgent repairs may also mean that the vessel remains in Hong Kong beyond the 14-day limit. Under such circumstances shipowners may be subject to unwarranted expense and inconvenience replacing seafarers who outstay the 14-day limit.

The Hong Kong Maritime and Port Board set up by the Transport and Housing Bureau in April 2016 engaged with the Immigration Department to thrash out a solution that could satisfy the industry. A new ruling implemented since December 2017 that applies in the circumstances outlined above now provides for the ship operators or local shipping agents to apply for permission to remain on behalf of such visiting seafarers. The permission to remain may be granted for not more than 90 days or with duration of the employment contract, whichever is shorter. It’s a measure that has been warmly welcomed by the industry.

Similarly, the option of engaging Hong Kong’s economic and trade offices in China (Beijing and Shanghai) and Japan (Tokyo) to deliver ship registration certificates more swiftly, an option which was introduced in October 2017, has been applauded by shipowners.

Until recently exemptions, in the case of defects found on board of a vessel could only be granted by the Director of Marine. That remains the case but where the defect is not a complicated one, which could be fixed by on board crew. The Department will extend its trust to the Master that the defect has been fixed and the equipment tested and will therefore not require shipowner to commission classification surveyor to inspect it. It’s an enhanced arrangement that will obviously save the shipowner time and money.

Overseas offices

There does remain, however, another wish on the shipowners’ bucket list. That is that the Department has representatives strategically located around the globe to assist ships in difficulties. A report issued earlier this year by the Financial Services Development Council points out that HKSR does not have overseas representation, and is compared unfavourably to an alternative register because of it.

The good news is that Mr Wong would not rebut the shipowners’ wish of the possibility of such overseas representation. The not so good news is that setting up overseas representation is complex and is unlikely to happen in the near future.

Generally speaking, Mr Wong pleads that it is never easy for a government department to open an office overseas. But it is not without precedent; Hong Kong’s Economic and Trade Office is one example as cited above. InvestHK, another government department, responsible for Foreign Direct Investment has several overseas offices.

But, Mr Wong adds: “Despite the success of GSR, we are still facing a manpower shortage problem at this moment. Personally, I would like to see the vacancies here filled first.” Which is perhaps the stronger argument. But finally, he stresses: “I am open-minded to shipowners’ suggestion of overseas representation but regardless of that, the establishment of overseas representation could not be done overnight.”

Watch this space.

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