PSS and the Maritime Skills Alliance

Published: Tuesday, November 10, 2020 - 00:21

An apprentice arrives for their first day on the quayside. They're young but eager to get started and take to their newfound employment like a fish to water. There is just one problem. They haven't been taught the skills necessary to not just remain safe on site, but also to identify potential hazards and notify their line manager. As a result, they make one mistake and fall victim to a preventable accident that takes them out of commission for over a week. Worse still, a veteran worker is also injured in the accident and has to take time off work to recuperate. Now, two people are hurt and the business has to cover their shifts at some expense. Thankfully, the chances of this scenario happening are low because our members understand the importance of training and skills in maintaining safety in ports. This is the second factor of the Whole Person approach to health and safety; Skills. More specifically making sure those skills are being communicated to the seventeen-thousand strong port industry.

Port Skills and Safety can only do so much here in London. We can conduct surveys and initiatives as much as we like, but ultimately health and safety is the responsibility of everyone in the ports sector, and from CEOs to apprentices, everyone must be trained in the skills necessary to remain safe. How do we ensure that, as an industry, these skills are being taught to those who need them? How do we guarantee that the standard of training offered is appropriately high enough to maintain a level of excellence? Here is Iain Mackinnon from the Maritime Skills Alliance with his view on where we stand on qualifications and apprenticeships.


Iain Mackinnon
Iain Mackinnon

It’s no accident that Port Skills and Safety has both words in its name; skills and safety are in many ways two sides of the same coin. Someone who has been properly trained to do their job is a safer worker; they’re much less likely to put themselves, or colleagues, in harm’s way, and much less likely to damage the equipment they’re using and the vessel they’re working on.

I see an economic benefit, too. There’s less time lost to accidents, and greater profitability means more scope to invest in the latest safety equipment, and the latest safety processes, and the training to use them.

It’s no surprise therefore that Port Skills and Safety was one of the founder members of the Maritime Skills Alliance in 2004. There were three members back then – the other two were the Merchant Navy Training Board and the Sea Fish Industry Authority – and now we’re 18, covering all of the ‘wet’ side of the sector. 

The core of our work has revolved around the creation and promotion of qualifications and apprenticeships, and that’s become a base on which to build a broader range of activities, including influencing Government policy where it affects maritime businesses.

Take-up of qualifications is fairly modest in the maritime sector – that’s very much the case in ports – compared with other parts of the economy. The qualification authorities fret over low volumes, so we and PSS are often working together to protect the qualifications we have. There’s certainly work to be done to get more employers using the qualifications available to them; they’re designed by employers for employers, and those that use them are positive about them. I think others are missing out.

We work together on apprenticeships, too. PSS has convened employer-led groups to shape new apprenticeships, working within the rules set by the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA), which is the responsible Government agency in England. We work with the IfA across the full range of the maritime sector, helping them to understand the sector better (particularly the crucial role of regulators), and to adapt their requirements so that they are a better fit.

Some employers are frustrated by the Apprenticeship Levy. I do think there’s much more scope for using the Levy to its full extent than some people realise, particularly given the breadth of occupations in ports. The list of approved apprenticeships is extensive, going well beyond port-specific examples like “Port Operative” and “Marine Pilot”, through generic trades like engineering and electricians, to others which are not traditional apprenticeships, like Safety, Health and Environment Technician.

But if there are gaps with no apprenticeship and enough interest from employers in filling that gap, we’ll work with PSS to check it out, win approval to proceed, and put work in hand to get the gap filled. 

We are, for example, currently exploring with PSS and one of its employer members the possibility of creating a new apprenticeship in Scotland for supervisors. (Apprenticeship rules and structures differ across the UK, so though we aim to get similar content across the UK, the routes to approval are different). None of the existing Modern Apprenticeships suit, so we’re looking at creating a new one, tailored for the ports sector. 

We are also working with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to re-shape existing qualifications which offer a route into the sector. The Diploma in Shipping and Maritime Occupations has been used for a decade as a pre-cadetship for people who want to go on to train as Merchant Navy cadets. When SQA reviewed the qualification they found strong interest in broadening its scope so that it also served as an entry route to other maritime roles – including those in ports. I am a member of the working group which is designing the replacement qualification.

Every other part of the maritime industry has its safety challenges too, and every other part works closely with the education side of Government on qualifications and apprenticeships, so some of the value we offer to PSS is to facilitate sharing and learning with other members.

I attend a UK-wide fishermen’s training meeting, for example, and at every meeting we get an update from a former fisherman who now works as an inspector with the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. He tells us about the latest published accident reports (sadly, he is never short of material) and his analysis of trends, and we draw out the implications for training. He has, for example, identified that perhaps half the deaths of fishermen happen when their boats are alongside, often because they misjudge the gap when they come onboard again – particularly if they’ve been drinking.

A more recent development has been the creation of the Maritime Skills Commission. It was first proposed in the Department for Transport’s Maritime 2050 strategy, published in January 2019. The Department intends the Commission to take a strategic view of skill needs, to be sure that all parts of the maritime sector have the people they need for business success.

Port interests are well-represented amongst the 19 Commissioners, through Lucy Armstrong, Chair of the Port of Tyne, and Alison Rumsey, Chief HR Officer for Associated British Ports. I am also a Commissioner.

One of the Commission’s first projects is to look at the future skill needs of ports. It will look in particular at what the port of the future will look like, then work from there to what skills will be needed – software engineers, perhaps, as much as stevedores?

At the heart of it all is in working together to share experience; a problem shared is a problem halved. That sharing is a core strength of PSS, evidenced by the trusted relationships which underpin PSS’s workshops and guidance. I see more scope for more sharing on the skills side of your work, both within the ports sector and across to other parts of the wider maritime industry. We are your partners in that and keen to do everything we can to help your people safe, and successful.


Next week, we will be taking a more forensic look at skills, training, apprenticeships in the ports sector. This will encompass both the Whole Person approach to health and safety, as well as a commitment to the promotion of upskilling and sharing of best practices across the industry. We hope to see you then.