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Blog Autonomous Technology Can Help Meet the Demands of a Changing Workforce

April 12, 2022

It’s no secret that the nature of work for humans is shifting across all industries. Two years into a pandemic, workers are seeking new employment opportunities that offer higher pay, more flexibility and greater satisfaction. Starting in April 2021, about 4 million people in the U.S. – 2.7 percent of all workers – quit their jobs, the highest level in 20 years. Abroad, Germany, Japan and other wealthy countries are experiencing similar trends. The months since April have continued to show little change in the “turnover tsunami,” with more to come. As of the first quarter of 2022, up to 44 percent of employees are seeking new jobs. 

The marine and maritime industries aren’t immune to this shake-up. Even before the pandemic, our sector struggled with a shortage of seafarers and innovative leaders. The current “Great Resignation” – the name for the ongoing economic trend in which employees are voluntarily resigning from their jobs en masse – recently forced the world’s largest shippers to mitigate job losses with large, one-time bonuses. Despite this effort, and others like it, the workforce remains dynamic, and is one of the contributing factors for the unprecedented disruptions and delays and shortages on essential goods we are now seeing globally. 

“It is of great concern that we are also seeing shortages of workers and expect more to leave our industries … putting the supply chain under greater threat,” transport heads wrote in a joint open letter to world leaders. 

With workers literally jumping ship for better opportunities and remote-working conditions, the question of how employers can attract talent has never been more critical.  

Technology will create new, more attractive jobs 

It’s impossible to look at how work is shifting without also looking at the driving factors. One of those factors is new and emerging technology, including 5G, virtual communications tools and automation. 5G, rolling out later this year, promises to deliver internet speeds 100 times faster than 4G, ideal for remote work. Virtual communications tools (like Zoom and Slack) are improving human connections and collaboration online. And automation is allowing workers to focus on higher-level, more satisfying, and often safer, work. 

Data by the World Economic Forum shows that “by 2025, technology will create at least 12 million more jobs than it destroys … Technology can boost earnings particularly when using that technology demands specialized skills and knowledge. Technology does not purge the need for human labor but rather changes the type of labor required.” 

Considering the demands of today’s workforce – better opportunities, greater flexibility and more satisfaction – it’s clear that technology has the power to create new types of jobs that meet these needs. 

In the marine industry, automated vessel technologies are already starting to bridge this gap. Autonomous systems, like Sea Machines’ SM300, allow mariners to conduct vessel operations from anywhere in the world, with flexible on-board crew arrangements. Instead of spending weeks at sea, mariners now have the option to command and control vessels remotely, from an office or other secondary location that keeps them closer to home and their families.  

Autonomous technologies also enable a single remote operator to command and control a fleet of vessels at sea from anywhere. In a market where there simply aren’t enough mariners to man vessels at sea, this capability can help keep the cargo vessels – and the supply chain – moving. 

For crew who remain stationed aboard vessels, autonomy can take over the rote, repetitive and dull work, enabling people to spend time on the more meaningful and cerebral work. Automated, 24/7 “on-watch” functions offer redundancy for mariners, especially in poor conditions and low light, and mitigate the risk of collisions and other incidents at sea. 

Equally important, autonomous marine technology is making way for new types of jobs. These future jobs may include remote vessel commanders, marine roboticists, AI and machine learning specialists and others. 

Gordon Meadow CMarTech FIMarEST, Chair of Marine Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) Special Interest Group said in Hellenic Shipping News: “Depending on the vessel type and/or level of autonomy, we know from experience so far that this requires more complex operations, requiring different technical skillsets and a different number of personnel. We believe the industry needs to perform a gap analysis to benchmark between the existing workforce skills and the new skill set requirements.” 

The World Economic Forum predicts that about two-thirds of the jobs transformed by automation will become higher skilled. As such, the Forum stresses the significant level of “reskilling” and “upskilling” required to ensure workers will be prepared for these future jobs. Retraining on this scale may sound daunting, but humans have done it before, across agriculture, manufacturing and other massive industries.  

“This is an exciting time of change for the maritime sector and long-term thinking is imperative. As well as raising awareness of new advancements in technologies and regulations, it is vital that we identify skills gaps and prepare the youth of today to meet the challenges to be faced tomorrow,” Meadow said. 

The future is bright 

As the nature of work evolves, it’s critical that our Blue industry continues to evolve and adapt to meet the new demands of today’s employees. Automation is driving job creation, producing rewarding jobs, making work safer and less physically demanding, and can alleviate the pains associated with worker shortages.  

This was showcased in 2021 when Sea Machines conducted the world’s longest autonomous mission at sea, autonomous systems like Sea Machines enable operators to remotely command vessels from anywhere in the world. For this mission, American Maritime Officers based in Boston safely and comfortably commanded the company’s autonomous Nellie Bly tugboat to circumnavigate Denmark from Hamburg, a 1,027NM voyage. The supporting SM300 autonomous technology, which is commercially available for workboats and other vessels, is proven effective, productive and safe for a myriad of vessel types and missions.  

This technology will expand the opportunities available to those in our industry. The resulting new jobs, which will likely offer greater pay, flexibility and satisfaction, can help employers meet the demands of this changing workforce.