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7 minute read

How Well Do You Know the Maritime Industry? 3 Maritime Myths Busted

Who are some of the people in the maritime industry helping to move these things? Do you need a maritime background to work in this industry? How niche is a career in maritime — is it only for those who want to sail?

Did you know that shipping moves 90% of world trade? Multiple players from different sectors within the maritime ecosystem work together to bring us most of what we need and use on a daily basis – from the flour for our bread at breakfast, to the vehicles for our commute, and even the latest IT gadgets.

Three individuals at various stages of their careers – a fresh graduate, a mid-career switcher, and an industry veteran, break down three myths and misconceptions about maritime careers.

Myth #1: Shipping is a niche industry and it is very hard to break into

When Valerie Kor decided to pursue her degree in Maritime Studies at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), she knew nothing about this industry.

“The general perception is that shipping is a niche industry. However, it is actually very broad as there are various roles in the technical, commercial, insurance, HR and even accounting aspects. Anyone can join the maritime industry regardless of their educational background,” Valerie shared.

A management trainee programme is a good bridge from one’s studies to starting one’s maritime career. Valerie joined TORM Singapore as a Shipping Trainee in July 2018 after her graduation. As part of the programme, she visited several vessels both in Singapore and Denmark, where she had the chance to meet with the Captain and crew.

Such opportunities allowed her to learn about various aspects of the shipping business, including the technical side. She also had the exciting opportunity of studying in Denmark under the Danish Shipping Academy’s Commercial Shipping Program, where she interacted and was taught together with trainees from other shipping companies.

On the corporate front, her work involves meeting brokers and customers. She is most thankful that her colleagues are approachable and helpful, which really facilitated her learning process and improved her understanding of the industry.

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To address the misconception that shipping is a niche industry, Valerie thinks that it is very important to first create interest in the industry. She cited the example of how her friends and relatives proactively asked her more about the maritime industry when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the new Tuas Port at the National Day Rally. It was a good opportunity for her to tell them more about her work.

“Before I enrolled in NTU’s Maritime Business course, I knew nothing about the maritime industry. However, everyone I met during my internship and my current workplace has been very helpful and nurturing. They are always happy to teach and guide others.”

– Valerie Kor, Shipping Trainee of TORM Singapore Pte Ltd
Valerie Kor with fellow management trainees of TORM.

Myth #2: Shipping is part of a rigid, age-old industry and it is boring

“When I’m out with my friends, my phone keeps ringing and people wonder what kind of job I am doing.”

– Matthew Chan, Boarding Officer of Wallem Shipping (S) Pte Ltd

Having experience in both the retail and hospitality industries previously, Matthew Chan eventually found his calling as a boarding officer with a shipping agency. As one who does not like “staying in the office all day”, he enjoys the challenges that come along with his current job.

Similar to a travel agent, a boarding officer is responsible for coordinating all kinds of services for vessels. In this role, Matthew is the main point of contact for a ship’s every need, from arranging for refuelling to preparing the necessary documentation for port clearance.

Matthew Chan in front of one of the cruise ships he works with.

Matthew’s job requires him to keep up to date with the latest maritime regulations as he handles the vessels’ documentation when they arrive in Singapore. He also needs to know what is required to manage vessels of different sizes and functionalities. As a boarding officer, he is always kept on his toes and there is never a dull moment at work.

A good understanding of his clients’ needs enables Matthew to gain their trust and attract a greater clientele. While his clients may have different, and sometimes, unusual requests, Matthew goes the extra mile.

“Some people think that boarding officers have a magic bag of tricks,” laughs Matthew. “For example, people ask where they can buy things – from the best char kway teow to Rolex watches (because they hear that it is cheaper here), to even a specific type of furniture from IKEA.” While these are not his core duties, he tries his best to help them where possible, while prioritising the most important tasks.

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“Is it a myth that boarding officers have to give up their holidays and weekends? It’s the truth at times because ships can call at port any time,” quipped Matthew, when asked about his working hours.

He added, “But it’s simply the nature of operations; I have a friend in the IT industry who deals with servers, and he’s always out on the job too. The upside for me, though, is that my work is never boring!”

Myth #3: Seafaring careers are no longer favourable professions for Singaporeans today

With 49 years of experience in the maritime industry, Lim Tau Kok has had an illustrious career and a wealth of insights into how the industry has been and is currently perceived.

According to Tau Kok, marine engineering is one of the least known and most misunderstood specialisations in the field of engineering. For example, more would be familiar with the job scope of a mechanical engineer than a marine engineer. Yet, many are unaware of the fact that marine engineers possess a very wide range of skills because of their diverse job scope. 

While a marine engineer’s primary role is to maintain the ship’s machinery, their literal position at sea calls for them to also be versed in mechanical and electrical engineering, among others. Their work requires them to be responsible for all other equipment on the ship – even the air conditioning system and down to the boiler. Tau Kok remarked, “Marine engineers make good husbands – we are very handy around the house, and I help to fix everything in my home.”

Tau Kok, himself, is a testament that marine engineers can go far in their careers, having taken on key senior-level positions in the maritime industry, such as the Executive Director at Pacific Carriers Limited (PCL).

To improve the general perception of the maritime industry, he drew reference to an industry that has done a good job at elevating its profession — the culinary industry. He said, “Before, we used to call them ‘cooks’. Now we call them ‘chefs’. University graduates are opening hawker stalls, and people go to Shatec, aspiring to become chefs. Branding, celebrity chefs and cooking shows have elevated the status of the culinary profession. We should do the same for maritime careers.”

Lim Tau Kok’s seafaring career from 1969 when he joined Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) as a cadet and rose through the ranks to be the first Singaporean to become a Chief Engineer at age 26.

“When you go where few people want to go, it’s easier to be successful. When you go with the masses, the competition will be very stiff.”

– Lim Tau Kok, Advisor at Wavelink Maritime Institute

While it may not be widely known, there is plenty of opportunities and structured career progression for maritime roles. In fact, it is precisely what attracted many of Tau Kok’s students at Wavelink Maritime Institute (WMI), where he currently lectures. The structured career progression for deck officers and marine engineers appeal to the many who want a clear view of their future.

Lim Tau Kok lecturing as an advisor at WMI.

Tau Kok feels that it would be helpful to get young people to tell other young people about the industry to reduce misperceptions. While industry veterans like himself could impart stories and knowledge, students see them as coming from a different generation with different challenges. “The industry needs to speak the language that the young use and engage with them on the networks that they frequent,” he adds.

Singapore’s maritime ecosystem comprises over 5,000 organisations and employs more than 170,000 people, contributing to about 7% of the nation’s gross domestic product. Besides providing us with everyday essentials, a career in the maritime industry is accessible to those without a maritime background, providing one with an exciting and reputable career.

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