Michael John Esplago is among the pack of accomplished millennials who are deemed ‘achievers’ in their respective fields in the maritime industry. At the young age of 26, he was already able to sail the world over, become a marine deck officer, survive a violent pirate attack, serve the government, and eventually represent the country in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London.
But in an industry that typically measures a mans worth by his rank, position, and experience, Esplago is also among those who receive passing comments such as “you remind me of my son”, “these things happened before your time”, or “you’re so young”, more often misconstruing his youth to inexperience and incompetence.
“Joining at a young age in any industry has its pros and cons. Some industry elders will look at your young age as inexperienced and often advise you to go back to sea. I took no offense to that because I agreed with them. However, the task I was supposed to do cannot wait,” Esplago reflected.
The young man, known to his friends and colleagues as ‘Mike’, was then spending his vacation leave teaching onboard Kapitan Gregorio Oca, the training ship of the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific (Maap) when he received an invitation from the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) to serve as the maritime education and training standards supervisor and to improve the implementation of the STCW Convention in the country, an international maritime convention that sets the standards of training, certification, and watchkeeping for seafarers.
“It was supposed to be just a year of service but as the months progressed, we realized it was a big job, and accomplishing it cannot be done overnight. It has to be a process with no shortcuts and plans that cut across the political transition,” Esplago explained.
It was 2014 and the 26-year old seafarer had to strike a balance between the interest of his fellow mariners and the proper implementation of the STCW. “These two factors cannot contradict each other, as the convention itself has been designed to protect our seafarers,” he said.
Fueled by the passion to make a difference in the policy-making level of the Administration, Esplago set down to the task of regular consultations, discussions, and administrative tasks to drive the best maritime policies on the table. “I did my homework to gain their nod. I made sure that I worked harder than everyone else.”
As years went by, Esplago took an interest in international affairs, policy-making, and administrative matters until he found himself representing the Philippines in Imo.
“I took it all on without additional compensation and even if the salary was a mere fraction of what I was earning while at sea. When you are working to create systems and policies that will eventually provide a better public service and see them realized, suddenly, all the sacrifices seem to be worth it,” he said.
Such was his commitment to making good changes that the initial plan to serve with Marina for a year eventually became three.
Returning to the private sector
Having had his share of public service, Esplago returned to where he started – maritime education and training with the private sector. He co-founded the Norway-based TERP, a technology company that offers learning tools to maritime universities.
“TERP creates technologies that make education attainable. We have built applications that work offline, thereby allowing the students to continue studying even without reliable internet,” Esplago says of the services provided by TERP which indeed, comes in a very timely period when most education and training modalities are done online to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
“The best thing about my role as TERP Co-founder and Regional Manager for Asia-Pacific is that I can ensure that the most advanced educational technology is made available to Filipinos. We have been continually improving the technology, taking into account our country’s challenges of poor internet and students’ economic capacity. That is why we built it to be accessible on ordinary and cheap smartphones and readily accessible offline,” he said.
As many of his friends and colleagues know him to be, Esplago has always been a busy bee who makes changes happen whenever he goes. In maritime circles, he is the tireless and eloquent young professional with hefty knowledge and capabilities hidden behind a bright, wide smile.
“Behind the need to wear a suit to formal meetings and flying over to London to attend IMO meetings, I like to keep things as simple as possible. Making things as simple as I could have allowed me to navigate the difficulties and challenges I have faced. That goes well with my lifestyle, maintaining one set of rubber shoes and wearing clothes often gifted by friends and my mom. So forgive my fashion statement. I enjoy wearing those clothes gifted to me as a sign of gratitude,” he quipped.
“I am still a work in progress, as all of the things I do are. I hope to help more schools give better education to their students and realize their dreams in the process. Ensuring that our technology is attainable to low-income countries like the Philippines makes me proud of the work we do. Hopefully, we get more partners to turn our youth’s dreams into realities,” he concluded.