THE digitalization and automation of global shipping are inevitable but for some, this could also be a downside to a labor-supplying country like the Philippines.

The arrival of new technology has started for the shipping industry and fully automated vessels, communications and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) could replace warm bodies working onboard vessels. It is a scenario not exactly relished by the Philippines, a country that has more than 400,000 registered seafarers and at one time, supplied crew for more than half of the vessels plying the global trade.

The Wallem Group, one of the biggest ship management companies in the world, has a pool of 7,000 seafarers and out of that number, 2,500 are Filipinos.  PHOTO from Wallem
The Wallem Group, one of the biggest ship management companies in the world, has a pool of 7,000 seafarers and out of that number, 2,500 are Filipinos. PHOTO from Wallem

Nigel Hill, the Wallem Group chairman, said that seafarers manning these multimillion dollars' worth of ships are still as indispensable as ever and will continue to be needed, allaying industry fears of humans losing jobs to machines.

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Hill was recently in the country for the opening of Wallem Maritime Training Center — put up by the Wallem Group with Westminster Seafarer Management Philippines Inc. to train seafarers exclusively for Wallem-owned vessels.

He believes that though this coming is inevitable, it is still quite into the future and vessels would always be needing people onboard.

"There will certainly be challenges, but I think that full automation is still quite some way off. I know that there's been a lot of advances that have been mentioned in the media about it and we are still employing a lot of seafarers," Hill said.

"Their roles will still be required for many years. The idea of automated vessels in a controlled environment is feasible," he added.

Hill said that longer shipping hauls, deep sea fishing and the transport of complicated other cargos being automated is still a challenge.

For the Wallem Group chairman, full automation and digitalization of shipping replacing seafarers onboard are "still not a threat."

The Wallem Group, one of the biggest ship management companies in the world, has a current pool of 7,000 seafarers and out of that number, 2,500 are Filipinos.

Hill said that he has complete trust in the seafarers they hire for the vessels they are managing.

Wallem has always been a tech-driven company and the training they provide to seafarers is of the highest quality with training catered to make seafarers adapt to the fast-changing pace in technology.

Hill pointed out that dedication in training "remains unchanged for a long time."

He said, "I think the requirements of Wallem are as high now as they have been in the past. I wouldn't say that the requirements have changed that much. I'd say it is as rigorous today as it was years ago."

Hill believes that seafarers today are adapting well to the new technologies as when ships are being automated and to a certain extent, unmanned.

He said that "generally speaking, there's a keenness to learn about the new techniques, and certainly, with the new seafarers coming in, they are much more tech-savvy than the older members of the industry. But from everything, I understand that the seafarers are adapting quite well to all the new digital challenges."

As for the impact of the lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic on the global shipping community, Hill said that Wallem, like the rest of the shipping companies, has been hit.

"It had a big impact on Wallem as it did on all other companies involved in the shipping industry. What was most obvious at the time it was peaking was the realization by the global community about the importance of shipping to their lives as voyages and travel gets impacted," he said.