We Need to Embrace New Technology, But Let’s Not Forget the Essentials

John Hark
FH Bertling

I am barely a Generation Xer, being very close to the line with Baby Boomers. I’m in the third oldest generation of five in the work force today. Yes, I said FIVE… we’re in an interesting time with five defined generations working together – Traditionals, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennial (Y) and now Generation Z. It is a challenging situation, but at the same time rewarding if we embrace the potential. Ultimately, we must capitalize on it if our industry is to thrive, not just survive. 

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the logistics industry added 18,700 jobs in one month, giving transport and logistics operations more than 73,000 new jobs since the start of the year. Companies are scrambling to keep up with surging shipping demand in what is the hottest logistics jobs market in several years. We are all aware of the current strain on the trucking industry, which is in the news almost every day, but these statistics are really representative of the talent strain on the industry as a whole.

On top of this job growth and demand, we are in unprecedented times as regards the speed at which technology is progressing. At the start of my career as a shipbroker, I was fortunate to see the transition from telex to fax and Comtext and finally to email. How many of you remember Comtext? This all happened in about a 2-year period. During this time, the Internet took off as well. The pace of technology evolution is MUCH faster now and I’m not afraid to admit that for the first time in my career, I feel I cannot keep up with it. I suspect I’m in good company here?

Disruptor is the buzzword today and the maritime industry seems ripe for disruptions well beyond those driven by weather and regulatory changes. Now more than ever, we must innovate together. This investment is key to keeping pace with technology movement, retaining and developing staff, and of course bringing more bright young minds into this exciting industry. We need to collaborate together, get creative and more importantly, make it a priority… if we’re simply reacting to technology changes, we’re already behind.

As a professor at Texas A&M and a board member of the Port Houston Partners In Maritime Education program, I see many bright students ready to enter our workforce. They are keen to make use of the latest technology like Block Chain, Robotic Process Automation, and Big Data Analytics – all concepts with which many of us struggle. These bright minds are the drivers of innovation, and they’re not going to be patient about it. We even have some Houston area high schools offering the latest technology in vessel bridge simulation systems… yes I said high schools… allowing for some amazing training. Let’s embrace their enthusiasm and create opportunities for these ambitious students within our industry – or we risk losing them.

The maritime industry has lagged technologically but we are catching up! From a practical standpoint, we may be years from fully autonomous vessels, but we are seeing partial automation of vessel systems today. A recent demonstration in Europe of a harbor tug being remotely operated from hundreds of miles away paints a clear picture of the future.

This technological advancement is overwhelmingly positive but more importantly, inevitable. As such, we have another obligation as leaders in our field, one just as critical as our innovation investment. We need to be sure that students and education institutions continue to focus on developing interpersonal skills and creativity, skills that cannot be automated. As technology progresses, we can’t afford to lose sight of these important attributes. A retired container executive recently commented in an interview about the lack of personal service. He was pushing newer employees to maintain personal contact and to rely less on tech tools and online booking services, which are quickly coming to the forefront of the container business. The personal touch and relationships are part of what makes our industry unique.

We face exciting times as an industry. Moving forward and bringing the next generation along is not exactly optional – but change can be scary no matter the generation. There is real concern today about job loss due to automation. However this road is well paved with industries that have gone down it ahead of ours, like automotive. In the book, “Race Against the Machine”, the authors recounted a profound conversation that took place during a tour of a Ford plant by CEO Henry Ford II and UAW President Walter Reuther. Ford commented, “Walter, how are you going to get these robots to pay UAW dues?” Reuther responded, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy cars?” Will we see similar dynamics and conversations in our industry? Time will tell, and it will be interesting.

  • Date August 14, 2018
  • Tags 2018 July/August