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Safety at sea starts with compliance but grows through competence

27 / 08 / 2021
Mintra SME, Martyn Thomas

“Competence is more important than compliance. Compliance means you have achieved the certification, whereas competency means you can demonstrate you can do the job that you are expected to do and have the necessary skills and behaviours for the role.”

Challenging the perception that regulatory compliance equates to competency is an all too often frequent occurrence for competency consultant, training lead and marine electrical engineer Martyn Thomas (MIMarEST). He believes that far too many organisations look at training as a tick box exercise with no thought to the bigger picture of how the training is applied in context.

To assume that a person is competent because they have achieved a defined standard can be a dangerous logic to apply, he said, especially in safety-critical industries like maritime where poor decisions and actions can have potentially devastating consequences.

“You can train, get a certificate, get the compliance box ticked and you can go from ship to ship with that certificate throughout your career. In reality, what that means is that you could be on ferries for 10 years and never have anchored a ship, and then switch to container vessels where anchoring could be one of your tasks.

“You could be a certified marine engineer with many years of experience on fast ferries. However, engines on a fast ferry may be completely different to the diesel generators on board a cruise ship. It’s wrong to assume that a person is competent because they have reached compliance through a regulatory standard – that’s not the way to measure competency.

“Building competency through a training model of ongoing, small training modules will build competence in a role but also, as an additional benefit, ensures certification remains valid. Competent seafarers work safely and efficiently,” he said.

“Helping seafarers develop is always something that I have enjoyed,”

Martyn is a seasoned training lead with more than 30 years of experience in the maritime and training sectors. He started his career as an apprentice marine electrical engineer working on nuclear submarines; as a college lecturer was responsible for designing and delivering a BTEC in electrical engineering recognised as a Merchant Navy ETO cadetship access course; and has been responsible for the training needs of several multi-national organisations.

He is also a subject matter expert (SME) working with digital learning specialists Mintra on a major expansion of the company’s maritime course library. Mintra has been leading the digital transformation of learning and competency in safety-critical industries worldwide for over 30 years and has significantly increased its focus on the maritime sector this year.

It acquired digital learning and crew competence management experts Safebridge in February and over the past three months has been working to more than double the number of titles in its own maritime eLearning course library from 100 to 232.

“Helping seafarers develop is always something that I have enjoyed,” said Martyn. “I can trace it back to my own apprenticeship when we were carrying out a refit of the [UK] Sea Cadets’ ship, TS Royalist, and I had responsibility for the first-year apprentices that were working with us.

“After working with a further education college and developing a BTEC Level 3 course that would prepare students and give them all the skills they needed to join the Merchant Navy as a cadet, I joined Carnival.

"We’ve moved away from the chalk and talk approach where a teacher would stand at the front of the class and hand out written notes, and eLearning is now the approach for many."

“They were looking for a new cadet training manager and felt I would be the right person because I had both a technical background and a maritime teaching background. During my time there I wrote the first version of their competency framework for 1st to 3rd officers.”

That experience saw him gradually move away from technical roles and focus wholly on the development of seafarers, working with shipping organisations to create competence frameworks to ensure safe and efficient operations. He’s now regularly approached to share his knowledge as an SME for both eLearning and classroom courses.

He said: “I appreciate the Mintra way because they see the value of using SMEs to create courses. We’ve moved away from the chalk and talk approach where a teacher would stand at the front of the class and hand out written notes, and eLearning is now the approach for many.

“The downside is that, more often than not, companies use instructional designers to create the content as well as develop the learning. Sometimes this involves nothing more than research consulting sources such as the internet.

“In Mintra, courses are a partnership between SMEs and instructional designers. As an SME, I write the script and the instructional designer can challenge it. I can also challenge the course. But if you are doing both, you have no one to challenge you; no one to question whether the information is correct. The majority of SMEs are still working in the industry, either directly or as consultants, so there is a level of assurance that the content is correct.”

“One of the biggest challenges as an SME is that you want to teach everybody, everything."

Although an advocate of eLearning, especially for supplying theoretical knowledge, Martyn believes that blended learning is still the best option for retaining and demonstrating competence. It’s the model that replicates the traditional apprenticeship approach – 70% on the job training, 20% being taught and 10% learning from other sources. The 20% taught element does not have to come from the traditional method: it can be online, virtual reality or augmented reality.

As the world embraces life post-pandemic, however, eLearning will be the default for many organisations and Martyn urges caution in identifying appropriate courses. Quite simply, if the content is not engaging, the seafarers are not going to build knowledge and grow their competencies.

He explained: “At the end of a good quality training course, you should be able to understand what the learner will have retained. For learning to be retained there needs to be interaction between the learner and the course.

“A good course will have a mix of features: instead of listening to a voice over and then moving to the next screen, the learner will be asked to complete an activity or exercise or click on points around the screen to pull out further information.

“One of the biggest challenges as an SME is that you want to teach everybody, everything. You learn very quickly that you just can’t do that. You have to carefully identify what it is that the learner needs to know - look at it and think, is this an introductory, intermediate or advanced course?

“There also needs to be clarity around the course content. If it is an introductory course, then the learner should not get the impression that they will be skilled when they complete it. Organisations should not see a 20-minute course as anything other than introductory unless it is a refresher – to tag it as such gives the learner an unrealistic understanding of their skill level.

“My advice to any learner who is told otherwise is to step back and challenge that.”