Wednesday, February 16, 2011

COMPASS sets new direction for female recruitment

John Connors.
Of the many non-traditional occupations in which women are under-represented, which has the lowest participation rate of all?

That unfortunate distinction probably goes to the marine transportation sector, where, on a worldwide basis, just two per cent of employees are female. One Canadian study indicates that, in Canada, the percentage may be a little higher, at around three percent.

“However, in Canada, as elsewhere, the vast majority of women in the marine transportation industry work in catering and housekeeping roles, doing what is traditionally seen as ‘women’s work’,” says John Connors, Executive Manager of the Council of Marine Professional Associates (COMPASS), a marine transportation industry association with membership across Canada. “Therefore, the numbers of women working in non-traditional professional occupations in marine transportation are much lower than the three percent indicates.”

This then, is a story about potential – and this is where the story gets good. The opportunities in marine transportation professional occupations are numerous and quite lucrative. Part of the COMPASS mandate is to spread the word about these opportunities and increase the involvement of women in marine transportation.

COMPASS had its beginnings in 2002, Connors explains, when the Marine Institute of Memorial University and Human Resources Development Canada (now Service Canada) formed the Marine Careers Secretariat (MCS) with a primary role to research and document careers in marine transportation. Connors was chair of MCS and moved over to COMPASS when that association was formed in 2008.

“One of the things that struck me from the beginning was the small number of women involved in marine transportation,” Connors says. “It seemed like an enormous inequity, but also an enormous opportunity, for young women.”

One of the first projects undertaken at MCS was a public perception study of the marine transportation industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. More than 1200 students were interviewed from all regions of the province, along with educators and parents. MCS also undertook a study of national and international supply and demand, in the marine transportation industry, that revealed a large and growing shortage of marine personnel. In Canada, the shortage is aggravated by an aging marine workforce nearing retirement age and new projects requiring additional personnel.

“On the basis of those studies, we held a symposium in 2006 of marine transportation professionals and developed a strategy contained in the 2007 report  In the Same Boat: A Collaboratively Developed Marine Careers Promotion Strategy for Eastern Canada. That report has been referred to as a seminal document, one of the best available in outlining the needs of the sector; and it formed the basis of the action plan that COMPASS has been following.”

Building on In the Same Boat, COMPASS has made promoting careers in marine transportation a key priority – and it has given specific attention to promoting those careers to women. It should be noted here, too, that the oil and gas industry and marine transportation are more than two ships passing in the night. They are in fact, tightly integrated and co-dependent, especially in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Marine transportation is inextricably tied to the offshore oil and gas sector,” Connors said. “All of the supply boats and shuttle tankers are staffed by marine transportation personnel. And many of the people on board the floating installations work in vessel, rather than production, operations.”

As noted, very few of those marine transportation positions are filled by women; but, Connors notes, “the number is increasing, and COMPASS intends to play an integral role in making that number growing at a much faster rate.” COMPASS has taken great care to ensure gender equity in its video and print promotional materials and on its website. A visit to the website reveals “Women in Marine Transportation” as one of the components displayed prominently on the home page. The website also displays 25 profiles of young marine transportation professionals, eleven of them women. 

Promotional brochures and posters have been developed in two formats – generic and female-specific. In January 2010, COMPASS released a Gender Equity Strategy, heralding the development of a long-term action plan for reducing the gender equity disparity in marine transportation professions. The action plan outline was developed with the assistance of COMPASS’s Marine Transportation Gender Equity Committee, which has representation from most major women’s organizations.

“There are marine-related occupations onshore, such as naval architects, systems designers, superintendents, and so on,” Connors says, “but the most critical shortages and the greatest opportunities are at sea, as ships’ officers – mates, captains, and engineers. And if you talk to some of the women who have gone into those occupations, you will be amazed at how excited and enthusiastic they are about their careers. They are great ambassadors for their industry.”

There are longstanding misperceptions about marine transportation that die hard, Connors says. “When people think about ships’ captains, many still think about the old grey-haired guy with the dutch cap. Well, it’s not that way anymore. The marine transportation industry is young, dynamic, and high-tech. It’s possible to become a captain or a chief engineer before age 30. And it’s no longer a matter of being gone for nine or ten months of the year, home for two weeks, then gone to sea again. Those days are gone. Seagoing positions provide equal time off for time worked, and on a regular shift basis, so these young professionals can be at home for six months each year. This kind of lifestyle can be very appealing for women.”

And the salaries, says Connors, are fantastic. “Just a few days ago, I spoke to a young woman who graduated from a marine transportation program at the Marine Institute five years ago. She went to work two days after graduation, she’s now second officer on an oil tanker, and from the first day she went to work she has never earned less than $100,000 a year.”

The old perception about rust buckets, with rustic, unisex bunks, is also a myth, Connors adds. “Today’s ships are well-equipped vessels with modern technology and amenities. They’ve got internet, satellite TV, gymnasiums – some even have spas on board. Most have private cabins, with their own washrooms.”

The industry’s attitudes have also evolved. “There is zero tolerance for any kind of sexist behaviour,” Connors explains. “None of the women I have spoken to who work on ships have ever mentioned any kinds of problems working with men. Their typical response is very positive.”

In fact, misinformation is one of the greatest barriers to women entering marine transportation, and dispelling popular misconceptions is a key focus of the strategy to increase gender diversity.

“Our public perception study found that parents are the primary influencer of their children’s choice of occupations,” Connors explains. “And we know that some parents still question whether they want their daughters to go to sea. They labour under old impressions that are no longer accurate.”

COMPASS is pursuing an action plan that tackles the misperceptions problem from three different angles. “The first is to reach young people directly, the second is to reach educators, and the third is to reach parents and guardians. For youth, we have developed a module on marine transportation careers for inclusion in the high school curriculum, and we will be promoting marine transportation careers through social media such as Facebook. For educators, we’re developing a strategy, associated with the curriculum module, for enhancing awareness of marine career opportunities and benefits.  And for parents, we have developed an advertising program that will run this winter and spring on community cable channels and in regional newspapers.”

COMPASS is also working closely with a number of women’s organizations, such as Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Women in Resource Development Corporation (WRDC), Women in Science and Engineering (WISE NL), the Women’s Policy Office, Women Interested in Successful Employment (WISE), the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades, and Technology (WinSETT Centre), and others, to help spread their message to young women.

“Last September we surveyed the first year students enrolling in marine transportation programs at the Marine Institute and the Coast Guard College. I was struck by the response of a woman in her 40’s, now beginning a new career as a ship’s officer, who indicated she had learned about this opportunity though consultation with Women In Successful Employment (WISE). So we know those networks work.”

In a dramatic departure from its traditional image as an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry, Connors says COMPASS expects the marine transportation industry to lead the way in establishing a progressive gender equity program that will set the standard for Canada and provide a template for other industry sectors to follow in its wake.

Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas takes place March 8 and 9, 2011 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is presented by the Harris Centre at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Please visit the official conference site, for more information or to register.

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