From Kiribati around the world: Half a Century of seafaring training in the South Pacific
The island state of Kiribati, approximately halfway between Fiji and Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is known for its seafaring tradition. A unique project combines the demand for maritime expertise with career opportunities for the locals: The Marine Training Centre (MTC), co-founded by Hamburg Süd, trains young Kiribati as seafarers. As managing partner of South Pacific Marine Services GbR (SPMS), we oversee and support the school and deploy the young cadets on board our ships.

Today, the MTC looks back on a history spanning more than 50 years. Back in 1964, following an accident on board a Hamburg Süd ship, an injured seaman had to be transported to Kiribati’s main atoll, Tarawa, for urgent medical care. In the ensuing rescue operation in rough seas, local fishermen displayed great seafaring skills and sensitivity in the face of extreme conditions. Impressed, the captain reported what had happened to the head office in Hamburg. And thus the foundation stone for the MTC was laid. Three years later, Hamburg Süd, the shipping company China Navigation, and the British colonial government founded the nautical school on Tarawa.

For Hamburg Süd, the talented seafarers were an asset and employing them on board the company’s ships after they completed their training seemed the perfect solution. This led to the establishment of the SPMS joint venture in 1970. As managing partner, we joined forces with five other Hamburg shipping companies that committed to deploying the Kiribati trained at the school. SPMS works closely with the Kiribati government, providing and financing three instructors and the head teacher of the MTC. However, the MTC remains a state school operated by the Kiribati Ministry of Labor and Human Resource Development with financial support from the Australian and New Zealand governments.

Each year, some 150 trainees start an 18-month period of training at the MTC, and after two additional months at sea the cadets are taken on as ordinary sailors. If they follow this up with another 24 months on board, they qualify to sit their able seaman exams. If they pass these successfully, the graduates are fully qualified able seamen on deck duty or in the engine room, or trained stewards. Their fitness for service at sea is attested on site by a physician recognized by the German Berufsgenossenschaft Verkehr (BG Verkehr – employer’s liability insurance association for transport and traffic) in accordance with the relevant guidelines.

Training is conducted in accordance with the STCW standard (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and is continuously adapted in exchange with the participating shipping companies and the ships’ commands so as to meet practical requirements on board at all times. To date, more than 5,000 seafarers as well as locksmiths, chefs and stewards and, since 2015, fishermen have been trained at the MTC. Catering training is offered to Kiribati women, opening up opportunities for them especially in the New Zealand and Australian hotel industry.

However, the career path for the Kiribati seafarers is not necessarily over on completion of their training. Provided that they have appropriate leadership qualities, after about five years at sea they can earn promotion to petty officer. In the meantime among the Kiribati there are 1st and 2nd officers as well as a captain sailing for our SPMS partner shipping companies. The MTC seafarers’ wages are based on the guidelines of the International Labor Organization (ILO); in addition, SPMS, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and the United Services Union in Germany (ver.di) have concluded their own collective wage agreements. This also includes the relatively high transfer costs that the deployment of Kiribati seafarers entails. Because not only is the island state spread over an ocean surface the size of the USA – seafaring missions from here also involve covering long distances. Although SPMS is nonprofit, cost aspects such as this still have to be taken into account – ultimately, the economic balance is also part of the project’s success and ensures the continued existence of the school and ongoing employment opportunities for the local seafarers.

Located in the South Pacific, Kiribati consists of 33 coral atolls, 22 of which are inhabited – with the total population numbering around 110,000. The Hamburg shipping companies are represented locally by SPMS, and together they make up one of the largest employers in the state. Currently, 624 seafarers trained at the MTC are employed on the ships of these companies, 198 of them with Hamburg Süd. Given that the island state has few other sources of income apart from the granting of fishing rights, the economic importance of the school becomes clear. The Kiribati’s earnings also directly benefit their families – in the past ten years alone, they have on average sent over 4.5 million euros a year back home.

We are proud to be able to look back with the MTC on half a century of seafarer training. Although almost 14,000 kilometers separate Hamburg and the school in Tawara, the two places have close ties. For the SPMS partner shipping companies and the inhabitants of Kiribati alike, a sustainable model has been developed that creates a win-win situation for all concerned. On the one hand, we can rely on the skills of the seafarers trained at the MTC, while young Kiribati receive sound training and the prospect of a stable job.