The Port of Amsterdam is Europe’s 4th busiest port by metric tons of cargo, and the second busiest of the Netherlands (with Rotterdam being the biggest port). Over 6000 cargo ships visit each year, carrying about 100 million tons of cargo, and employing over 69,000 people.
A look at the map of the Port of Amsterdam will instantly time-warp you a few centuries back in time. Names such as Africa Harbour, Madagascar Harbour, Asia Harbour and Cacao Harbour are reminders of the Dutch Golden Age in which the Dutch East India Company sailed and dominated every ocean in the world, looking for trade.
‘ The past 3 Harbour Masters of Amsterdam were all female ‘
Marleen van de Kerkhof
Harbour Master Port of Amsterdam
What makes Port of Amsterdam an inspiring company for you?
The Harbour Master Division has a public task within the company Port of Amsterdam. As Harbour Master I’ve been given the mandate from the government to execute several tasks with regards to nautical management in the North Sea Canal region. I work closely with the commercial department in matters such as customer settlement processes. The Port of Amsterdam has a societal role and position, with a lot of impact on the City of Amsterdam and its surroundings. This puts the Port of Amsterdam in a bit of a hybrid position in between commercial targets and a societal role and responsibility.
The transition from public to private has had its impact on the people. We are now hiring more people from commercial companies (like logistical companies), instead of former government employees from the city of Amsterdam. This brings other perspectives to the company, which is very refreshing.
What is a Harbour Master?
A Harbour Master used to be this near-mythical position for former captains in uniform, mainly male. It has shifted from a position with a solid nautical expertise into a more managerial role, in which nautical experience is no longer absolutely necessary. I have more of a management and connecting role, dealing with different external parties such as the local government, police, fire brigades, city council members, the ministry of infrastructure and environment, regional safety bodies, and supervising institutions instead of, for example, checking the nautical draught of a loaded ship or being a lockkeeper. For that I rely on my very experienced colleagues, who work on the harbour vessels and at the control tower.
In other countries, especially in smaller ports, the Harbour Master still seems to have a more nautical role. At an international conference I saw that most Harbour Masters of other ports were nautical experts with a background as Captain on a ship and that just a few were women. The role has been changing here too, specifically as we are in a very complex environment: situated in the heart of the city, with environmental laws and regulations pertaining dangerous goods coming into play. This requires different skills, such as being able to build various relationships, stakeholder management, leadership, being able to instill trust. And on top of that you have to prepare your people and your Port for the future, both in terms of growth and new technologies.
What have been the challenges with regards to people and what are your ideas on recruitment?
All of this together requires a varied set of competencies and skills that we need from our people. Within the port organization we need to engineer a shift in thinking. It is not only about the nautical knowledge you have, but also about what you can bring to the table as a person. Don´t get me wrong, nautical knowledge and expertise are still the backbone of the harbour master division. For some jobs like lock master, traffic controller this knowledge is crucial, for more consultant-like jobs also other skills and competencies are required. I like the balance between nautical and non-nautical experts and between experienced people and young people just out of school. The young professionals look at things from a different perspective, i.e. with regards to work, learning, hierarchy. They can learn from each other, inspire each other and be complementary to each other.
What is your view on the development of employees in the organisation now and in future?
We will always use on-the-job learning. I like the way learning has changed. We used to have these huge paper manuals, the size of telephone books: very unattractive and un-inspiring and easily become dated. Now with e-learning you can learn any place, anytime, anywhere in an interactive way, with simulations of actual situations. So at this moment you can experience for yourself what your job is going to be like.
Employees are enthusiastic about this way of learning. It is easy, interactive, covers a variety of topics, and more interesting than just learning some theoretical facts. To practice things in almost ‘real time’ is exciting.
As a port authority we need to be flexible in order to anticipate on all the societal changes and new requirements around us. For me as Harbour Master that means I want to help employees to develop themselves in order to be fit for different kinds of jobs within the division, and outside. We call th
is ‘sustainable employability.’ It involves continuous learning, otherwise you get ‘stuck’ in one job.
We want to be innovative when dealing with the learning capabilities of our people, and those e-learning modules 21CC made for us help us with that.
When looking at innovation, environment, economics, what are the main challenges that you are facing?
Digitalisation. Some people are afraid of that. Some people, the first time they heard of ‘autonomous ships, like self-driving cars, they were horrified and rejected the idea as futuristic and unrealistic. Nowadays we have the first prototypes being tested. We should start thinking about what we’ll need to do when we get our first autonomous or semi-autonomous ship in the harbour: how is this going to change the job of the Traffic Controller of the harbour master division?
Take drones. Some of our own employees initially considered drones a threat to their job. Because of that, they were not open-minded about this new technology so I turned it around and asked the people of a pilot group to reflect on the following question: How can drones help you to make your job easier or to improve quality? It turned out that people had very interesting ideas about that. We picked one that looked particularly promising and we are about to start our first experiment with it. The outcome of this could be that drones will be considered an opportunity instead of a threat.
Sustainability, or ‘Clean Shipping’ as we call it, is another challenge, one that I especially care about as I started working at the Port of Amsterdam ten years ago as Project Leader Sustainability. The emissions of ships have a huge impact on the environment, also locally if they – like in the case of the Port of Amsterdam – come close to entering the city centre itself. We aim to reduce shipping emissions and minimise the environmental impact of these emissions by working with the shipping sector. We must now take action on this otherwise we will lose goodwill and our license to operate and to grow.
We stimulate the sustainability movement in shipping and the logistics industry in general
I believe in an international approach on this matter. Together with other ports we should set the same high environmental standards. For years we have been working with the Environmental Ship Index, a classification system for the shipping industry that gives ships a discount when they anticipate upcoming norms and act accordingly. We closely cooperate on this with the North West European ports and the port of Los Angeles is also very progressive on this matter. In this way we can encourage the shipping industry to reduce emissions for a cleaner environment. As port authorities, we are obliged to push these developments both from a general sustainability perspective and from a local perspective in which the city is continuously growing and it is important for both the city and the port to be good neighbours.
What would you say about your cooperation with the Port of Rotterdam? After all, it is a competitor.
The harbour master divisions of the Ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam work together quite intensively and have been doing so for quite a long time now. Since 2015 we work with the same port management system, and now we have also started to develop our e-learning together with 21CC. As Harbour Master organisations we have the same tasks, so we should harmonize processes whenever possible, for the benefit of the users of both ports. Processes such as harbour regulation, waste disposal plans, sustainability, e-learning, purchasing uniforms, and sustainability initiatives come to mind.
You started to work for the strategy department, then you made the move to commerce and now you are harbour master. What capacities does a woman bring into a traditionally male working environment such as a port? What advice would you give young students who aspire to work in the logistics sector?
In Holland, I never quite thought of it as an issue. Nobody raises an eyebrow here if the Harbour Master in a major port like Amsterdam happens to be female. However, I’ve noticed that this certainly is not the case everywhere.
My suggestion to female students in countries in which opportunities for women are fewer is to try and join international exchange projects, to follow international studies and to simply ‘hang on’ and go for it. Because later on you might regret that you accepted the ‘status quo’ of your country while the position of women might actually change in the near future. But I do realize that in many countries this is not easy…
I think that women can play a big role in logistics, but I strongly believe in the right ‘balance’ between men and women. I wouldn’t like it if there were only women working in logistics either; for me it really is about striking the right balance, to bring various qualities to the table, to value and use them all.
A quality that women seem to show more easily is social and emotional sensitivity which is sometimes needed to make a connection with others, and which is very important at this moment in time. A strong connection between people, the port and the city is required to drive innovations. It is important to bring emotions to the table when necessary, for example when fear plays a role in times of change it is so important to be sensitive towards this fear, to mention it explicitly and talk about the reasons for it. To jointly work towards a common solution. When you only operate rationally you don’t get everything out of a team.
Lastly, which worldwide developments do you see as being the biggest challenges for ports?
I’m thinking about the innovation side: the sector is known to be conservative. It is necessary to innovate to keep up with the rapid changes in our surroundings. We need to do a lot in the next decade in terms of sustainability, digitalisation of data, and (cyber) security to continue adding value to port operations. For large volumes of goods, shipping will be the most effective transport mode and, in the future this may be accomplished in a quicker and cleaner way.
It will be a challenge to run ahead of and not walk behind the developments. That would take the conservative image away from the ports. It’s a pity that the developments are taking so long. It is my goal as Harbour Master to contribute to improving the sustainability of the logistics chain and future-proofing our city, our port and our region for current and future generations. In that perspective we need ambitious people, knowledge, technology and political will to achieve that.
It would be worth it to change the general conservative image of ports to ports as modern, innovative, clean logistical nodes.
21CC has developed 19 e-learning modules to enhance job-flexibility for all the people working in this vibrant port:
- Introduction to the harbour
- Topography Port of Amsterdam – 1 Theory & 5 exercise modules
- Crisis Management
- Ship lock Master – 3 exercise modules
- Entrance Policy – 3 exercise modules
- Working Conditions – Dealing with aggression and violence
- Working Conditions – Business Assistance and Accidents at Work
- Working Conditions – Personal Protective & Working Equipment,
- Inland Police Regulations – 3 exercise modules for both Port of Amsterdam & Rotterdam