In preparation, I sought out some of the newer graduates within the ABS headquarters in Houston and asked them “What do you remember most about your Commencement Address?
To a person they responded “It was long!
“What topics, or words or wisdom do you think I should cover,” I asked.
“Just keep it short,” they all replied.
So I will try to do that as I know the thoughts of the Class of 2008 are already on the future – particularly the parties later tonight.
I have tried to place myself in your shoes, as new graduates, and have framed three basic rhetorical questions that I will attempt to address as briefly as is reasonable.
The first is; why have they dragged in this old geezer, with a Maine Maritime degree, to talk to us prestigious Webbies today?
One answer could be that every strand of this grey hair is reflective of my more than 40 years of experience in the international maritime business.
Another could be that, as Chairman of ABS, I am ultimately responsible for an organization that employs more than 3,700 people, in over 80 countries around the world, including many Webb Institute alumni.
As you embark on your maritime careers I can assure you that there has never been a greater worldwide demand for the skills you are bringing to the industry.
At ABS in 2007, we employed more than 500 additional people worldwide – the majority of them Marine Engineers and Naval Architects – and we will add a further 500 or so over the course of this year.
Our needs are very similar to the current extreme level of demand for qualified, professionals within every sector of the shipping and offshore industries.
I was there for the last great shipping boom in the 1970’s and I can assure you that it pales in comparison to the situation today.
High tech industries and financial sector may grab the headlines but Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering are not only honorable professions, but ones that offer tremendous opportunities for career development and for personal and professional accomplishment.
Each of you will chart your own course.
It is impossible to foretell where the river of life will take you but stay open to the possibilities, never be afraid to seize the opportunities that are presented to you, and never settle for a position that requires you to drag yourself unenthusiastically from your bed each morning.
Work should be fun and rewarding. Make is so.
I would add one caveat to that.
Be confident in your abilities but arrogance will never serve you well.
There is no substitute for experience. It is that subtle emanation that gradually seeps into your professional persona and guides your judgment and decision making.
There are no short cuts to wisdom so, when you are frustrated that, at age 32, you are still not Vice President, or at 39 think you know more than the President or at 45 cannot understand why you are not yet Chairman, I will admire your ambition but counsel patience.
The learning process never stops.
Rhetorical Question 2. “From a technical standpoint, which area of the Maritime Industry offers the greatest opportunities for innovation and development in the future?”
It is a classic movie from before your time but I hope you have either seen The Graduate or remember the memorable one word of advice given to young Benjamin about the future – “Plastic.”
My advice to you, some 41 years later, is only slightly longer but equally succinct –“Energy and the Environment.”
The two are inextricably mixed.
Start with “energy.”
As we all know the world has an insatiable demand for energy.
It impacts the Maritime Industry in two ways: we participate in exploring, producing and transporting energy resources; and w are a very significant user of energy with an immediate negative impact on the environment.
First, all the major discoveries of new oil fields of recent years have not only been offshore but in progressively deeper waters offshore.
The latest generations of drill ships are capable of operating in waters 12,000 feet deep. They are then capable of sending a drill string a further 35,000 feet into the earth’s crust.
Each of these vessels carries a price tag of around three quarters of a billion dollars – are there are currently more than twenty either under construction or on order to ABS Class in Korea.
The recovered oil and gas must then be handled offshore on increasingly technically sophisticated floating production units which can cost up to $2 billion dollars a piece by the time they are on station and in service.
It is estimated that between 50 and 100 new units will be needed over the next few years.
The technologies that are being applied do exceed anything that was needed to put a man on the moon.
If you are looking for the most extreme technical challenges look no further than the rapidly expanding offshore energy industry.
Second, “The Environment.”
The international shipping industry is perfectly capable of designing, building and operating an 18,000 TEU containership, a million deadweight ton tanker, a 500,000 deadweight ton bulk carrier, a 1,000 passenger, 40 knot ferry and cruise ships the size of small cities.
Those challenges have already been met.
But what we are not yet able to do is to design, build and operate any of those vessels in the potentially most environmentally friendly way.
Yet we have no option other than to vastly reduce the environmental footprint of our industry.
It does not matter that shipping is the most environmentally efficient way of moving goods.
Government legislators and the general public expect more of us; this is the zero tolerance era.
The new wave of restrictive regulation, that started in California and now stretches to areas such as the North Sea and the Baltic, is being internationalized and extended.
You are the next generation that will come up with the solutions that will reduce emissions from ships that will design and develop more effective ways of preventing the exporting of indigenous species of marine life to new locations around the world in ships’ ballast water.
You will address the impact of shipping on green house gases and a host of other environmentally related topics.
Just last month the first hydrogen powered hybrid tug went into service in Europe.
Engine manufacturers are wrestling with practical difficulties of burning an emulsified water and oil fuel blend.
Designers are coming up with the first innovative ballast free ship designs.
To complete the circle back to your colleagues who will be helping the oil companies to drill in the deep waters offshore, remember that a single very large containership, maintaining a 26 knot service speed, will burn close to 300 tons of heavy, sulphur laden fuel every day – and there are more than 100 of those ships currently on order.
As an industry we need to do better.
But, as yet, we have taken only baby steps in the right direction.
I look out at you and wonder which one of you is going to become the leader in research that will transform the environmental profile of this industry.
Personally, I can’t wait to see the results.
That just leaves one more question which you may not necessarily phrase in this way, or even ask right now – but you will at some stage in your life: “Is it all worthwhile?”
To which the answer is an emphatic yes.
Some of you may have read Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows in which the water rat says to the mole: “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
I have been extremely fortunate to have spent my entire adult life doing exactly that and I can assure you no truer word has been written.
This is a fascinating industry. It is a very personal industry.
Most of you will keep in touch with each other throughout the rest of your lives through professional associations, business dealings or just because of the bonds of friendship that have been forged here at Webb.
You will have a chance to meet some of the most fascinating characters that even the most inventive novelist could ever dream up.
You will have the opportunity to travel the world, and live through experiences that will fascinate your grandchildren with their retelling.
You will be intellectually challenged and personally rewarded.
Today, the door to the world has been flung open.
When you step forward, do so with confidence, humility, enthusiasm and respect for those who live and work with and for you.
Welcome to our industry.
Good luck to you all.
Robert D. Somerville