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The Workboat Association

Leading the Way: Kerrie Forster, navigating The Workboat Association’s Future

In this exclusive interview, we sit down with Kerrie Forster, the CEO of The Workboat Association, to explore his dynamic leadership journey and the strategic role he has within maritime. With over 20 years of maritime experience, Forster has navigated the complex landscape of the industry, rising from a part-time workboat crew member to the helm of The Workboat Association. Under his leadership, the association has seen significant growth and transformation, tripling its membership and expanding its influence and outreach.


Join us as Kerrie Forster shares insights into his leadership approach, the association’s mission to promote trade, skills, and safety standards, and the challenges and opportunities facing the workboat sector today. Discover how The Workboat Association is championing advancements in maritime safety, sustainability, and technological innovation, and learn about their vision for the future as they celebrate their 30th anniversary and prepare for the next phase of growth and development.


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Professional Journey and Leadership: With a 20-year career in maritime, transitioning each-rung of the ladder from a part-time workboat crew member to CEO of The Workboat Association, how have your onshore and offshore experiences shaped your leadership approach?


Patience – quite simply. We all have different backgrounds, expectations, and thought processes. There is more than one way to skin a cat.


Having worked with many different nationalities in remote environments and thousands of miles away from home, you quickly learn that leading, working, managing, and behaving all require someone to remain adaptive, professional, thorough, but also amicable.


‘Collaboration without bigotry or prejudice’ is ultimately something that continues to go through my mind when making operational and leadership decisions. How can the decision I am making be influenced by any of the stakeholders around me? Are my eyes closed to something right under my nose? These are the questions I ask myself when considering the effects of my actions. ‘Can somebody that will be key to the success of my expectations either positively or negatively affect the outcome of the shared objective beyond my own experience or interest?


Maybe this means engaging early with front-line employees, pulling together key influencers and ‘best practice ambassadors’ for their opinions, re-assessing your internal skill sets, or when necessary, reaching out for help without feeling ashamed.


There are lots of people out there that do not willingly help others to succeed; maybe it is a fear of being overtaken, or simply that they struggle to have this connection with others. I found the right role models around me, with the right mentality and skill sets to show me everything they could. All I had to do was turn up, with a willingness to learn and an eagerness to do my best and achieve. The rest is simply a matter of time.


Workboat Association’s Mission: As CEO, how do you interpret The Workboat Association’s mission to promote trade, skills, and safety standards, and what are your top priorities for the association?


As a not-for-profit organisation run by constitution, our mission and objectives are clearly defined. However, turning these into ‘SMART’ based actions is the key. Transforming a broad objective such as ‘promoting skills’ into something specific takes some doing, but the key is focusing on the combination of such activities. Again, I return to asking myself the same questions: What are others doing? What has already been done? How do our needs differ from others? Where can we collaborate? Who can we learn from? Who are the role models?


I place myself in the shoes of different stakeholders: members, other key organisations, and non-members. I try to look at my thoughts through their eyes: How would I feel if I were them? How would I react? Would I want to engage? Would I share my opinion? Is there something for me?


Our priorities remain to support our members and their industry, to ensure that the workboat sector is thriving and well-regulated with suitable, but achievable rules and policy. We aim to ensure that the employees of the sector have good opportunities, a challenging but safe work environment, and sustainable operations achieved by the sharing of best practices and an emphasis on the evolution of technology, all pinned together with appropriate training, education, and certification.


We host regular workgroups and networking events, write guidance, exhibit at exhibitions and conferences, organise training and stakeholder sessions, support government and stakeholder organisations, and stand by to help any of our members with their business concerns. With over 200 member organisations, this keeps us all very busy!

Collaboration with Maritime UK: The Workboat Association’s membership with Maritime UK represents a significant step. Can you discuss the synergies between the two organisations and the benefits of this collaboration?


The Workboat Association joined Maritime UK in 2020, seeking to increase our political understanding and presence. Facing the uncertainties of Brexit negotiations, we played our role in shaping the future relationship between the UK and the EU. With the looming Brexit date and discussions of soft and hard Brexit, along with a rapidly decreasing timeframe and intense competition from other sectors, we knew we needed to be part of a larger coalition.


In 2020, as much of the world was in lockdown due to Covid-19, our seafarers continued to work at sea and in ports, part of a wide but often uncelebrated group of key workers. They ensured that the lights stayed on, supermarkets were stocked, cars had fuel, and hospitals had power and resources to operate.


Joining Maritime UK during this politically sensitive time was immensely beneficial for us. Maritime UK is an alliance of key UK maritime industry membership organisations. It serves as a focal point for government interaction and a conduit for excellent collaboration and networking.


Challenges in the Workboat Sector: What are the current challenges facing the workboat sector, and how is The Workboat Association addressing these challenges?


While I write this, the top four challenges for us are:


  1. Supporting UK business and trade in our sector following Brexit
  2. Developing and nurturing the small commercial vessel seafarer skills pool
  3. Steering industry to meet the global and national decarbonisation objectives
  4. Guiding and educating members and government on applicable policy and regulation


International readers may be surprised to see Brexit still at the top of the list, but it is the gift that keeps on giving… Five Prime Ministers later, countless Ministers, a huge number of civil service changes, and a continually changing rulebook—Brexit will remain one of our top challenges for a number of years to come.


Workboats (in majority) operate under domestic regulations, falling out of the convention vessel application due to their smaller size. Therefore, it is down to each country to decide what their applicable rules are in their waters and who they choose to let in and operate.


The UK’s departure from the EU, a significant workplace for many of our members, means that the expectations, intentions, and strategies of the EU/UK flag states have been given a good shake-up. The belt of “unity” has been unbuckled and expanded a few holes, giving more room for change, with each country’s Port State Administration and Immigration teams busy setting new policies to ensure that they put their own country’s workers and businesses first.


As a result, we see increased troubles for non-UK vessel owners and crew to work within the UK, and a forever-changing landscape for UK stakeholders to work in the EU, with each country setting different and evolving rules.

Advancements in Maritime Safety: Safety is paramount in the maritime industry. Could you highlight some key safety initiatives or advancements that The Workboat Association has championed or implemented recently?


Championing safety is a significant part of our work. In recent years, we have run annual safety campaigns on topics such as mental health, fatigue, recovery from water, access and egress, passage planning, PPE, dangerous goods, and emergency preparedness.


Sometimes we join forces with like-minded organisations, while other times we go alone, depending on the objectives set by our stakeholders and the target audience. We have previously collaborated with organisations such as The British TugOwners Association, IMCA, CHIRP, The Seafarers Charity, Port Skills & Safety, Marine Safety Forum, MAIB, and the MCA. Together, we have produced toolkits, poster campaigns, training sessions and webinars, guidance documents, flashcards, conference sessions, live drills, and much more. Many of the (downloadable) outputs of our safety campaigns are available free to both members and non-members via our website or through our stakeholders’ websites.


One of the most effective and long-lasting efforts we have been a part of regarding safety advancements is our committed and continued partnership with the UK’s flag state, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). If there is any work being undertaken by the MCA related to small commercial vessels, we are always invited to take part, provide expertise or opinions, help draft documents, organise or co-host events, and be a part of training sessions, consultations, roll-outs, or campaigns. Additionally, we have a great relationship with many of the various departmental staff, which means we know exactly the right internal subject experts to liaise with or ask questions. This is something we are very appreciative of.


Sustainability and Environmental Initiatives: Sustainability is a growing focus within the maritime sector. How is The Workboat Association contributing to the industry’s move towards more sustainable practices?


I would say our role is as ‘Enablers’. We work with both industry and government to enable sustainable practices, technological evolution, and the necessary sharing, education, and networking to make it happen on time and effectively.


We host regular sustainability and decarbonisation events, support a wide number of applications and Joint Industry Projects (JIPs) for financial grants and exposure, and steer regulators to ensure the correct policies are in place to enable new technology to safely and successfully enter use.


Through partnerships and collaboration with various industry and government-backed research and funding offices, innovation centres, and task forces, we take a proactive approach to helping the whole industry meet global and national environmental objectives. I think we are very fortunate in maritime, especially within Europe, that the majority of us share the same enthusiasm for making a positive difference. Aiming high and committing to new investments is always made a lot easier when you are not doing it alone.

Impact of Technology: Technology is rapidly evolving in every industry, including maritime. What technological advancements do you see as most impactful for workboats, and how is the association facilitating technological adaptation among its members?


One of the biggest technological advancements in our sector within the last decade has been data digitalisation. Intelligent data recording and processing have significantly transformed maritime operations. It’s not just about artificial intelligence initially but the digital developments that have been changing and integrating into our world over the past 10 years. The ability to capture data and then turn it into something we can actually see and use has been revolutionary.


Data is being used in more clever ways across all maritime sectors, whether it manifests or stores records, deck logs, hours of work, planned maintenance systems, chart systems, NMEA data processing, safety management systems, communications, mechanical system displays, and reports. We now use advanced data processing and display systems to gauge wave heights before they even hit the ship, show how changes in certain mechanical conditions affect vessel performance live, provide more accurate weather and route forecasting, enable quicker and more effective incident reporting and mitigation, facilitate remote fault finding, monitor seafarer fatigue or activity patterns, guide training needs, improve and allow focused offshore communications, enhance stability analyses, and innovate mechanical deterioration and fuel usage tracking, whole body vibration, air quality monitoring, and much more.


Digital data advancements are one of the most powerful changes in the current maritime industry. When I started working commercially offshore in 2008, one of my duties was to take the vessel’s logbooks, tear out all the carbon copies of each log entry, and post them back to head office at the end of every month. Apart from a lucky or very broken phone call once or twice a week from the vessel’s superintendent, this was about the limit of the vessel’s connection with management. Ten years later, I was managing a globally operating fleet of vessels and staff, and I could hear colleagues getting upset that WhatsApp messages hadn’t been answered, even though they could see the messages had been read!


The evolution in data processing has been remarkable. Purchasers now can pick up their phone from bed, access all their emails, photos, and documents from their smartphone, go onto a webshop, order the parts directly, and inform the crew the part is on its way with an accurate delivery time without even having eaten their morning toast. The incredible data being collected and processed means that the next time the part needs ordering, a Planned Maintenance System will most likely pre-empt the item’s requirement and order itself, requiring somebody to just agree to the purchase and enter a delivery address.


The Workboat Association facilitates technological adaptation among its members by hosting regular events, workshops, and training sessions focused on the latest technological advancements. We also provide resources and support to help our members integrate these technologies into their operations, ensuring they stay competitive and efficient in a rapidly evolving industry.


Skills Development and Education: Given your role in nurturing a safety culture and responsible work ethics, what initiatives or programs does The Workboat Association offer for skills development and continuing education within the industry?


We are active members of the Maritime Skills Alliance and Maritime UK skills programs, and I am personally a registered Director of both organisations. I was recently also part of the UK Government’s UK Shipbuilding Skills Taskforce.


Skills, education, and the employment pool are significant and continuing challenges for all businesses – it is a never-ending, looping cycle, where all parts of the system are active at the same time!


For every worker at the end of their career, there is somebody at the beginning, somebody in the middle, somebody not reaching their potential, and somebody going unrecognised.


It is a matter of continuous resource, enthusiasm, and planning. It is never easy, and if it is, it is probably because something is being overlooked.


There are four quotes I like to remember on this subject:


  1. Lord Nelson: “We cannot control the weather, but we can prepare for it.”
  2. Anon: “What happens if you train your employees and they leave? What happens if you do not train your employees and they stay?”
  3. Richard Branson: “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”
  4. Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft’[en] awry.”


There is always a chance, even in the simplest recruitment scenarios, to the most complex but most professional, that something will change and serious action needs to be taken. What happens if a pivotal employee suddenly goes off sick (or worse)? What happens if they suddenly, out of the blue, say they are leaving? What happens if that vital contract holding your company together suddenly goes ‘pop’? These are all big challenges for recruitment and skills, but with a good plan that encompasses all four of the quotes above, you are sure to be on the front foot.


Nobody is indispensable, but sometimes they are pretty significant!

International Collaboration and Standards: How does The Workboat Association engage with international counterparts to harmonise standards and best practices across the global workboat industry?


It normally starts with a telephone call or an email, and in a lot of situations it is reactive, directly requiring an answer or some work for a situation already in hand: “Good morning, I am one of your members and I need some advice…” or “Hello, you are talking with _____ from _____ flag state, I am on board a workboat and….”.


Quite often it is either a translation or interpretation issue or a difference in expectations. Maybe someone used to inspect larger convention vessels is used to a certain type of certificate that workboats do not carry or maybe a rule which small vessels are not required to implement. The crew and/or operator are trying to convince the surveyor that everything is ok, but the surveyor wants some kind of additional evidence etc. We step in as a third party to help the vessel crew/operator understand what the Surveyor is looking for (it can often be something completely unheard of before to many), or we are networking different government representatives together to get the information clarified directly.


Of course we would rather work proactively, spotting opportunities for confusion or gaps in policy/regulation and fixing them before an issue evolves, but it is not always possible. We take part in, and help secretariat many consultations and workshops – all with an eye to steer, rather than upset. Naturally we do our fair share of lobbying, but efforts and resources are normally best used if we can be a part of a process early on. I would much prefer to ease things into a better starting place, rather than having to get political or opposing once bills have already been passed. It isn’t nice for industry, and it isn’t nice for the regulator (who more often than not are doing things with the best intentions in mind).


Vision for the Future: Looking ahead, what is your vision for the future of The Workboat Association, and how do you plan to navigate the evolving landscape of the maritime industry?


2024 marks the 30th anniversary of The Workboat Association, and the General Committee is diligently developing a five-year plan to guide us from 2025 to 2030. This is my sixth year as CEO, and before that, I volunteered with the organisation as a Workgroup Chairman and General Committee member since 2014. Over the past decade, I have witnessed significant changes within The Workboat Association, both in terms of membership and activity. In 2014, our membership consisted of roughly 60 companies; today, we have just over 200. Previously, we employed my predecessor for ‘up to’ two days a week, and he worked alone, supported by an ad-hoc treasurer who contributed as needed. Today, we have a team of five working diligently behind the scenes to deliver on our members’ interests and objectives.


While our new strategy is still in the brainstorming phase—comprising pages of scribbles, doodles, brainstorming notes, and wish lists collected from members and stakeholders—it is now being translated into a strategic plan. This plan will be discussed by our General Committee at our next meeting. The work will continue throughout the year, with the intention of delivering a proposal at our AGM in late November 2024.


Until then, we have much to celebrate from our past 30 years. We are holding a celebration event, featuring a luxury river cruise on the Thames in September, for members and guests. This is a perfect opportunity to thank everyone who has helped us reach where we are today and those who continue to support our work. Ultimately, it is a chance to bring the membership together for a memorable event and remind them that ‘together, we achieve great things.’