Case study: Amanda Viljoen, Group Apprenticeship Programs Manager, Associated British Ports

Amanda Viljoen (right) helps an apprentice with chart work
Master Mariner Amanda Viljoen spent 14 years at sea and now manages Associated British Ports’ popular apprenticeship scheme.

British by birth, Amanda Viljoen grew up in South Africa, Kwa-Zulu Natal.  She loved the sea and was an active member of local maritime clubs.  As soon as she was old enough, she joined the merchant navy and went to sea as a cadet in 1994, at a time when women at sea were still quite rare.

She started working on “tramping ships” –  where the ship does not have a fixed schedule and travels to ports dependent on the cargoes it picks up and where they need to go.  Over the course of 14 years at sea, Amanda progressed, securing promotions working on geared general cargo vessels and container ships until her last job role, which was as the captain in command of various vessels, which included an arctic exploration and research vessel, prospecting the sea bed for diamond mining.

This last role – as captain of the research ship – was an exciting and incredibly specialist role.  The ship itself had two helicopters on board which were flying daily.  It had a dual role as a fuel ship for the people living in such isolated conditions as well discharging heavy machinery and cargo using its cranes onto the ice.

She became so familiar with the local waters and conditions that she earnt a pilot exemption and could navigate the vessel in and out of its berth without calling on local expertise.  She learnt how ice forms, how it moves, what happens to it overnight, the ship had to berth alongside the ice shelf and they took regular soundings, set up new weather buoys and supported the research activities.

Our apprentices work alongside our operations teams, learning exactly how our ports work and what’s involved

She describes being the captain of a ship as one of the definite highlights of her career so far. She was the first female to serve as captain from South Africa and absolutely loved it.  Over time she found that some of her crew were deliberately changing vessel in order to work on the same ships as her, which was a massive compliment.

But in 2008, having met her husband and wanting to start a family they came ashore.  Amanda used her experience to secure a role with the Humberside Offshore Training Association where she started as an instructor, but in time took over the full management of the centre, running all aspects of the courses.

Then, in September 2016, she joined Associated British Ports (ABP) and took on her current role managing ABP’s 70+ apprentices, maintaining quality standards and leading four committees for the development of new industry-wide port trailblazer apprenticeships.

Amanda is currently leading a committee, in consultation with more than 120 other ports, industry associations and UK maritime organisations to develop the new government initiative – the trailblazer apprenticeship. This new apprenticeship will be a nationally recognized qualification, regardless of which employer offers it.  It will also offer an entry point into the industry for both school leavers and more experienced seafarers wanting to convert their skills and come ashore.

ABP is the UK’s leading port operator, with 21 ports across England, Scotland and Wales, including Immingham, the UKs busiest port, and Southampton, the nation’s second largest, most efficient container port and the UK’s number one for cars and cruise. Each year, ABP manages about 25 per cent of the UK’s sea-borne trade through its 21 ports.

Talking about her role, Amanda says: “Our four year apprenticeship scheme is an important part of our succession planning and a vital aspect of our long term operations.  Our apprentices train with a local college if they are engineering trainees or South Tyneside and Warsash if they are marine apprenticeships.  They work alongside our operations teams, learning exactly how our ports work and what’s involved.  At the moment, we have four sea based apprenticeships running in the Humber – with our vessel traffic services, the dock master, the pier master and our pilots apprenticeships.  We also offer shore side apprenticeships, for example with estate management team as we have a considerable land holding around our ports.

Asked if she misses anything from her time at sea, Amanda admits there’s nothing quite like waking up with the sun rising over the sea, but she’s confident that a maritime career still has much to offer ashore.

Asked what she would say to someone considering a maritime career today she says; “The industry has changed a lot since I went to sea but it’s still an incredible stepping stone and I would definitely recommend it.   I look for sea time when I am recruiting – it stands any candidate in good stead, broadens your horizons and gives you a different insight which is incredibly valuable, going to sea is undeniably hard but every job has hard aspects.  And girls shouldn’t be put off, it’s much, much easier than it was, and slowly but surely women are breaking down the barriers.”

Last year, she was asked to speak at an international conference as an expert on maritime education and particularly apprenticeships which was a huge boost, she loves what she’s doing now, finds it very satisfying with an exciting career path moving forward.


Click here to download further information about a career in the UK maritime sector.