Case Study: Susie Thomson, Risk Learning and Assurance Advisor, BP

Susie Thomson is part of team which works to reduce the risk of dangers on BP’s tankers, including explosions, piracy, groundings and cyber security attacks.

Susie Thomson (37) went to sea at 16, joining the RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) as a deck officer cadet.  And it was the benefits that went with being a cadet that attracted her to the profession in the first place.  It meant her degree was paid for while she was working, she got to travel to interesting places at no extra cost, and she was working outside, not tied to a desk which, when she was younger was very appealing!

The biggest prize though was being paid to study, and it’s this experience that makes her a very strong supporter of apprenticeships today, urging young people to take more advantage of the scheme and to see this kind of working/paid for benefit for the incredible, tremendous bonus it is.

She was at sea for 12 years in total, working her way up through the ranks working on a range of military support vessels, tankers and ferries, gaining her Masters ticket at 27 years old, a significant achievement and impressive responsibility.

At home though, her siblings started to marry and settle down which made her think seriously about her long term future. She realised that if she had a family, the likelihood would be that she would want to come ashore to work. So in preparation, she started studying for a masters degree by distance learning.  She laughs now looking back, saying that when she started the course, she was single on a ship, and by the time she finished five years later, she was married with two children. Distance learning and juggling priorities while working, was in her words ‘brutal’, but with focused determination, she achieved her goal.

A seafaring career offers unrivalled learning opportunities and transferable skills

Now Susie says she would promote continuous professional development (CPD) and distance learning whole heartedly to all seafarers, not just women.  She is a Chartered Marine Technologist and most recently (Monday 25 June) was awarded Chartered Master Mariner status, the very first female to receive the accolade.

She adds that, everyone at sea should be looking to proactively develop and diversify their skills, firstly you may want to plan to come ashore but secondly, working at sea is physical.  We all take our health for granted, and if one day you lose your good health, then you really need a plan B, which is where further development comes in and is so very important.

It was inadequate maternity provision that forced Suzie ashore though.  Seafarers work on fixed term contracts and once pregnant, she was unable to secure the necessary medical certificates for her next contract.  Susie loved working at sea and found this deeply disappointing.  It has led to her working closely with the Merchant Navy Training Board and Maritime UK on the Female Charter for the Maritime Industry to raise awareness within the industry and ensure that better support is built into contracts for both women and men moving forward.

She explains that the industry is losing a valuable skillset as – most women transition ashore when they have a family and many male colleagues do the same, seeking a greater family life balance.  The industry simply can’t afford to lose so many highly trained and skilled people over something onshore workers take for granted.  Following on, the seafarers union Nautilus now includes a discussion about maternity and paternity leave in every meeting with ship operators, to raise awareness of this issue and to try and find better solutions.

Susie would recommend a seafaring career to anyone, saying it offers unrivalled learning and the transferable skills gained, are exceptional.  When she first came ashore Susie easily secured work teaching maritime skills, but after an enjoyable three years she decided she had more to offer the industry.  She secured a position as a vetting superintendent with one of the oil majors.  The role covered the risk review and approval of tonnage for safe trading operations   and from there Susie went on to manage marine projects, in the oil and gas industry, looking at the retro-fitting of ECDIS, Mooring Systems, New Build Vessels, ballast water systems and the like.

It has in turn led into her current position as a Risk Assurance and Learning Advisor, a role where her significant sea time offers real value in all her dealings with the charterers and operators.  Working with the Marine Director who is also an ex seafarer, the team assures the top process safety risk events associated with the company’s marine activity, everything from an explosion to piracy, groundings to cyber security events.  With her experience as a captain of a ship, she effectively offers the expertise of two people for the price of one, able to analyse and assess from the business risk point of view but also offering a mariner’s in depth understanding of the operational realities and constraints for the crew onboard.

She’s been working in her current role for two years now and loves it, saying no two days are the same, some days she’ll be conducting risk audits, others leading a marine investigation or coaching a Continuous Improvement project, whilst maintaining an overview of the risk plan for the entire team mapping data against leading indicators and KPI.

The role also comes with agile working, which means flexible working hours and the ability to work offsite, which she rates highly.  She says all employers will need to embrace such practices in time, as employees demand more flexibility not only to balance home life but to keep ahead of changing markets, cut emissions from unnecessary travel and to embrace the demands of the global industry alongside the huge benefits of interconnectivity which we now all take for granted.  She feels her skills as a seafarer equip her particularly well for this type of working too.  Onboard a ship a seafarer knows what needs to be done and will work intensively to achieve the task, they are used to multi-tasking and prioritising, these skills are deeply ingrained and yet most seafarers don’t highlight these valuable skills enough.

Asked if she would recommend a seafaring career, her answer is yes, but in her mind the British seafarer brand needs to be revaluated. The industry is global and British seafarers should align themselves with other ‘top tier’ qualified and trained seafarers, so that quality becomes uppermost.  She acknowledges that British seafarers are simply not there in the numbers they were fifty years ago, but she says in terms of quality our training and personnel, we still stand head and shoulders above the rest of the world and that absolutely should be our key selling point.

Finally, she admits that she still has a longing to go back to sea, her Masters ticket is still fully up to date just in case the ‘right opportunity’ arose.  However, with children and her husband she’s accepting that her career is developing in a different way, in the future maybe she would like to be running a shipping company and working to promote more gender diversity across the industry, but who knows.

Asked if she would recommend the industry to a young person today, her reply is yes – most definitely, it’s the very best job in the world!

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