Iain Wells is an associate maritime consultant, auditor, instructor, and contractor for Crowley Maritime. A former U.S Coast Guard (USCG) Chief Warrant Officer with more than 24 years of honorable military service, Wells served in various positions in the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Program. When serving in the USCG, he conducted numerous vessel and facility inspections and examinations to ensure compliance with U.S. and international regulations. His expertise in the ISM Code, Subchapter M, ISO standards, and ISPS Code adds value to Crowley Maritime and their clients and the projects he supports.
Wells is certified as an ISM, MLC-2006, ISPS, ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and ISO 45001 lead auditor, and is recognized by Exemplar Global as an ISO 9001 lead vessel auditor. He achieved numerous marine safety qualifications in the USCG in the fields of incident management and preparedness, and inspections and compliance.
He holds a master’s degree in occupational safety and health with a minor in environmental management from Columbia Southern University.
In this conversation, we discuss the differences and similarities between auditing at sea and on land, why auditees need to understand where to find information about pertinent processes, and how former military personnel can make the move into an auditing career.
EXEMPLAR GLOBAL: How did you get involved in this area of your career, and what has auditing meant in your journey?
IAIN WELLS: I’m a retired Coast Guard Warrant Officer with nearly 25 years in the service. When I retired in 2013, I went into the private sector as a contractor conducting vessel inspections and audits, for foreign vessels like the ones we’ve all seen on TV at the ports lately. I did that for about seven years, and then I got picked up as a contractor for a huge maritime company out of Jacksonville, Florida—Crowley Maritime. I started doing internal vessel audits on their domestic ships throughout the Southeast, the Gulf Coast, and Puerto Rico.
A big part of that training I had with the Coast Guard led to my career today as an auditor. Certifications are important in the maritime world, and the more certifications you have, the better off you are, especially as a contractor. It also makes you more viable for other companies that are out there looking for certification auditors. There are particular certifications that companies like Crowley Maritime look for when they’re hiring auditors. Of the 12 management system auditors on the team, I’m the only one with a Coast Guard background. Everybody else comes from the commercial fleet as either a port captain, a port engineer, or a master of the vessel. I bring an inspection background and an auditing background to this work. It’s an extra set of eyes from someone who has seen different things aside from the commercial fleet. Some of the management system auditor certifications that are imperative are ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 45001, and the ISM Code, along with certain safety and security codes. All of these certifications, which I have, make me valuable to Crowley Maritime.
EG: What are some of the unique characteristics of auditing a vessel as opposed to auditing a land-based operation?
IW: The auditing process and the steps are pretty much the same, you’re just auditing different things. For example, on the ships I audit, they have what’s known as a safety management system. This is a set of guidelines and procedures that we need to audit against. Many of the systems on ships fall into ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and ISO 45001 and are now starting to apply to the ISO 50001 energy management system standard.
It’s a different beast on the vessel side because you have a whole lot of moving parts. For example, specialized processes on vessels can include cargo operations, crew changeout, and rest/work hours. As you can see, when auditing you need to consider factors beyond what you have on the land side.
EG: I would imagine that an auditor in this space needs to be completely up to date not only on the language of ISO standards, but on the legal and regulatory frameworks with which these vessels will need to comply.
IW: That’s correct. In addition to ISO standards, you are going to have International Maritime Organization (IMO) standards, and, here in the United States, Coast Guard standards, as well as standards by class from the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS).
So, there are a lot of standards an auditor needs to understand. You don’t exactly have to memorize them, but you do have to know how to access them and interpret the standards correctly. Some standards might somewhat contradict others. I’ll give you an example: Part of what I do is inspections of U.S. Navy vessels again Navy standards, ISO standards, class standards, Coast Guard standards, and IMO standards. The Navy standard might say one thing, the Coast Guard standard says another, and the IMO standard says something else entirely. As an auditor in that circumstance, you have to know how to interpret the process within the framework of these various standards. It’s important to make sure that when you find an observation, a nonconformity, or a major nonconformity, that you can show ship management exactly how the issue fails to conform with the language of one or more of these standards.
EG: Do you find on these vessels that the crew are wearing several hats? In other words, are the functions of the quality officer, the safety officer, and/or the environmental officer covered by a single person in many or most cases?
IW: That very much depends on the size of the ship because the crews can be anywhere from 20 people to four people. First you will have the master, or the captain, or what we call the OIC—it’s the same position. That person is in charge of the vessel. Then, depending on the size of the ship, you’ll have a chief mate, or a chief officer, who runs the deck side. On the engineering side, you’ll have your chief engineer. Then you have people underneath these leaders: A first assistant, a second assistant, a third assistant.
The duties are documented in the safety management system that the vessel follows, which identifies what each person must do. On an audit, I develop my questions focused on the different sections of the vessel and the different people with responsibility for those sections. There are specific questions geared toward the captain, chief mate questions, and chief engineer questions. Again, it varies somewhat based on size. For instance, for a 40-ft tugboat out of San Francisco, the captain, the chief mate, and the chief engineer will share certain duties because the ship is small. The roles are still divided, though.
EG: Given all that you’ve just laid out, auditing a vessel does seem to have certainly analogies to auditing a land-based operation, because you’ll generally have a CEO, a director of operations, and a manufacturing engineer. The roles are similar to that of a captain, a chief mate, and a chief engineer.
IW: That’s true. There are also other layers I’m not incorporating, which depend on the type of vessel it is. For example, Crowley has multiple services—they have a government service, they have a logistic service, they have an oil tanker service, and other divisions within the company. Based on that, in addition to the captain and crew, you will have an operational integrity person, a designated person onshore to represent the crews to management, safety directors, fleet directors, and other top executives. It’s a huge organizational structure with layers and layers and layers.
EG: Do you find that there are process silos on-board, or is it easier for those on a vessel to see the ship as a single system because everyone is so close together all the time?
IW: If you take a crew of, say, 20 people, everyone from the captain on down is trained in the overall safety management system. Then, it’s blocked out to their specialty. I’m not expecting the chief mate, who manages the deck and does all the life-saving stuff, to know anything about engines. But he or she should know what the chief engineer does. On the other hand, the chief engineer isn’t expected to know how to drive a lifeboat; that’s not their job. But that chief engineer understands what the chief mate does. Everybody should know, even down to the cadets, who is responsible for what functions onboard. I do some interviews with the cadets to make sure they know specifically about safety management systems, and where to go if they have questions.
EG: And that’s the key, isn’t it? To confirm that people know what the processes are that they are responsible for.
IW: Right. And depending on who you’re talking to, from the top on down, your questions will be really technical or really basic. I’ll give you an example: I might ask a crewmember, ‘If you had an oil spill out on your deck, where would you go to get the equipment and materials to clean up the spill?’ They should be expected to know that, but they wouldn’t be expected to know how to dig up the emergency response plan to find additional information. That would be left up to the chief mate, the second mate, or the third mate. Depending on the auditee’s specialty and how technical it is, again, my questions may be narrow and technical or broad and basic. I’m trying to understand if they know what they need to do in various circumstances.
EG: I’d like to turn back to you and your background. Could you further describe the transition you made from the Coast Guard into this line of work? Were there additional levels of training you needed to undergo, and were there mentors that helped guide you?
IW: When I was coming up towards retirement from the Coast Guard, I had to start looking to see what I was going to do next. Being a vessel auditor is a small niche in the world. There are not a lot of people who have those skills—you just can’t grab anybody off the street and say, ‘Hey, go do a vessel inspection’ and expect them to be able to do it. To learn those skills takes years and repetition, by which I mean constantly being on board different types of vessels and looking at different things. The Coast Guard provided me with that experience, that tool, that I needed to survive in the outside business world.
I was successful in being able to get my master’s degree while I was in the Coast Guard. That helped me with the occupational safety and health side of the house, which branched over into the vessel inspection side. Once I got out of the Coast Guard, getting into the private sector was a challenge because a lot of companies won’t hire someone from outside their company. I just happened to get lucky with Crowley Maritime. I reached out and asked if they were hiring, and they were, so I interviewed, did an evaluation, and got hired. And two years later, I’m still with them. This is where I’ve been able to get my Exemplar Global certifications.
EG: How old were you when you started in the Coast Guard?
IW: I was a late bloomer… almost 24 when I joined the Coast Guard. I consider myself a success story, and here’s why: When I was 23 years old, I was living at home after flunking out of college twice. I was working part-time making $3.35 an hour working at Pizza Hut and McDonald’s. I really wasn’t going anywhere with my life. I saw a commercial on TV for the Coast Guard, and I thought, ‘Well, let me take a look at this.’ I had come from an Air Force family, so a military career made sense to me. By that time, I had met my girlfriend, now my wife, who I’ve been with now for more than 30 years. I had told her at that time, ‘I’m not going to survive making $3.35 an hour.’ So, I joined the Coast Guard and was able to move up the ranks up to a Chief Warrant Officer, which in the Coast Guard is a generally a technical manager type of position. From there I was able to get an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, and finally a master’s degree. I was able to get certifications through that experience. I really enjoyed my time in the Coast Guard. I wish I could go back and do it all again.
The Coast Guard gave me confidence, tools, resources, and mentorship to get me pointed in the right direction. As my career in the Coast Guard went along, I was making contacts and considering my options. When I retired, I was ready to go in this direction with auditing.
EG: The story of how you got into auditing is important because this is a graying work force, and we need new auditors to come into the field. People like yourself, with military backgrounds, often retire from that profession in their 40s and 50s. As you mentioned, there are some important technical skills that they bring to the table, and they could make excellent management system auditors. The question is, how do we connect with those folks, get them additional training, and begin to onboard them into auditing careers?
IW: That’s a great question. The Coast Guard in the late 2000s, due to budget cuts, was having the same issue you mention. We were losing our senior people, those that had the technical skills. New people came in, and they were given the proper training, but of course they couldn’t be expected to have all the knowledge of someone with 20 or 25 years of experience.
I think employers today are a little afraid to hire ex-military personnel for some reason. But people from the Coast Guard are maybe an exception. We’re a little different than the Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force. We deal closely with maritime industry, ports, and upper management. As a third-class petty officer, which is an E-4 rank in the Coast Guard, you may be 23 years old making decisions on a billion-dollar vessel. That’s the kind of empowerment and decision-making ability that business organizations need. Not to mention, someone coming from the military can save organizations money because they already have important skills and certifications, and so they may not need as much training.
EG: People coming out of a military background have the ability to follow orders and also to make decisions. It’s very important to think tactically as well as strategically.
IW: I agree with you. And I’ll tell you this: I’m 56 years old, and if I went back into the private sector, I wouldn’t have an issue working for a 25-year-old. I think sometimes corporations are looking for people starting out in their 20s and 30s, as opposed to someone in their 40s or 50s, just because the thought is that they might have the younger person for longer.
As for me, I like working, I like being around the captains and the crews. I’ve learned things from them, and they’ve learned things from me. All of that makes me a better auditor.
EG: As we close, it would be great to get your advice and insights for a person just coming into this field, maybe someone who is on the path you took, coming from the Coast Guard or other military organizations, who are getting out of that part of their career and looking toward what comes next.
IW: Let’s use the Coast Guard as an example. If you’re coming into the Coast Guard and plan to make a career out of it, which is 20 years of active service, you have to look at what job you want to do in a Coast Guard that’s going to get you your bang for the buck on the outside. For example, if you like to drive boats, or if you like to work on drug operations down in the Caribbean, that’s great. You can do that for 20 years in the service. But you also need to think about the type of jobs you can get the outside after that. You can maybe pilot a boat in a commercial fleet, or you can become a sheriff’s deputy. But if you’re looking to get into auditing vessels or auditing manufacturing facilities on land, you have to have that technical expertise, you have to understand schematics, you have to understand the technical verbiage that goes with it. You also have to have third-party training; you can’t just rely on your smarts. And you have to go out and see what’s out there and go for it as opposed to being passive and waiting for offers.
Early in my career, I asked myself, ‘What am I going to be doing in 20 years?’ I realized that I had to find some things that employers wanted, and one of those things was a college degree. In addition to that degree, employers look at your training and background. If they can save money on training you, that’s a big mark in your favor. They want to know that someone can jump right in and start doing a job quickly as opposed to being mentoring for a long period of time.
Given all of this, my advice to people who want to get into auditing vessels is to get as much training in the maritime world as possible, get out on boats, find out how the systems work, talk with the captains, talk with the chief engineers, do an internship if you can with one of these maritime companies like Crowley or TOTE Maritime, which is also out of Jacksonville. Get that experience if you can and don’t forget to network, too. I’m a networker. I recently connected with a gentleman who is in the Coast Guard down in Antigua. He wanted to get involved in the health and safety side of the maritime world, so I pointed him toward some OSHA courses. I had another connection with a gentleman in Canada looking for a vessel auditor, and he pointed me in the right direction. I would have never got that recommendation if I hadn’t reached out and gotten to know him. Opportunities come from all directions, so keep your eyes open.