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Members at work

Second engineer Allan Dickson raises the flag for a Merchant Navy career

13 June 2024

Scottish second engineer and Nautilus Council member Allan Dickson is passionate about introducing students to the opportunities a career in the Merchant Navy offers. He also argues a good case for better access and support for professional career development.

What originally attracted you to a career in maritime?

I was looking for a hands-on engineering type role and sponsorship for college/university after finishing school. I found some marine engineering roles in a book called Sponsorships for Students and they sounded interesting.  

Do you have any personal or family connections to the sea or inland waterways?

The husband of one of my mum's friends was a chief engineer.

What did you do in your career and/or education before joining the maritime sector?

I achieved my Standard Grades, Highers, and was in the Air Training Corps while at school. I did a Christmas season after school working at Toys R Us, and spent the summer between finishing school and starting my marine engineering cadetship working at the local 10 pin bowling alley.

What does your current job involve?

As second engineer on a CalMac Ro-Pax ferry I work a 12-hour day split into shifts. I work with the chief engineer planning the work for the day and keeping the planned maintenance system up to date. During my watch I have all the normal routine stuff to do such as starting and stopping engines and generators and routine maintenance. As a second engineer I also do a lot of the spares and stores ordering, writing up defects and proposing dry dock work specifications.

Tell us some of your career highlights so far – and career challenges

For highlights, I'd say being part of the bridge team as we sailed the TS Tenacious out of port under sail only – it was an amazing feeling.

Working as lead engineer on the full retubing of two main boilers, including all the work involved with doing a steam target test for commissioning: that was both a highlight and a challenge. Not many people ever get to take part in that.

Being stuck onboard a ship during the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t great. There was internet and I could generally call home each day. But after having only done two- or three-week trips for four years, being away for five months was very difficult.

Who has helped you the most in your career?

I initially spent three trips on the same ship, and the senior engineers there helped me develop a good work ethic as well as helping me develop my watchkeeping skills and confidence.

Later in my career I worked in Australia for a second engineer I had sailed with – he taught me a lot about working ashore and how marine engineers struggle to sell ourselves when trying to move ashore. That's when I really started to commit to developing myself more.

What is the one change that would make the biggest positive difference to your job as a maritime professional?

Improved access and support for professional development, including but not limited to STCW courses. It's a struggle for seafarers to get back into education, I have managed it but there's issues with funding, and work rotations can make attending exams and courses very difficult. As an Incorporated Engineer I view STCW requirements as a minimum, and try to get to a couple of training courses, conferences or skill sessions a year.

Richard Branson was right when he said 'Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to'.

What are your plans for the future?

In the short-term, I am looking to become more involved in union and industry activities. Longer term, I am looking to complete an MSc in an engineering subject which will help me gain my Chartered Engineer status.

Would you like to take a job on shore in future?

Yes, for the improved work-life balance as well as the ability to take part in more union, institution and industry activities. As to what that role might be I am not sure, although I know I don't want the traditional progression into a superintendent role. I want to do something that will make a difference.

How long have you been a member of Nautilus, and what made you join?

For all my career – I joined at college. Being in a union sounded a good idea, and as criminalisation became an industry issue, having the ticket protection and legal support was important.

It's good to have the representation and support of a union. I've sought advice a few times during my membership, but thankfully I've never needed the level of help others have.

What do you like doing in your free time?

I enjoy paintballing. I also build models, mainly Second World War vehicles. I also enjoy eating out, taking an interest in local restaurants, and drinking small batch gins.

Are you involved with any maritime charities or volunteer organisations?

I am a Careers at Sea Ambassador and an IMechE STEM Ambassador. This involves attending school career fairs, and class room sessions. I enjoy the STEM work as there's lots of practical activities for students as well as discussing careers. I angle my STEM sessions towards marine based activities. I have previously donated my time and skills to help on tall ships and historic ships in various ways.

What is your favourite place visited during your career?

I spent time in Singapore working on projects there for a couple of years. It's a pretty multicultural place, with so much interesting history. It had a great modelling community, far different to the other countries I have lived in. The food is varied and great, you can get a proper meal for the equivalent of £1 or a really fancy expensive one if that's what you want. All the locals we met were friendly and helpful and I have made some lasting friendships.

What are you reading right now?

I am currently reading The Magnetism of Antarctica: The Ross Expedition 1839-1843, which I won at the raffle at the Nautilus General Meeting last year. I have always been fascinated by the  early exploration of Antarctica and the stories of the people involved. 

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

After three years at sea, I had a really bad trip and decided to pack it all in and work ashore. I spent a year working in call centres and a bank. That experience made me really appreciate the positives about working in the Merchant Navy. Sure, you can have a bad trip, and I have had a few since I came back, but the positives do outweigh the negatives. And now, with more and more mental health support available for seafarers, even with the bad trips you can talk to someone about them.


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