IN SEARCH OF A BETTER LIFE

IN SEARCH OF A BETTER LIFE

They're dotted around the back streets in districts like Ermita and Tondo. Not the best neighborhoods, but shipping has never been a glamorous industry.

Scores of recruitment agencies throw open their doors each morning to an eager clutch of men seeking a hard but, for them, lucrative life on board ship.As they wait, the job-seekers chat under a tropical sun already baking the scrubby little courtyard outside an agency in 90-degree heat and drenching humidity.

The Philippines, at long last, is experiencing an economic rebirth. But it's still a place that exports people as well as goods because too many can't find a decent job.

Oliver Paco, 27, gave up his career as a nurse in Laguna Province and hired onto a ship nearly two years because he could earn more money as a messman in order to support his wife and two children.

"I've had to make a lot of adjustments," he said in an interview aboard the Proof Gallant, which had brought whiskey from Ayr, Scotland, to Port Reading, N.J.

However, if there were an on-board medical emergency, he wouldn't hesitate to call upon his nursing skills.

"There's no question about that," Mr. Paco said.

Bernie Abarejo, 23, whose father, uncle and cousin all went to sea, said as he peeled potatoes aboard the Probo Baro in Port Carteret, N.J. "It is very hard in the Philippines. I cannot earn this kind of money."

The world's ships - big and small, box and bulk, liquid and dry - are home- away-from-home for 150,000 of the country's seamen, around 12 percent of the global total.

These men, like their female counterparts who serve largely as domestics overseas, contribute huge sums each year to the national economy through homeward remittances.

The seafarers rely on the ship's owners to send their wages home - and when the owners leave the men stranded or don't send the money to the recipient,

families are left in dire straits.

If all goes well, however, a job on ship quickly translates into a house and bit of lawn, car, appliances, savings for the kids' education, and help for others of the commonly extended family.

Winning one of these coveted berths would be difficult if only for the competition. Because providing seafarers is such an economically important matter, the government makes it tougher still to ensure that quality remains high.

Seamen must be qualified to work on or command sophisticated ships costing breathtaking amounts of money and running to increasingly unforgiving schedules under pinchingly tighter controls. The training institutions they attend must be certified by government departments.

Recruitment agencies - and they deal in everything from seafarers to ''artistic dancers" - also must be registered and licensed. The government regularly mounts campaigns to sink phony training colleges and bogus recruiters.

The Philippines' Maritime Industry Authority last month announced the first computerized issue of the all-important Seaman's Book, which contains a seafarer's work history and qualifications. It will speed the selection process, cut costs and improve supervision, said Paciencio Balbon, administrator of the agency, known as Marina.

"We check for valid, legitimate documentation covering training and graduation from an accredited maritime school," Mr. Balbon said.

Licensure examinations for officers are set by the Professional Requirements

Commission, a government agency.

"Marina and the International Maritime Organization are conducting a study now on a new examination that would be based on the U.S. Coast Guard model," Mr. Balbon said. "We hope this may be ready in two years.

"Ratings need to have a high-school education and have taken basic seamanship course," he said. "They must show some special skills - firefighting or navigation, for instance - and have at least one year's domestic employment as proven by social-security records or an employer's letter."

Supposedly tamper-proof features have been included as a way to detect forgeries, he said.

Marina has processed 95,000 applications and gets 500 more a day on

average.

For a year or more, concern has been growing about threats to the Philippines' front position among world suppliers of maritime manpower.

Questions about false documentation, bribes and the like are, theoretically, manageable by the government. The larger peril isn't.

The Chinese, currently No. 2, are making a strong pitch for dominance. South Korea and India are ranking suppliers, and Vietnam could easily become so.

Large numbers of ratings and officers from the old Soviet fleet are on the market. So are a flotilla of others from European countries with declining home fleets.

Their technical skills "are superior to those of the average Filipino," said Vincente Aldanese, head of the Filipino Association for Mariners' Employment.

Mr. Aldanese confirmed that Filipinos have been jettisoned for failing

examinations in some flag states. Like others in the industry, he wants an even more concerted effort to deep-six training schools that hand out diplomas for a price.

The Philippines recently counted 34 maritime training centers and more than 100 basic schools producing up to 35,000 graduates a year. Only a comparative few could pass exams administered by the government.

And there is an imbalance in people: Too many old-style sailors and too few of the more highly qualified ratings and officers.

"The Philippines must make its seafarers more competitive in an industry that advances rapidly in terms of technology," said Arhlene Romero, head of Marina's manpower development unit.