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Cruise lines 'pushed to their limits' on staffing, recruiting

PHOTO: ANNE KALOSH CRUISE_SCG_staffing_panel.jpg
From left, Faststream's Martin Bennell, CMI Ship Management's Jim Barreira de Leon and A&K's Camille Drevillon
Staffing and recruiting challenges come as no surprise to anyone working in the cruise industry as it rebuilds from the pandemic shock and shutdown. But while the layoffs and furloughs are now largely in the past, companies face new issues.

'We're at even more risk now' for losing talent, warned Camille Drevillon, SVP strategic planning and business development, Abercrombie & Kent. People who soldiered through the pandemic had to work even harder, without bonuses. And travel-sector employers are hard-strapped to raise salaries after two years of diminished revenue with recovery still under way.

According to Faststream Recruitment Group, cruise businesses are being 'pushed to their limits' in how they manage people strategies moving forward.

50% of shoreside workers and 82% shipboard plan to look for new jobs

New Faststream research revealed the startling findings that 50% of the shoreside workers and 82% of the shipboard workers surveyed plan to look for a new job in the next 12 months. Only 38% feel very valued by their employer.

Some 1,011 cruise professionals took part in the survey conducted in March and April.

Clearly, leaders and talent acquisition teams are up against tough realities. Faststream said the pandemic changed people and what they expect, adding that it's time to re-evaluate strategies to assess what's still current, what's not and what people really care about.

Hybrid work environment desired

For example, Faststream's research found 61% of shoreside professionals desire a hybrid work environment. And while salary and benefits are key, a majority of those surveyed do not see reward increasing over the next two years.

Salary and benefits are the biggest motivation for crew to change jobs, but for shoreside employees who seek change, better work-life balance slightly edges out salary and benefits.

The survey uncovered that half of the shoreside workers and 66% of those at sea are concerned about job security.

Staffing and crewing challenges and opportunities were spotlighted in a session at Seatrade Cruise Global moderated by Faststream's Martin Bennell, managing director – Europe, Middle East, Africa and Americas.

Pandemic and war

Assessing conditions, Jim Barreiro de Leon, president and CEO, CMI Ship Management, which manages 12 ships in the expedition segment, was blunt: 'The last two years have been impossible. As you come out of it, a war is breaking out.'

Barreiro de Leon said seafarers rank No. 14 on the list of essential workers. 'It's insane. We have a lot of work to do to put programs in place to make sure this [pandemic disregard for seafarers] doesn't happen again.'

Low-cost, high-impact suggestions

Barreiro de Leon offered some low-cost, high-impact ways to better conditions for seafarers, including improving the onboard culture, mental health programs, better crew benefits and effective mentorship.

Also, for seafarers, 'It's no longer just sending money home. They want to send health benefits home.' Providing health coverage to families is not actually that cost-prohibitive, Barreiro de Leon said, and can be phased in.

CMI also tries to provide salaries when crew are on leave by having them work in port operations or other areas. This goes a long way toward retention. And CMI is promoting much more from within. Barreiro de Leon said manning a ship with more crew in order to give more time off onboard is worth looking at. 

What millennials value

Shoreside, retention is a 'huge issue' across travel companies,' according to Drevillon. People who've worked in travel are very attractive because so many of their skills are marketable in other industries.

Millennials (ages 27 to 41) are now in mid-level management. And for them, important factors are having a voice, company values that align with their own (one of the issues they really care about is sustainability) and making a difference. 'Reverse mentoring,' giving junior workers the opportunity to meet with senior people to share their ideas, is a way to address this.

'It's very easy to convince them to jump jobs,' Drevillon said, especially when they can earn 20%, 30% or 50% more. For millennials with college debt followed by COVID job disruptions, the money is key. It's hard for travel companies coming out of the pandemic to be competitive.

'This generation sees there are easier ways to earn a living,' Barreiro de Leon added. 'They see their parents working 25/7. We haven't set a great example.'

Gen C

Faststream's Bennell referred to 'Gen C' (COVID, change, choice), stating that 22% of shoreside staff will look outside the cruise sector for new employment. Drevillon found that low; she's seen half or more of staff go to other industries.

'This generation is good in technology,' she said. 'They know how to use it and how to position themselves,' she said. 'It's easy to poach people from travel.'

Also, young people with tech skills expect a flexible environment with allowance for working remotely as much as possible. Drevillon said people are leaving if they don't have a hybrid work option.

According to Faststream, 61% desire a hybrid work style, however 66% would not take a pay cut for a remote or hybrid role. Forty percent of shoreside employees in the survey are currently working in a hybrid environment, 36% are in the office full time and 24% are working remotely full time.

'We struggle' with a four days in the office, one at home work style, CMI's Barreiro de Leon said, adding that he supports remote work but 'something is missing' when people don't interact regularly and informally in person.

Skilled seafarers will continue in the cruise sector, he predicted, but those in non-marine roles like accounting and purchasing are more likely to move, with Drevillon adding lawyers and IT professionals to the list.

'Everyone loves travel'

Still, it remains true that 'Everyone loves travel. Compared to other sectors, it's easy to get excited about,' she said.

Yes, travel is attractive, yet Barreiro de Leon pointed out that for crew on expedition ships, a season in Antarctica means there's little chance to go ashore and let off steam. Some captains just 'don't like cold weather.' And smaller ships have fewer crew recreational facilities.

Explosive growth

It's not just daunting emerging from the pandemic. Bennell noted that with new ships fueling 'explosive growth' in the cruise sector, expanding the workforce presents a real challenge.

Faststream asked shoreside and seagoing respondents their thoughts about employment over the next five years. Some 53% predict a shortage of experienced cruise professionals and 33% see a shortage of all levels of cruise professionals.

Here are other highlights from the Faststream employment survey:

Shoreside professionals

In the past two years, 31% of shoreside professionals became unemployed while 55% maintained active employment. Of those who lost jobs, 23% were rehired by their previous employer while 77% have a new employer.

How valued do they feel?

Forty-eight percent feel very valued, 40% somewhat valued and 12% not valued at all.

An unexpected finding was that those who had been made redundant and then returned to their previous employer felt more valued than those who had been laid off and joined a new employer.

Some 65% of shoreside professionals surveyed do not see reward increasing over the next two years, and 49% are concerned about job security.

Of the 50% who plan to look for a new job in the next 12 months, the top three motivations  are better work-life balance (28%), closely followed by better salary and beneftis (26%) and career progression (22%).

The three biggest motivators to stay in the current job are salary and benefits (35%), work-life balance (24%) and love of work in the cruise sector (18%)

Seagoing professionals

Among the Faststream cruise survey respondents, 39% of seagoing professionals became unemployed in the last two years, compared to 53% who kept their jobs. Forty percent were rehired by their previous employer and 60% by a new employer.

Of the seafarers who went back to their previous employer, 39% feel very valued, 43% somewhat valued and 18% not at all valued. Of those who went to new employers, 34% feel very valued, 42% somewhat valued and 24% not at all valued.

Stress at sea

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 is currently causing the most stress among seagoing respondents (24%). This is followed by staff shortages creating extra workload (22%), management (15%), working hours (13%), being away from home (12%) and guest satisfaction (8%).

Some 67% of the seagoing professionals surveyed do not believe reward will increase in the next two years. Top areas cruise lines could improve (from a list of 18 choices) were pension (35%), rotations (33%), Wi-Fi (30%), performance bonus (30%), career progression/seagoing promotion opportunities (23%), job stability (20%), management (19%) and healthcare (16%).

Some 66% are concerned about job security. COVID-19 is the main reason (36%), followed by lack of feedback, reviews, progression plan (31%) and company financial troubles (17%).

Of the 82% who plan to look for a new job in the next 12 months, the three drivers are better salary/benefits (40%), better work-life balance (27%) and career progression (17%). The top three reasons to stay in their current role are salary and benefits (34%), love working in the cruise sector (23%) and work-life balance (22%).

The full Faststream survey is available here.