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Image by Joshua Earle

The Crew Shortage – How Can We Change This?

Onboard Autumn 2022

Well let’s start at the bottom of the ladder: green crew. 15 years ago, when I became a crew agent, junior positions were all advertised at €2000 per month (that’s the equivalent of only 2600€ today – an increase of less than 2% a year, current inflation is +10%). In 2007, a great wage for brand-new, fresh out of the packet crew, when most yachts started their summer season by training a couple of greenies from scratch, for interior and for deck.  Back in these “glory” days, rightly or wrongly most weren’t paying taxes… that €2000 went straight into your bank account. Or it went straight onto your tab in the local crew bar but that’s none of my business… 

Immigration officials were not trawling websites, Facebook, or local docks seeking illegal jobhunters to deport. A Schengen visa was easy enough to acquire in South Africa or wherever before you came to Europe to stay in cheap backpackers’ hostels, on a cheap flight. Now to fly into Antibes or Mallorca in the springtime, you need to have a lot of financial backing. Long gone are those lovely days of backpacking around the world, wandering into a marina to look at the big boats, and finding yourself hired for some daywork, then discovering a new vocation in life and beginning a career on board a superyacht. This romantic tale does not happen anymore. Like it or not, as the industry has striven to become more professional, it has also become financially driven, with schools now cashing in on providing necessary, and sometimes not so necessary courses to new crew.  This was a time when you didn’t need to have an STCW, ENG1, FH2, PB2 to daywork or even to do a full season onboard, before deciding if you enjoyed yachting enough to commit to shelling out on just basic courses.   Now, you have to spend thousands before you even get to set foot on the docks that everybody is saying you can’t walk on anyway because you’ll get arrested and sent home.

Those who do make it to the yachting hotspots arrive to be told they’re not good enough because they don’t have experience, and to be slammed with “the new generation are not hard workers like we were” from vocal senior crew on Facebook pages.

The industry as a whole needs to come together and stop this collective bashing of the new generation. Like it or not, they actually do have it harder than you did. See above.  It’s all relative, you had it tough, but so do they, in different ways. Let’s respect that, understand that, have a little empathy, and give people a chance. Why are we not hiring green crew anymore? This demand for “must have at least a year’s experience” must have a limit. Fair enough if you’re looking for a senior crew member but for junior stews/deckhands/chefs etc, we must give green crew the opportunity to prove themselves. It’s ironic when you consider seniors only hire experienced crew to make their lives easier – which means they’re actually the ones being lazy in their duties and responsibilities to the industry’s future by not investing their time and expertise in training the new generation. 

Case in point – I asked my networks on social media to give me their thoughts on how we can improve crew retention, and the first email I received was from a captain moaning about how tough he has it. Not what I asked, but ok… then after complaining (at length) about how he should be given rotation with all his experience (despite no longevity, and never progressing his career or qualifications amongst other red flags), said “new crew are entitled”. No sir, YOU are entitled. Take responsibility, your decisions led you here. These are the captains who forget they were hired by their elders 20 years ago who probably also thought they were entitled brats, and yet instead of refusing them an opportunity, they trained, mentored and moulded them into the experienced crew they are today. So pay it forward. Another captain complained, “I don’t have time to train anyone!” Who trained you? Lucky they didn’t say that isn’t it? They made time to help you and here we are. It certainly seems from crew feedback this year that there are many seniors around who are not the pioneering leaders and managers this industry needs. We get it, it’s a tough job, the crew politics are far harder than running the yacht itself, but you have a responsibility when you’re at the top of the ladder to all your crew. Toxicity at the top leaks down and taints everything below. If you can’t be that person, then perhaps it’s time to step aside and let the next person step up. Make a change, or BE the change. 

Engineer J suggested “Captains and owners could sit down with their crew members to work out what they want to achieve from the industry and provide a plan of action so everyone benefits.  Crew will stay if they are supported and can progress with courses etc. More longevity will produce a smoother running vessel. Even if crew members’ tickets eventually supersede what the vessel needs the crew will leave on good terms with a genuine care and diligence for the vessel. Offer a 3-5 year contract with bonuses and courses.”

A director of a management company told me he advises owners, “if you want to see different people all the time, buy a hotel, if you want your yacht to feel like home, know your kids are safe, then treat your crew with respect, it’s a two-way street.”  Most owners understand figures, if they offer decent packages and invest in crew they stay. It’s 40% more efficient to retain than to re-recruit.” He added, “Half my job is holding their hands… problem is that there are still some captains out there with egos giving poor advice… there are some very good ones too!” So clearly those are the ones we need to work with, help and assist to build and retain their teams from the bottom up and the top down. Offer the juniors good packages and rewards for loyalty, once they’ve completed a year offer assistance with courses, increase time off etc. It’s all obvious stuff but makes a huge difference. Onshore companies offer incentives to their new starters, yachting could easily adopt any of a number of similar models to attract new juniors, and adapt them to retain seniors.

What about experienced/senior crew? Where have they gone? Whilst the pandemic stopped new crew entering the industry in 2020 and 2021 creating that hole, during the international lockdowns experienced crew lost jobs, got stuck somewhere, or stayed home.  Throughout this time, many took time to reflect and re-evaluate their lives and careers, deciding that yachting was no longer worth the personal sacrifice. Salaries haven’t changed much whereas cost of living has rocketed, plus nothing is “tax free” anymore so relatively speaking, it’s nowhere near as lucrative a career as it once was. Example? Average cost of new car in USA 2007: $23,807 vs 2022 $48,043. More than double. Salaries have absolutely not doubled, not even close. Average house price in UK 2007: £181k vs 2022 £280k. So about 60% increase. Salaries? Nope. Plus now, if you want to progress your career you have to invest in your qualifications, in the old days you could cruise by on an AEC or a Yachtmaster as engineer or captain on any size vessel because “the yacht’s private”. Not anymore! The cost associated with OOW, Masters tickets, Y/SV tickets is in the tens of thousands and there’s no paid time off to obtain them either.  Stagnant salaries have made the industry far less appealing for longterm employment. Covid saw many crew seeking alternative employment and discovering new passions, new interests and a fresh outlook with improved mental health. A Chief Stew told me, “what I’ve lost in salary isn’t that much in the big picture compared to what I’ve gained in terms of my relationships, and now I can have a normal life. Unless I was offered a more comprehensive package with considerably more paid time off, I won’t return to yachting.” A sentiment echoed by many who left the industry only “temporarily” during the pandemic, never to return.

This season we’ve seen increased numbers of crew holding out for proper rotation (equal pay 2 months on off usually), and contracts offering more than 30days leave a year. It does seem bizarre that the commercial shipping sector has used rotation as standard practice for many years but the superyacht industry seems conveniently blind to its benefits, of which there are so many (and well documented). Crew are people, not machines, and we need time off or our mental health will suffer. Deck stew “M” told me she’d like to see therapy offered to crew, “half hour a week per crew member with an online therapist on boss time.  Someone to check in and see if they have any issues, or just to make sure things are ok. Could avoid conflict down the road with another person.” We all know someone who’d scoff at the idea and chuck the word “snowflake” about but let’s face it, they’re probably the ones who need it the most so be kind when you bounce this idea around the crew mess.

Another attitude which needs to change is that many seniors prefer to swap crew out if they are underperforming rather than deal with the awkwardness or conflict of tackling the problem. In a landbased workplace if somebody started strong, and then the quality of their work dropped, a good manager would address that and in first instance, try to resolve the issue. Not just immediately bin them off and get a new one. There’s definitely a gap in the market here for Human Resources training for HODs, doing the physical job is the easy bit, it’s dealing with people that’s the tough part as I said earlier. The number of seniors who have seemed genuinely shocked that there was no bank of reserve crew still desperately searching for work in July and August this year was high! In a normal year, back in the “old days” when there were too many crew and not enough jobs, yes, you really could swap out a crew member mid-season and be fairly sure you weren’t hiring a psychopath. But this year? Absolutely not. And as one agent said, “in the current climate if anybody is still looking for work in August, I would be very thorough in checking their background as they’re probably not the best!”

Now what about management companies? Where do they fit into all this? Well, the management company concept was born to be, effectively, a go-between to make both parties lives easier. The captain should be able to lean on management for support, advice and assistance. The manager should be providing this to the captain and crew, whilst managing the client’s expectations in what’s realistically achievable. Sadly this model doesn’t always work properly, where some managers are offering all this and more to both parties, helping guide the owners through efficient and happy yacht ownership (like our director friend above), sadly there are others who make life harder for the crew. Captain “M” has experienced a lack of understanding from management, “it seems the corporate mindset, one most owners are familiar with, is being applied, and not always to good advantage. One does not always save money by saving money on a boat, and this is contrary to a corporate mentality.” At the end of the day, we all know a vessel with happy crew makes everyone’s lives easier, including the managers’ as well as the owners’! So once again we have an obstacle, how do we get these managers to understand the importance of looking after the human side of yachting? More HR training here too? 

Considering covid again, the pandemic has changed everything. Like it or lump it there is no denying that we will not go back to how things were before Covid. The labour force has altered, evolving and moving forward with the changing landscape. Landbased industries adapted to accommodate their employees, so why won’t yachting? Especially considering most yacht owners have other business concerns ashore where changes have been implemented successfully. Obviously crew can’t work from home, but I bet in management companies team members continue to do so, not just to save money but because the world realised productivity increased in employees because they were happier. So why do so many owners think that crew should work 24/7 for an entire season (and be grateful for this experience)? They wouldn’t force that working model on their landbased staff, so we need to show them yacht crew deserve equal treatment and respect. 

The media is constantly flooded with workplace mental health advice, issues, and solutions, so it’s not like burnout is an unknown factor in the workforce. And what we have seen from industries ashore is that, if the employer does not value the employee and treat them well, they leave and find work elsewhere in a company that will value them. This is exactly what’s happening with yachting. And yet we are still hearing horror stories of management and captains blaming the crew for not having a decent work ethic or being too entitled. Have we not earned the right to be entitled to decent living and working conditions, salaries and time off? 

How do we educate the owners on this subject? Is it down to the captains? Or is it down to the management companies? Will articles like this help in relevant publications? When we see advertisements for Superyacht owners’ forums and clubs, why are they never talking about crew? 

So there we have it. Plenty of ideas, plenty of feedback from the crew at the coal face, but still plenty of areas to consider, question, and improve upon. So now, our role as industry leaders, seniors, and professionals is to work collectively to push the yachting industry into 2022 along with the rest of the world. Let’s stop bashing each other and focusing on the negatives and failings, we are where we are, there are so many positives and successes in our industry, let’s focus on these and move forward together to make the future brighter for all of us. 

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