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Guest Article: IAIN FLOCKHART “Crew Retention and What Causes Crew to Leave?”


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CREW RETENTION

What causes crew to leave ?

Changing crew is undoubtedly expensive and inconvenient for any yacht, and very possibly inconvenient and irritating to your owner as well. It has been cited as a major problem within the industry and a significant reason why owners leave yachting all together.

It is not my intention to enter into much detail about why we should want to retain good crew, that should be pretty obvious, but more working on the assumption that it’s generally agreed that reducing crew turnover is a good thing. We then look at the main causes and some solutions to the issue.

Costs include but are not limited to:

It can all add up to a tidy sum, and then there is the general inconvenience of it all:⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀

  • Any severance that may be due
  • Crew agency fees, (if you use them)
  • Repatriation / flights, trains, taxis etc.
  • Yacht agency fees, for departing and arriving crew
  • Visas for arriving crew
  • Training
  • Uniform⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀

It can all add up to a tidy sum, and then there is the general inconvenience of it all

  • General disruption
  • Time and effort to recruit replacements
  • Uncertainty during probationary periods
  • An unsettling feeling for the rest of the crew
  • New faces to get on with
  • Induction
  • Onboard training / familiarisation
  • A new person in your cabin to get used to
  • Unknown quantity etc.

It is often (though not always) irritating to the owner as well. Not only due to the expense, but to keep seeing new faces. Conversely, there are owners, who don’t seem to care when a new face appears onboard, that’s just the way some owners are, but for many, seeing new faces is unsettling, especially if it’s a crew member that they see a lot of and have to interact with frequently, senior stewardesses, senior deck crew, chef etc.

The owner who does not particularly care about new faces, may well start to question the financial impact of frequent crew changes before long.

I know of a vessel with 10 crew that went through over 100 crew in a four year period with a single captain. That’s a crew member every 2 weeks, or 10 full crew changes over the four year period. The vessel was later deemed as “uninsurable” due to lack of maintenance, hardly a surprise with such high turnover. It always comes at a cost.

If you are the Captain, high crew turnover can reflect badly on you, even if you are not the real reason the crew are bailing out. The crew might all be leaving because of the way the owner himself is or his wife may be the main cause of discontent. It may be boat related but entirely out of your control, e.g. the yacht is unsafe but the owner will not provide the funding or time to remedy the issues.

Most owners however are unlikely to accept that their own actions, or lack thereof, are the cause of high crew turnover and may well think that the crew are leaving because you the captain are the reason. Then you have a problem. It is generally therefore in the best interest of the Captain for many reasons to try to keep crew turnover to a minimum regardless of their reasons for wanting to leave. It will ultimately reflect badly on you justifiably or not.

Yachting is a small world and you may well find that you will have inadvertently picked up an unjustifiable reputation for high crew turnover when it has not been your own fault. This may hinder you in getting a new position or hiring good crew in the future if this reputation is following you around.

There are some worrying statistics on the percentages of crew that leave before having even completed 12 months onboard, and It seems that retaining crew in general is becoming harder, and hiring and retaining, good crew, even more so.

What we will focus on in this first two chapters is the main causes of crew turnover.I have written a very in depth article on this important subject, and have broken it down into several sections to make it more manageable to read. Chapter one which is in four parts covers the main reasons why crew may leave a yacht. It will be followed by subsequent chapters addressing how we can minimise crew turnover.

So what causes crew to move on ?

Let’s just flip that question around for a second and look at it the other way because they are intrinsically linked. What actually attracts crew to come to a yacht in the first place and what factors make them want to stay?

I have put the various elements with a direct financial influence at the top of the list, followed by the more indirect ones, then those that have no financial impact.

  • Salary
  • Stability, job security
  • A bonus scheme
  • Chartering (tips can be substantial)
  • A pension scheme (uncommon but not unheard of)
  • Other benefits,  (such as private medical insurance)
  • Career progression / Responsibility, (can lead to higher salary)
  • Number of flights home or travel budget for crew, (less flights for the crew to pay for themselves)
  • Formal training paid for by the yacht, (can save crew a substantial sum)
  • Rotation, (possibly has negative effect on finances, due to less time onboard therefore incurring more living expenses)
  • A well planned schedule, (allowing crew to plan their time away from the boat)
  • Amount of leave, (possible negative effect on finances, more time paying your own way)
  • Itinerary / travel
  • Having a good tutor / mentor
  • Manageable working hours
  • A vessel itself. (A classic sailing yacht, a large explorer yacht with a chopper and a sub.)
  • A safely run vessel
  • Sea time
  • A happy boat with little or no internal politics
  • A great Captain or HOD
  • Adventure / excitement
  • The vessels reputation
  • Overall professionalism. Admin, Contracts etc. organisation, planning
  • A vessel that is well funded
  • Good overall management
  • A yacht with a large chase boat
  • Good accommodation and crew spaces, lounge, crew gym etc.
  • A new (usually bigger) yacht in the pipeline
  • Good connectivity, V Sat etc. with good bandwidth available to the crew.
  • Great crew food
  • A good owner
  • A good crew
  • Cultural compatibility

Different individuals will of course prioritise these motivating elements in different ways. Some crew will not even consider many of the items above as specific motivational influences at all. The financial factors will always be pretty close to the top for most crew due to the basic necessity to survive in life in the long term, which takes income to achieve. An early career in yachting can give a young person a very good head start in life.

The list of elements above pretty much describes what may be considered my many crew as a dream boat to work on:

It’s a fair assumption that if the items listed above are perceived to be lacking in high enough measure, then there’s a high probability that the lack of these elements in the crew members mind is going to eventually lead to a level of discontent. It does of course depend greatly on the level of tolerance that any given individual has for their own circumstances onboard, and critically, current market forces.

As an example the yacht may have had a great Captain when ”x” joined the yacht over a year ago, but now there is a new inexperienced Captain everything is going south since he took over with a substantial knock on effect. A good Captain and a safely run vessel were very important to “X” who now he feels he has to move on.

Another example, happened to people I know recently, change of owner, crew salaries slashed. Good financial incentives had been the only motivation on this particular yacht, so there extensive dilution resulted in most crew leaving.

On the other hand, the relatively unskilled crewmember who knows she was very lucky to land the job in the first instance and is earning € 3,500 a month plus tips onboard, and she meets the criteria so as to not have to have to be taxed on it, may very well have no intention of leaving any time soon even if the yacht she is on is a long way from her dream job. She’s smart enough to accept the reality that she could probably only earn about a third of that if she was back home after she is taxed and then has all her own living expenses to deal with on top of it.

As a Captain, I have tolerated very poor circumstances because market forces at the time have been such that I was not able to find another more attractive role to move to. Conversely some crew have become adept at yacht hopping, in the short term at least, as the market has permitted it by default due to a shortage of crew.

Let’s now look in more detail at some specific reasons why crew move on.

The job does not meet their expectations:

There has undoubtedly been something of a shift in the expectations of crew over the last few years. I have been amazed at some of the comments I have had whilst interviewing crew that at best, have had two seasons in the industry, (see a few examples below.) There expectations are sometimes very high but many of them have little to offer in return by way of highly developed skill set, solid experience, languages, longevity etc. There are lots of big expectations around that carry little to offer in return.

All you have to do is to read through some posts and comments on the many social media pages devoted to our industry to get a feel for what’s happening and to see the attitude that seems to becoming more and more prevalent among these younger and less experienced crew. Entitlement seems to be very prevalent.

It is quite eye opening, and frankly somewhat worrying that there are such high expectations from such inexperienced people. In my experience, such questions (as listed below), never used to come up in interviews in the past.

There is very much a feeling that the Millennials seem to have been having it far too easy. Obviously enough of them have been lucky enough and have landed on their feet and have never experienced a lengthy period of unemployment to make them appreciate just how well off they really are with their unusually high disposable income for their age, and level of experience. Not forgetting that much of the work they are doing at entry level is largely unskilled.

What expectations do crew have that fail to deliver and cause them to move on ?

  • Long relentless work schedules: Welcome to yachting.
  • Itinerary: Does not suit their expectations, want to travel the world.
  • Sea time: Not enough sea time being accrued for CoC progression.
  • Leave schedule: Not enough leave, not when it suits them, not able to plan far enough ahead.
  • Salary: Younger seem to be looking for good salaries regardless of having little or no
  • experience.
  • Parity in salary: This is an interesting subject which will be covered in a later instalment.
  • Training: No or limited training paid for by the vessel, and or no time off given for training if the crew fund themselves.
  • General career progression: No way forward for promotion in a timeframe acceptable to them.
  • Poor overall job satisfaction: Just not getting what they want from the job.
  • Internal politics: OK with their job in principle, but unhappy onboard due to politics.
  • Lack of confidence in their Captain or HOD.
  • Ts & Cs: Overall dissatisfaction with their contractual terms, Salary too low, no bonus, no medical insurance, not enough leave etc.

Just to illustrate what I have experienced re the current trend of expectations, here are some actual comments I have had in interviews in recent years with crew that all had very limited experience. These comments all came up over a two day interviewing session. Suffice to say none of them were employed by me but one was a near miss.*

  • “But I don’t want to leave Palma / the SOF etc.”
  • “Is that the best salary you can offer me?” (€ 3,000 for a junior Stew role, and a good all round contract, circa 40m vessel).
  • “Can my boyfriend come?”
  • “Oh by the way I am a pescatarian.”
  • “So the boat will never leave the med right ? But I want to travel the world.“
  • “I only get 1 flight home a year ?” (to Australia).
  • “Do we get to use the jet skis and go wakeboarding ?”
  • *Once a job offer had been given, “Oh I should tell you I’m pregnant, will that be a problem?”
  • “So you won’t pay for all my courses?”
  •  “Are we allowed to drink onboard ?”
  • “It’s not enough leave.” (6 working weeks).
  • “Can I bring my surfboard?”

Only in it for the short term:

A recent survey by the Superyacht Group showed that as many as 25% of crew are not being in yachting for the long term with 10% citing yachting as a short term job and a further 16% being undecided.

There are still a fair number of “transients” in the industry. They’ve invested in the cost of their BST, and intend to only stay in the industry for a relatively short period of time. Their first month’s salary more than pays for their BST, ENG 1 etc. and leaves them enough for a couple of nights out in Antibes.

So there is an appeal to this for crew that have only a short term agenda in the industry. Many come from countries with a low cost of living and a few years in the business will secure them a house back home. You can see why they do it.

Like it or not this group exist, and are not entering the industry with the best of intentions. It is not always easy to spot the transients when you interview them, they all want the job they all want the money but they are generally savvy enough to not let on that they have a short term agenda. If they are not in it for the long term they will feel no obligation to stay on any particular vessel when there are other options out there for them.

If you are unable to spot those with relatively short term intentions you will have issues retaining crew that only ever signed up (in their own minds) for the short term relatively speaking.

The next instalment will look at more of these reasons.

© 2018 Iain Flockhart

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