The cruise industry constantly needs staff. A self-evident point, maybe, but the way in which the sector goes about filling positions – irrespective of whether they are on-deck or back office – continues to shift with ever-changing demands.

First and foremost, trends have been driven by the evolution of a savvier type of cruise ship passenger; these days, one is just as likely to ask an on-board member of staff about a ship’s sulphur emissions policy as they are about the evening’s entertainment.

Having now successfully identified the direct correlation between passenger satisfaction and staff fulfilment, HR departments are starting to look at new and more imaginative ways of finding and keeping the best possible staff. This can entail anything from offering effective training schemes and incentive packages to providing attractive living conditions.

Consequently, many major cruise companies have sought to formalise and improve their benefits packages and working conditions, as well as instigating training schemes and schools, aimed at attracting the best pool of employees.

The cruise industry’s efforts in this area can be easily evidenced. Many operators, such as Regent Seven Seas, now have education and HR officers on board each vessel to ensure the right support is given to all staff. These officers also assist the cruise line’s department heads with the ongoing development of training programmes.

Costa Cruises is another player to have raised its game considerably. The operator now has seven training schools located across the world, five of which are dedicated to the training of shipboard personnel, as well as a facility geared towards deck and engine personnel. It also has a training centre at its Genoa headquarters for technical and managerial guidance for shoreside and shipside employees.

Princess Cruises has also made hefty investments in harnessing its staff. For several years, the group has used a ten-part quality management programme called CRUISE. The initiative comprises several key elements, and passengers are asked to fill out comment cards for any employee who makes the customers’ cruise special or memorable. Recognised crew members are then entered into the "Employee of the Month" programme.

According to Rai Caluori, Princess’s executive vice-president of fleet operations, customer care is at the heart of the scheme.

"Emphasising whether first impressions are good or bad will make a bigger impact on the customer than all the money we could spend on advertising, marketing and public relations put together," he says.

It is a bold statement, but Caluori is adamant that Princess’s focus on customer care has enabled it to attract the best crew members, safe in the knowledge that their hard work will be rewarded.

Industrial action

Feedback is another critical component in all of this. Suggestions for service and operational improvements are reviewed monthly, and winning suggestions are selected on the basis of positive impact, cost-effectiveness and ease of implementation.

Princess’s other recruitment and retention initiatives include opportunities to earn extra money based on said passenger feedback, a crew newsletter and the chance to learn another language – the latter being a skill that has gained invaluable currency for cruise operators in recent years.

Yet, while the industry has done much to ramp up staff retention through such incentive schemes, employee turnover, particularly among younger staff, is, on the odd occasion, subject to high rates – just as it is in any industry.

Jeff Beattie, senior director of human resources at Holland America, stresses that the cruise sector’s occasional struggle to attract and retain staff is part of a pan-industry, cross-border HR challenge.

"This is a global issue, and some industries are impacted more than others," he says. "The basic issue is the baby boomers of the 1940s and 1950s are starting to retire, and the following generations have had much lower birth rates. Therefore, there are not enough people to staff open positions from the traditional markets."

In response, Holland America is a notable example of an operator that has turned its attention to fast-growing Asian markets in order to plug some of the labour gap.

"We need to be able to quickly train and acclimatise staff so they are able to be assimilated into the on-board workforce faster," says Beattie. "We have added people and technology, improved processes and completely re-evaluated what we are doing."

"Many major cruise companies have sought to formalise and improve their benefits packages and working conditions, aimed at attracting the best pool of employees."

The bedrock of the firm’s training and retention plan is arguably the sizeable investment it has made in its Career Roadmap programme – a scheme that aims to equip employees with benchmarks in the area of promotion, pay and benefits, on-board facilities and feedback schemes.

A learning management system is also on offer, providing round-the-clock access to online training on ships, in offices and at home via the internet, through which a series of conferences brings staff ashore for multiday training, where they can learn about on-board operational pressures and meet other staff.

Cultural identity

Training is not the only key HR area for the industry. Staff security has also come to the fore in recent years – pre-employment screening and Randox drug and alcohol testing are highly advised by the IMO – with an increasing number of operators incorporating a more vigilant and integrated process when it comes to hiring employees.

Nonetheless, while background checks are valuable, they alone will not suffice if a cruise line is to optimise its human resources policy to meet safety and security goals. Cruise lines must also instil a culture of security and passenger safety in any candidate that makes it through the selection process.

In keeping with the theme of cultural entrenchment, to maintain high standards, the industry must make sure that its policy begins with a rigorous selection and screening process that sets the tone for all its safety and security processes thereafter.

Looking further ahead, technology will, unsurprisingly, be deployed on a greater level in the recruitment and training of staff, helping cruise lines maintain high levels of service and quality.

Although cruise training schools, such as Costa’s, have expanded their programmes accordingly, the general consensus among HR departments is that software and automation will provide a dominant source of training going forward.

And, as Tim Skinner, corporate hotel manager, MSC Cruises, explains, re-education can take place anywhere at any time. Referring to his own group’s workforce, which amounts to approximately 12,500 active crew, he says: "As soon as they’re on board, they’re working. Although very deep training takes place, staff can also then watch training programmes at their leisure."

Ultimately, though, the desired end result of training programmes is to create a polished, committed workforce, with the view to a long-term career path. While undoubtedly a complex and challenging mission, it is one that HR departments across the ever-competitive cruise industry appear to be taking more seriously than ever.