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How COVID Has Affected Crew Hiring

22 October 2021By Risa Merl
Crewmember ties dock line
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The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on every facet of working life and caused staffing shortages in industries worldwide, and crewing is no exception. At the start of the pandemic, yachting came to a standstill. Charters were cancelled and owners put their yachts into lockdown for safety reason. A number of yachts went down to skeleton crew and laid crew off. Yachting jobs were few and far between. But now, as the world opens up, yachting has exploded with brokers reporting record highs in yacht sales and charter bookings. The flip side is that there are more requests for crew than can possibly be met, and travel restrictions and vaccination protocols only add to the chaos.

“At the beginning of 2020, COVID brought up a high sense of fear in the industry,” says Alessandro D’Angelo, crewing manager with Fraser Yachts’ The Crew Network. “In Europe, we saw a huge slowdown of boat usage during the first part of the season last year, picking back up from July onwards.”

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Green crew faced added challenges as there were many experienced crew sitting around waiting for the call, and veterans were chosen over newbies. “In June 2020, there was a lack of receptiveness to looking at green crew CVs as many vessels could get experienced crew members instead,” says India Thomson-Virtue of wilsonhalligan.

“Even though borders have reopened, and vaccinated crew no longer must do the 14 days quarantine, there is still a crew shortage.... 

At the same time, the crewing market was flooded by cruise ship employees who suddenly found themselves out of a job. “As the cruise ship and hospitality industry shut down completely and yacht owners reduced the crew because of COVID-19, there was a huge amount of people looking for job and only few available positions,” says Despina Davi, a yacht manager with Ocean Independence. While more positions are available now, crew might still find themselves competing against hospitality staff from cruise ships or luxury hotels. The former, in particular, can present tough competition with highly skilled engineers being plucked from cruise ships to work on yachts.

But where there was once a job shortage, now there is a crew staffing shortage. “In 2021, we’re seeing a huge increase in requests for crew worldwide. Most experienced crew are barely available and ‘green’ crew are having glorious days so far,” says D’Angelo.

Complicated Logistics

It’s not just higher demand for enjoying yachts that’s causing a surplus of available yacht jobs. “Even though borders have reopened, and vaccinated crew no longer must do the 14 days quarantine, there is still a crew shortage. I suspect a lot of crew may have re-evaluated their yachting career to be near family or considered shore-based jobs,” says Julie Walker, Meridian’s customer manager. “COVID has definitely changed the game and affected crew hiring. It’s certainly been challenging for yachts to find crew.”

Lucy Medd, fleet crew manager at Burgess, doesn’t sugarcoat things: “It’s been an absolute nightmare,” she says. “We maintained a high percentage of crew on our managed yachts last year but did lose about 20 percent who just haven’t come back. A lot of people realised the benefits of being at home long term and some have found new careers. You can’t spend a year not earning any money, so many had to find alternative careers and don’t want to return to crewing.”

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“While there are fewer crew looking for work, many crew that are looking are more interested in a quick buck so will job hop,” Medd says. Even in the height of COVID lockdowns, there was still movement among yacht staff as the shorter season saw crew jumping from one boat to another to find higher salaries, a trend that has continued and led to high turnover rates in staff on board.

Being able to get new crew on board is another problem entirely. “COVID definitely affected the logistical side of onboarding new crew with people being stuck abroad and finding it hard to get visas to join yachts in Europe, which makes it quite difficult for people to find work,” says Esther Delamare, senior recruitment manager at Hill Robinson. Conversely, some crew were stuck on board because of COVID lockdowns and couldn’t get home.

Testing & Vaccination

PCR testing and quarantines used to be the standard for safely onboarding crew before the deployment of the vaccine. As more and more crew choose to get vaccinated, this is making it easier to fly crew in and negates the need for crew to quarantine before stepping on board, the latter of which is a plus to captains and owners. “When crew were having to quarantine, vessels were having to outlay huge amounts of money putting them in hotels for up to ten days just as a precaution. All of this to hire a crewmember they haven’t even ‘met’ yet,” says Jo Damgaard, sales executive and crew coordinator for Meridian.

But talking to potential crew about vaccinations is a delicate subject. “It’s such a personal choice and still a hot topic,” says Damgaard. “If the boat is strict about vaccination, it will come up. If it's not, then it may not. Most owners want vaccinated crew unless they themselves are unvaccinated.” Both parties — the hiring yacht and the new crew — should make their stance clear in the interview process. Crew who have a strong opinion and are completely against getting vaccinated should disclose this.

Walker says some employers may not choose to terminate their long-term crew who already work on board if they don’t get the vaccine, but most yachts are strongly suggesting for their crew to get vaccinated. Some crew have managed to get vaccinations arranged whilst on board through their yacht and some had to arrange to be vaccinated in their home country.

iStock/Ridofranz

Nonetheless, when seeking new crew, it is now part of the job post verbiage and “must be COVID-19 vaccinated” is likely to be seen on a job posting. “Owners are requesting their crew to be ‘double’ vaccinated (having had two shots.) Some are very specific about it — the crew who have received the J&J single dose may not be considered,” says Walker. “I suspect very soon being fully vaccinated will become the new norm of requirements, like having your ENG1 and STCW.”

“Approximately 95 percent of the positions we have had in new in the past six months specified crew must be vaccinated,” says Liam Dobbin, managing director of wilsonhalligan.

Recruiters report that 80 to 95 percent of yachts are requiring full vaccinations at this stage. “Approximately 95 percent of the positions we have had in new in the past six months specified crew must be vaccinated,” says Liam Dobbin, managing director of wilsonhalligan. When asked why, captains have reported they are looking to safeguard the owner’s family, guests, and the other crewmembers. Having crew that can show full proof of vaccination status is something that charter yachts are using as a marketing tool to protect the safety of their yacht to clients.

Plus, vaccinated crew can be eligible for vaccine passports, which can make it easier to travel between countries. At the end of the day, yachts are having to comply with laws and stipulations of the country the yacht is residing or the rules where they will be going to. Some yachts have routine testing on board as a precaution to maintain readiness, and regular testing still happens with crew joining or departing for airline regulations.

“Vaccinated crew have a competitive advantage in the hiring process,” says Esther Delamare, senior recruitment manager, Hill Robinson.

iStock/1001nights

Building Relationships

Finding a job on a yacht has changed in many ways in the time of COVID, but at its essence it still comes down to networking, building relationships and making a good impression. While COVID has affected the ability for crew to network in person, easily walk the dock, or wander into recruitment offices, Alexandra O’Connell, deck recruitment consultant at YPI Crew, says not to let this deter you. “Sign up with reputable agencies and make yourself known — schedule a phone call if in-person interviews aren’t possible,” she says. And if you land a video interview, still present yourself as well as you would have in person.

“Sign up with reputable agencies and make yourself known — schedule a phone call if in-person interviews aren’t possible.” 

Perhaps a benefit of COVID’s impact on crewing is that new crew might be hired faster than ever before. “Hiring parties are under a lot more pressure to pull the trigger on hiring rather than waiting to accumulate options,” says Damgaard. “There are less and less crew locally available to boats and most vessels are having to assist crew with international travel to get to the vessel. Crew also have a lot more options for these days and have become really picky.”

A Focus on Crew Wellbeing

Another upside of COVID on crewing can be seen in a focus on crew wellbeing. Medd expected that the summer of 2021 would be exceptionally busy, so managing crew hours of rest was at the top of her priority list. “There is definitely a mindset shift to crew’s health and wellbeing — COVID has demanded it of us,” says Emma Kate Ross, chef on a 66-meter Lürssen and co-founder and director of crew mental health training company Seas the Mind.

Captains in hiring interviews post-COVID have reported being asked by potential crew how they would keep up morale if the yacht had to quarantine. “If I asked a captain about this five years ago, they wouldn’t have known, but captains have experienced crew suffering and are much more aware and understand the need to embrace awareness,” says Medd.

Hopefully the demand for crew will lead to a bump in salaries as well. “I certainly believe the average salaries would have increased by the end of this year. There had been very little increase for the past five years, but this year I expect to see a solid increase in salaries,” says Medd.

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