The Voice of the Cruise Industry

Is the cruise industry still in the midst of a talent crisis?

Behind the headlines May/June education cruise

The pandemic, among other things, forced many high-skilled workers to seek employment outside of the cruise industry. Four years on and the sector has roared back to life, but is it still in the midst of a talent crisis? Will Payne reports

From travel agents pulling out all the stops to convince customers to try a voyage for the first time to crew members making sure guests have a pleasant time on board, talent has always been abundant in cruise.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic forced many companies to downsize, which led to thousands of staff with decades of experience having to seek employment elsewhere while the industry battled to stay afloat.

Four turbulent years later and lines are now reporting record-breaking figures. Unforgettable Croatia saw sales revenue during this year’s wave period increase by 20 per cent compared with 2023 and CLIA reported a 4 per cent year-on-year spike in membership figures in the first quarter of 2024.

A significant contributing factor to the industry’s resurgence has been the staff who remained in the industry during the pandemic – or returned once lines were able to re-hire – using their knowledge to help propel the sector to new heights.

Also critical to 2024’s impressive opening quarter is the fact that new starters are beginning to find their footing in a post-pandemic industry.

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As cruise lines continue to ramp up capacity with bigger vessels coming online every year, bringing in new staff will be crucial to ensuring those extra cabins are filled.

This year, cruise lines will employ a multinational workforce of nearly 300,000 seafarers as well as tens of thousands of employees on land, according to recent data from CLIA Global.

“The workforce is expected to grow in the coming years, with more than 50 new cruise ships coming online between 2024 and 2028,” says Kelly Craighead, CLIA president and CEO.

“Employee retention rates in the industry are upwards of 80 per cent – a figure unheard of in hospitality, where turnover rates are upwards of 70 per cent.”

But the recruitment outlook on the ground in the UK has not proved as positive. Edwina Lonsdale, owner of Mundy Cruising and founder of The Compass Project, which offers first year A-Level students an eight-week training course to give them a taste of working in cruise, believes otherwise.

“It has been challenging post-Covid as many of the cruise lines are already at capped headcounts,” she explains. “General awareness of our exciting, vibrant and dynamic industry is very low.”

Industry must push cruise as ‘viable career option’

To create a diverse and innovative workforce, Lonsdale says the industry must push cruise as a viable career path to students during their teenage years, so it is already on their radars when they achieve their qualifications.

“We seek to highlight the range of jobs and opportunities within the industry, to introduce [students] to enthusiastic employees from a variety of cruise lines who are willing to talk with passion about their roles, and to flag the various career paths individuals have taken to get where they are today,” adds Lonsdale.

Another factor impacting recruitment in the cruise industry is diversity. Data from CLIA Global found 57% of women in maritime – at sea and on land – are employed in the cruise industry; 50% of which hold mid-level positions or higher.

“To attract a diverse workforce at all levels,” Lonsdale says, “the industry needs to work from the bottom up. Apprenticeships and school or college leaver programmes are key.”

‘Covid-19 presented us with new opportunities’

For Panache Cruises founder and CEO James Cole, the talent shortfall spurred by the pandemic presented an unexpected opportunity for his agency, with the jobs left by vacating staff opening the door for people with more diverse professional backgrounds.

“Undoubtedly the pandemic has shaken things up and people have moved out of travel,” he says, “but we see it as an opportunity to bring in new people who have fresh perspectives and different skill sets, especially younger people at the start of their careers.”

Since its inception in 2020, Panache has employed 12 apprentices and has committed to invest in more than 100 apprenticeship schemes by 2030.

“It’s vitally important to promote cruise to young people as a viable career path, which is why we work closely with local schools, colleges and the University of Lancashire to promote cruise and Panache Cruises where we can,” Cole adds.

It’s vitally important to promote cruise to young people as a viable career path

He urges all travel businesses to be more proactive in working with schools, colleges, universities, and other training providers to promote cruise as a career option.

“As a sector we should be united in our approach to providing great benefits to working in travel and cruise particularly, promoting all the positives of working in such a fantastic, progressive, diverse and innovative industry.”

Cole’s views are echoed by Phil Nuttall, CEO of the Travel Village Group, which employs several graduates across its network of agencies. “They have become real assets,” he says.

“It is great to get the views and opinions of younger people and their perception of this industry, which is helping us shape our marketing in some key areas.”

Nuttall believes the talent gap in the cruise industry caused by the pandemic has since disappeared. “There might have been [a shortfall] initially, but a lot of people who left the industry have come back and that says a lot about the cruise sector,” he adds.

Young people ‘crucial’ to cruise lines’ success

Earlier this year, Silversea partnered with hospitality training school Les Roches to launch a first-of-its-kind postgraduate diploma course to teach the inner workings of the cruise industry to students.

Students who complete the course will receive a scholarship agreement between Silversea and Les Roches as well as an opportunity to gain full-time employment on board a Silversea ship.

Meanwhile, MSC Cruises head of talent acquisition and management Danielle McGrath says promoting careers to young people is a “crucial” part of the line’s operation.

However, she believes that the industry could be better at highlighting the depth and variety of opportunities on offer. “Increasing awareness through collaborations with educational institutions and governments will also make a great difference.”

Figures at P&O Cruises also admit the industry should do more to promote opportunities for working both at sea and shoreside, as well as throughout the wider travel industry.

“Partnering with careers advisors across school and colleges plays an essential role in information sharing – when children are looking at higher education opportunities, there needs to be more information about choices, beyond the traditional A Levels,” a P&O Cruises spokesperson says.

When children are looking at higher education opportunities, there needs to be more information about choices, beyond the traditional A Levels

In a bid to increase awareness, the company advertises careers-at-sea to local schools and colleges, as well as events across Hampshire, where the line is based.

And the effort has paid off in the past. Captain Louise Sara, director of maritime operations for Carnival Corporation, attended the Maritime Roadshow for Girls, which helped her forge her future career path.

Despite taking a hit regarding staffing during the pandemic, four years on the cruise industry has emerged prosperous from the talent shortfall crisis, evidenced by the numerous record-breaking sales periods posted across the sector.

The experienced staff who returned post-Covid have helped nurture the slew of apprentices taking the plunge into a career in cruise – which is where the industry’s next challenge lies.

Developing talent from a range of backgrounds will bring fresh ideas into the sector, helping the industry reach its goals of becoming the world’s most popular holiday choice.

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