Maritime HR gives greater emphasis to specific elements such as talent acquisition and employee engagement in aiming to improve seafarer satisfaction
John Ioannou, HR and Crew Management Consultant based in Limassol

Crewing is changing. The pandemic exposed serious flaws in traditional crew management practices and forced crewing professionals to evolve from outdated models where daily business is predominantly occupied with the logistics of moving seafarers on and off ships, toward a more holistic approach that encompasses all aspects of the HR business cycle.

Often rebranded as Maritime HR, this approach gives greater emphasis to specific elements such as talent acquisition and employee engagement, and by adopting best HR practices from land-based operations crew managers hope to improve seafarer satisfaction and increase retention rates in today’s tough crewing market.

Maritime HR is unique. It requires a diverse skillset that can balance complicated business demands like regulatory compliance, planning rotations and crew change logistics with more typical HR functions like recruitment and payroll administration. As such, HR professionals from outside the shipping industry underestimate how tough and complex it can be, and many struggle to adapt to the fast pace, relentless pressure, and high price of failure. Pragmatically, it therefore becomes much easier for seasoned crewing personnel to adopt a HR approach, rather than the other way around.

Among this very demanding and risky crew management environment, how can crewing professionals bring the best elements of HR into their daily operations, so they add value?

Build an Employer Value Proposition (EVP)
Our EVP is a pledge to employees that rewards their dedication and commitment. A strong EVP is not only built around salary and benefits, but encompasses culture, stability, career prospects, work-life balance, and everything else that sets us apart from other employers and makes us a great place to work. Our EVP answers the one critical question that potential hires will ask themselves: What’s in it for me? What do I gain by choosing to work for this company? Remember, and EVP is a promise and should not be taken lightly. Employees will expect us to be true to it, and will hold us accountable when we are not.

Develop a HR customer service attitude
Good HR professionals understand that organisations must develop a customer service mindset across all functions to succeed. Every employee serves a customer, be they internal or external. For Maritime HR, our seagoing colleagues are our internal customers, and we must strive to offer excellent customer service with every interaction.

Ships as business units, seafarers as colleagues
By thinking of vessels as our revenue-driving business units and our crew as seagoing colleagues, we build a more integrated mindset and improve the quality of services we offer as Maritime HR professionals. Relationships can also be greatly improved by visiting vessels on a regular basis and learning firsthand how to better support our seagoing colleagues. Marine and technical personnel routinely visit ships and often serve as message bearers, but the value of sending experienced HR professionals on board cannot be overstated. Even better, HR could carry out visits while sailing a short trip with the vessel. This way they are sure to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the challenges and difficulties faced by ship’s crews.

Talent acquisition, not just recruitment
Crewing recruiters often stick to established markets such as the Philippines and eastern Europe. This strategy has delivered in the past, but the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have highlighted the need for diversification. Maritime HR recruiters should be willing to explore new crewing markets through risk-managed approaches such as targeted hires or by initiating pilot programs like cadet batch hiring in cooperation with local maritime academies. This is always a good way to test the water and create ‘home grown’ officers further downstream that are well versed in our company operational requirements and culture.

Finally, Maritime HR should be active in all stages of the hiring process. Crew recruitment is typically farmed out to manning offices far away and many crew join their vessels without having met anybody but a third-party agent, thereby creating a degree of detachment. There may also be issues of transparency and trust as manning agents have a vested interest to push as many crew as possible onto ships, inevitably impacting the quality of hires. By ensuring that Maritime HR are at the center of the recruitment cycle, relationships can be built from the get-go and standards upheld.

Work-life balance through good planning and use of technology
One major issue during the pandemic was relieving crew on time. Many were stuck on board for extended periods, and this led to a significant increase in anxiety and mental health issues. Now the pandemic is over, solid rotation planning is even more crucial to provide stability and predictability and improve the work-life balance of our seagoing colleagues. Once a good planning structure is in place it becomes easier to handle any unexpected changes and reduce stress and anxiety by getting crew on and off their ships on time. Good use of technology such as crewing software self-service apps can also minimise hassles and free up more precious vacation time, as crew can receive their assignments and planning rotations direct to their mobile devices and submit any outstanding documents and claims without the need to travel to their manning offices.

Caring comes first
Covid lockdowns meant that crew’s contracts were often extended and shore leave and family visits severely curbed, so it is even more important now for our seagoing colleagues to feel well supported and enjoy living conditions as comfortable as any onshore. Good food, recreational facilities and internet connectivity are all central to seafarer’s health and well-being and time and resources should be invested to get them right. And while the big things matter, small acts of appreciation can also go a long way. A thank-you gift to the partner or children of a seagoing colleague who agrees to cut short their vacation or extend their contract to help us in an emergency is always valued and rarely forgotten.

And finally…communication builds trust!
With multiple vessels, offices and colleagues scattered across the globe in different time zones, regular communication is essential for building good working relationships. Unexpected phone calls often disturb well-needed rest, so a friendly email sent on board asking for a good time to call is always appreciated. Calling in after a crew change to ask how it went and how we can improve next time is a good way to build trust, and over time we will find our colleagues on board or in other locations are more likely to call us themselves just to hear a friendly voice and catch up on any news. Good Maritime HR professionals understand that trust must be earned, and regular, empathetic and transparent communication is key.

Maritime HR is the future, and only by drawing together the best of on and offshore HR practices in a more holistic approach, can committed and effective cross-functional ship-to-shore teams be developed that are resilient enough to continue navigating safely through today’s unstable shipping environment and improve value delivery to stakeholders.