The onset of the summer season often brings new faces to yachts and crews. So we wanted to ask captains about their hiring practices. What do yacht captains look for when hiring new crew? And what missteps do potential crew make when applying for positions?
We wanted to begin by knowing what captains consider the most desirable qualities in potential candidates, so we asked What do you look for most when hiring for an entry-level deck or interior position?
More than half of the captains said personality.
The candidate “has to be a good crew member first,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet. “Most of the rest will follow.”
“I focus on personalities and drive, rather than yacht experience,” said another captain of a yacht 120-140 feet.
“I have had a lot of success and some of our best crew started this way. You do need to invest time training them properly.”
“Inexperience on yachts is not a problem for entry-level positions,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 220 feet. “What I hire for in such cases is the personality and the can-do attitude. What I ask your references about is your personality, your morals, how you handled challenging situations, etc.”
Other traits such as commitment (evidenced by a college degree or previous job), experience in a related field, and skill on the water and/or with boats fell far back, each with about 12-13 percent of respondents choosing these as their most important trait in a potential crew member.
“I look for longevity in previous jobs, not one month here and there,” said a captain in yachting more than 15 years.
Not one captain who took our survey this month said physical appearance was the trait they looked for most.
We also gave captains a chance to add other traits that we might not have asked about. Attitude topped the list here of trait captains most hired for.
“Attitude is 99.99 percent,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet.
“Attitude,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “I can teach them what I need them to know; I can’t teach attitude.”
One captain who looked for “skill on the water” in entry-level crew wanted to elaborate.
“First, some experience in line handling, fenders, anchoring and general maintenance, then their attitude and work ethic,” said this captain, who runs a yacht 140-160 feet. “Finally, their personality. We all work hard so it’s good to be able to have some fun with each other, too.”
We wondered if the criteria were the same for experienced crew, so we asked What do you look for most when hiring for a mid-level or department head positions?
Slightly more than 60 percent look primarily for a candidate’s experience on previous yachts and the references to go with it.
About half of the remaining respondents said they look first for personality among higher level candidates as well.
And among the “other” comments, attitude dominated, with longevity also highlighted.
So to find out just how captains hire, we asked If you had a position available on your crew, how would you go about filling it?
Averaged together, the responding group of captains tended to begin their search for the perfect candidate by contacting favorite crew they’ve worked with to see if they are available and interested. And then they would ask fellow captains or crew for referrals.
“Most of the crew I have came from friends of other crew or friends,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in the industry more than 10 years. “Nine times out of 10 they are work out to be awesome.”
If that referral network yields no success, captains will flip through resumes they have on hand of crew who impressed them and call their favorite crew agent.
The chart above of the data for this question shows that most captains chose one or all of those four techniques as their primary way of filling a job.
Only then do they post the opening on an online job board or head to a place to network with crew who might be looking. Few said they contact the yacht’s manager, likely because the majority of captains in our survey are on smaller yachts that likely don’t have a manager.
Regardless, the absolute last way a captain hires crew is by waiting for the next dockwalker to knock on the hull.
In an effort to help potential yacht crew in their quest for a yacht job, we asked captains to evaluate a few common job application protocols. First, we asked How important is a resume?
The majority — 65 percent — said the resume was important but not vital. Many captains use the resume to narrow the pool of candidates to interview.
“Include a cover letter stating your position of interest,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “Provide a clear, current photo of yourself, preferably smiling and in uniform. Provide information regarding your yachting education and industry-related job skills, responsibility, etc. Attach legible copies of references with the correct contact information.”
Still, nearly a third said resumes are critical to the process.
Only two captains said they were unnecessary to their decision making.
Since resumes play a big part — and since crew spend a lot of time on them — we wondered Do you keep resumes on file for when you might need them, or do you look for the person you need when you need them?
Almost half of our respondents save a few resumes of crew they would have liked to hire but didn’t.
Nearly as many — about 35 percent — said they don’t save resumes and begin their search only when a position opens.
Only 17 percent of captains said they keep a portfolio of potential crew that are ready to hire.
And what about those references crew spend so much time obtaining? We asked captains What sort of references do you look for on a resume? We thought there might be a preference for references from fellow captains compared to the mate or chief stew. And we wondered if references from owners or placement agents were ever preferred.
Turns out, most captains (almost 70 percent) want a mix of references from all those places. Most of the rest wanted references from fellow captains. Only one captain said he preferred references from department heads exclusively.
We hear captains complain quite a bit in our monthly lunches that they rarely get calls on former crew, so we asked Do you call references? Surprisingly, 96 percent of our respondents said they call at least one if not all references before hiring someone.
Only 4 percent admitted that they don’t call references, usually because there isn’t enough time, but also because they believe they already know what the reference will say.
We wondered how small the industry really is and asked How often do you know the reference?
Eighty percent said they know the reference some of the time.
Twelve percent rarely.
Only 5 percent know them most of the time.
Less than 2 percent never know the references.
How long after someone leaves a yacht should they continue to use that reference?
This was a tough question to ask, as the preferred reference will depend on the position open, not to mention the job held and for how long. But we asked anyway.
Almost half of our responding captains gave us the answer we expected: it depends. But they did acknowledge that they will take older references for more senior crew, preferring fresher references for less experienced crew.
The next largest group of about 25 percent said all references are appropriate, regardless of how long ago the job was or how long the crew member worked it.
The remainder was split between captains who accepted references from jobs up to five years ago and others who preferred references from recent jobs of no longer than a year or two ago.
Captains offered these tips for crew regarding references. Of course, they don’t always agree.
Don’t put a phone number on your reference sheet unless you know that person will give you a good one. I had a chef put me down for years and I never gave her a good reference.
Make sure they know who you are when I contact them.
Use references that will sing your praises in skills and character from a variety of sources for a better cross section. For example: a teacher, a commander, a co-worker, a captain, a boss or owner of an unrelated company, a family friend.
Friends and drinking mates are poor references. Try to use someone who will honestly evaluate you, including your weaknesses. We all have them, but they are just areas that we need to work on.
If you are temporary crew, ask a department head for a reference; don’t ask the captain.
If you’ve been aboard for at least a season and leave on good terms, then request a brief written recommendation.
Contact references to let them know to expect reference calls from prospective employers.
Be honest, it’s a small industry and we’ll find out the truth about you.
Make sure you know you’re going to receive a good reference.
Remember that a great written reference is no good if the verbal version doesn’t match. Beware of overly complimentary written references.
Ask to keep them short and sweet. References need to state more than dates worked and duties performed. Such references usually lead me to believe they were written under duress or only for the sake of formality and that the crew member likely did not perform very well, or at minimum did not get along well with the person writing the reference. A reference that will get my attention tells me who the person is, how they are to work with and how they fit in with the crew, handle guests/owners, etc.
Don’t put family members down. That tells me you haven’t done much with the general public.
Once that resume and those references do their job, then it’s time to meet in person. How important is the interview?
More than 70 percent of captains said the interview is critical.
The rest said it was important but not vital, understanding that not everyone performs well under questioning.
Not one captain said the interview was unnecessary.
Do you require a short dayworking period before you’ll extend a job offer?
Most — 57 percent — don’t. They acknowledge that the first 90 days of any job are technically probationary.
Still, more than a third will ask for at least one day of trial work before they offer a candidate a job.
Eight percent admitted that there usually isn’t enough time to have a trial period.
We were curious how captains view crew behavior during this process, so we asked What missteps do crew make when seeking a job on your boat? Several captains noted that they wanted to check all these boxes, but alas the question only offered one answer.
The most common answer from 42 percent of respondents was that crew don’t pay attention to details. That might include misspellings on their resume or dressing sloppily for the interview, for example.
The second most common misstep crew make is being too casual about the process. About 28 percent of captains said potential crew may not handle the interview or phone call professionally enough, using inappropriate verbal or body language.
Less than 20 percent said crew show up late for the interview or cancel/reschedule it at the last minute.
And only about 11 percent said crew hurt themselves based on how they look, including tattoos and piercings.
Considering all this conversation about hiring practices, we were curious Have you hired any crew for this upcoming summer season?
Slightly more than half have.
Of those captains who have, we asked What do you think of the available pool of crew? We were curious, considering the recent economic downturn, if applicants tended to be mostly experienced yachties or if there were still many transient crew out there. Again, opinions varied.
“A mix of both, but I found some really good candidates.”
“The worst pool of entry-level crew I can remember, with a few gems tossed in. Most want way too high of a starting salary and have no experience.”
“There are always a lot of newbies to the industry. If they have the drive, I will give them the chance to prove themselves.”
“It’s amazing that with unemployment so high there are many who want a job on a boat but few who want to work on one. Where is the passion?”
“Not enough U.S. workers.”
“I am not sure backpackers is the right nomenclature. I see a lot of crew who have the zero-to-hero syndrome, and candidates who have worked two seasons and call it two years experience. Unfortunately, there is no express lane to experience. With experience, you get the financial reward; but this takes years, not months.”
“Met a guy at Waxy’s [a bar in Ft. Lauderdale] and it didn’t take but a few minutes that I could count on him to be a good dayworker. As assumed, he was an excellent worker and very new to the industry. So he gave me a good preview of the new pool of crew out there for the summer.”
“The real question involves U.S. flag or foreign, ie. green card or not. I like a crew member to have local infrastructure — family or a home. Otherwise, it’s more like an adoption.”
“I found a poor selection of qualified and willing candidates.”
“Most were qualified and had potential.”
“Lots of good candidates. We had plenty of good second stew candidates and saw many good deck candidates. Most were transitional into yachting and young.”
“Good crew are always a challenge to find. You must be willing to sift through the average or have a good agent to begin the process for you. Either way, you have to do your own due diligence. This will validate the quality of your agent’s efforts as well as the candidate’s qualifications.”
“Some good qualifications, but qualifications don’t mean everything. Attitude, personality and the ability to join a family are important.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. We conduct our monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t been invited to take our surveys and would like to be, e-mail email@example.com to be added.