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Five strategies to retain and boost the maritime talent pool

The maritime industry’s tendency to prioritise hiring individuals with specific, often niche, expertise has created a barrier to entry for potential candidates from other industries who may possess valuable skills and fresh perspectives, delegates at this year’s Spinnaker Maritime People & Culture Conference heard

While accepting the argument, HR director at Pacific Basin, P B Subbiah, was keen that the scale of the challenge was understood. “We all recognise that the core of our business, which includes chartering and operations management, heavily depends on having indepth, industry-specific knowledge. [At the same time] it’s unlikely we would try to persuade a 33-year-old who has spent nine years working in the hospitality industry to transition into a career in shipping. The same goes for someone moving from the pharmaceutical industry or any other field. It’s simply not realistic to expect them to make that switch.”

To address this issue, a panel comprising Mr Subbiah as well as chief human resources officer at ABS, Chuck Kemper, professional speaker and performance coach, Tim Browne and chairman of Spinnaker, Phil Parry, argued greater prominence needs to be given to training and development programmes that bridge the gap between industry-specific knowledge and the skills candidates bring from other sectors. The need will only become more pronounced as the sector continues to wrestle with digitalisation, decarbonisation and changing global trade patterns.

Central to the attractiveness of any company when recruiting will be its culture. However, as Mr Parry pointed out, companies that engage Spinnaker’s services often do not provide this kind of information. “Unless it’s a retained executive search, clients rarely give us any insight into their organisational culture, reputation, or what it’s really like to work there. We can’t just guess what their culture is like or what ‘a good fit’ means to them. We need clients to help us understand who they are as an organisation so we can find the right people.”

But what does company culture mean in practice? For Mr Kemper it boils down to “how we do things around here.” And when articulating that to prospective candidates he revealed the profound influence a book called Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World of Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall has had on his thinking in this area.

“The first chapter, in particular, deeply resonated with my experiences in recruiting and the constant struggle to convey organisational culture to candidates.” He also said one of the biggest mistakes a company can make is neglecting to develop the leadership capabilities of its frontline managers, who oversee the vast majority of the workforce. “This is tantamount to disregarding the importance of organisational culture altogether.”

Agreeing, Mr Subbiah added, “I always say to my colleagues, it doesn’t matter what we think about ourselves. What matters is what other people think about us. When individuals outside our organisation speak positively about our treatment of employees and our overall reputation, that is a powerful draw for potential candidates. There is no merit in hard-selling the company, creating a marketing campaign with pink hats and balloons. It just doesn’t matter. We must focus on embodying our values consistently and allowing our actions to speak louder than any advertisement. The true measure of our cultural strength lies in our ability to demonstrate alignment and adherence to our core principles in every corner of the company, from the executive suite to the front lines.”

At Pacific Basin, its cultural business principles are defined through an iterative, participative process that involves surveying employees at all levels and distilling their input into 8-10 core principles. Generic terms like ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’ are banned and do not, in Mr Sabbiah’s words, “get you a ticket to the game”. He told delegates he was confident anyone in the company, if asked, could authentically articulate the company culture, rather than repeat by rote the list of principles.

Generational differences and expectations also surfaced in the discussion. Familiar themes were explored including that Gen Z candidates tend to be more open, seek transparency and authenticity and are often digital natives with incredible technical capabilities. On the flip side, the expectations of younger generations entering the workforce may be unrealistic or misaligned with those of older generations doing the hiring, said Mr Parry.

He shared an anecdote about his daughter’s job search and her resistance to “playing the game” in an interview by feigning an excessive interest in the role. This led to her being passed over for the position, despite being the most qualified. This, he said, highlighted the desire for authenticity among younger generations, which resonated with Mr Kemper, who said by actively engaging in decarbonisation efforts and communicating this to potential Gen Z candidates, his company was aligning with their values and concerns, and making the industry more attractive to them.

Mr Kemper also pushed back on broad generational stereotyping, noting complaints about “kids these days” went back to Socrates, before turning his sights on “excessive work-from-home arrangements” which he felt had “hit the younger generation hardest, stifling innovation, collaboration and inclusion.” He shared that he had advised his recently graduated son, on pain of losing his inheritance, to avoid fully remote jobs at all costs. (He was pleased to report his son was fully on board and was looking for no more than a couple of days working at home per week).

Mr Tim Browne picked up the theme, sharing that his son was simultaneously a digital nomad working in southeast Asia and part of a digital nomad community, where individuals from disparate professional backgrounds come together to share knowledge and experiences. “This, to me, represents a fascinating paradox and a testament to the human desire for connection and growth,” he said.

As well as generational gaps, the differences between men and women when applying for jobs was also discussed. This was especially timely as the conference coincided with the International Day for Women in Maritime.

Mr Subbiah cited an article that highlighted how girls outperform boys in school, but boys outperform girls at work. The article, he said, suggested that girls are less likely to speak up unless they are confident about the accuracy of their statements, while boys are more likely to take risks and speak up even when they are unsure.

Mr Parry said men are more likely to apply for a job when they meet 5 or 6 out of 10 requirements, while women tend to apply only when they meet 9 or 10 out of 10 requirements.

No discussion on attracting talent would be complete without mentioning money.

Mr Parry stressed that while company culture and work environment are important, candidates will always prioritise compensation when first looking for a job. “People will quit high-paying jobs if the work environment or boss is terrible. But they won’t accept a low-paying job unless it’s perhaps late in their career when they’re financially stable, or it’s a job that aligns with their moral values, like working for a charity.”

Mr Subbiah also recognised the significance of compensation. When managers ask for referrals, the first thing potential candidates want to know is if the company pays well. He pointed out salaries for the same job can vary significantly based on location. “When managers ask us if we know anyone who would be a good fit for a particular position, they want someone highly qualified to recommend a strong candidate because they trust that person’s judgment. But here’s the thing: if I reach out to a friend or former colleague about the job, their first question will be, ’Does this company pay well?’”

For all the focus on money, there was panel-wide agreement that people will pass up on better paid roles as they move into their careers if they feel well served when it comes to job satisfaction, personal fulfilment and the role aligns with their values.

Closing out the discussion, the panel agreed on five actions maritime companies can take to improve their ability to attract and retain talent.

First, be sure you can articulate your own view of your own culture when you are recruiting, and include that in your recruitment advertising, prospectuses and job descriptions. Second, select leaders based on their ability to lead and who demonstrate humility and curiosity. Prioritise these attributes over technical ability. Third, hire people based on their work ethic and commitment, rather than just their previous experience. Be willing to overlook the fact that a candidate may not have all the items on the wish list if these characteristics are strong. Fourth, invest in training and development programmes to bridge the gap between industry-specific knowledge and transferable skills, and finally, seek out candidates from diverse backgrounds and industries.

by Edwin Lampert, Riviera Maritime Media

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