Hiring Captains - Youth over Experience?

Posted: 5th November 2017 | Written by: Alison Rentoul

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The debate around the relative merits of hiring young captains over older, more experienced captains continues to rage, and for many it really is a case of rage. It's a fact that many older captains are being passed over and while pay is often cited as the main reason, in reality there may be many factors at play. Here an experienced captain vents his frustration and The Crew Coach offers some sound advice. 

Q: Anonymous, Captain, 53:

“I am a hugely experienced captain who is struggling to find work. Having spoken to other captains of my age, I realise this is a phenomenon in yachting right now, and that we’re being put out to pasture in favour of young guns who just got their captain’s license and barely know one end of the boat from the other. They’re young and keen, so they do anything the owner wants even if it’s dangerous. Management love them because they’re easier to control, and the owner doesn’t have to pay them so much. I’m sick of it.

I’ve spent tens of thousands on training over more than 30 years in the industry. I’ve circumnavigated the world three times, and I’ve done more watches than these upstarts have had hot dinners. I want to know what we older captains can do to stop this ridiculous situation of hiring youth over experience.”

A: The Crew Coach:

You’re not alone in bringing this up, it’s something I sadly hear very often. I have to say I also find this trend towards discriminating against older captains quite baffling, as the owners and crew both benefit hugely from the experience of seasoned captains, and I believe the industry is generally worse off without experienced captains at the helm. In fact, I’m even hearing age discrimination is affecting captains younger than you!

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It seems that some captains over 40 are also not being put forward for jobs, in favour of younger candidates. On the surface it doesn’t make sense. You’d think owners would want the most experienced person to look after their prized, multi-million dollar yacht. Hugely experienced captains like you not only have a great deal more sea time under their belts and have encountered many more sea conditions and cruised many more places, but they also have years of experience in the day to day management of yachts and their crews. It follows that older captains should be more sought after, not less; but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Before everyone jumps in with stories of really awesome young captains and terrible older ‘dinosaur’ captains, I’m not saying for a second that the younger captains aren’t doing a great job, and I’m also not saying that older captains are always great just by dint of having gone around the pond a few more times. I’m merely saying that, as a general rule, experience is a wonderful teacher, and if yachting really is turning its back on hiring older captains, the industry is doing itself a disservice.

So why is it happening? What factors might be feeding into this trend towards hiring youth over experience? And more importantly, how can older captains ‘fight back’ and reclaim respect for their knowledge and longevity? What we are really challenging here is a set of limiting beliefs, on both sides of the argument.

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Belief 1:

Older captains are harder to control. You mentioned this one, and from the reports I’m hearing from other older captains in your position, there is a suspicion that some owners see older captains as a potential challenge to their authority, and they may feel younger captains are easier to control. Remember yacht owners don’t tend to encounter the word ‘no’ too often, and sometimes captains just have to say no for reasons of safety, crew welfare, or legality.

Older captains are generally more likely to say no to dangerous or illegal requests, as they have already made their reputation, are less likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour, and are less willing to risk their license for an owner. Owners may well have noticed this tendency towards caution. This could also apply to management, who may believe it will be harder to influence an older captain than a younger one still building their experience, and may consequently encourage an owner to hire the younger candidate.

How to counter this:

It’s really important not to let your frustration show about younger captains getting the jobs. Rather, look at how your experience can be shown to outshine them. Show you’re adaptable and will go to great lengths to keep the owner happy, as long as it doesn’t require illegal or dangerous activity. Don’t assume that they understand the benefits of your experience. Spell out how your knowledge will add to the experience of the owner and guests onboard. Illustrate this with examples: talk about how you’ve prepared the yacht for a hurricane; the time you took the yacht through a 6-month refit on time and on budget; the brilliant longevity you've had with your crew.

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Above all, talk about the brilliant things you’ve done with guests and the amazing places you know about that other younger captains have never seen. These are things that new captains simply can’t talk about, because they just haven’t done it yet. Sure, younger captains might be easier to manipulate, but will an owner choose them once you’ve shown you have direct experience of protecting their asset and ensuring their unique onboard experiences?

Belief 2:

Young owners want young captains because they relate to them better. There is now a growing number of yacht owners who are millennials, also known as Gen Y. For all of us over 40, let that sink in for a minute. These young owners are often very active, want to cruise remotely, and may want captains of a similar age to them and their families with  similar generational attitudes.

From a yachting perspective, Millennials tend to be highly tapped into technology, want everything to be highly personalised, and crave adventure and once-in-a-lifetime experiences when cruising, so they may be drawn to hire those of a similar age who they think understand and share these needs.

How to counter it:

More senior captains need to look through a Millennial’s eyes when writing their CV and interviewing. Be sure to highlight your technical abilities (brush up on them if you’re lagging), and highlight the best adventures and experiences you’ve provided to guests. You need to show you have fresh ideas about yachting and are not a ‘boring old fart’. In short, you need to appear energetic and dynamic to counter the appeal of the ‘young guns’ who have youth on their side. And you need to study up on how Millennials think, how they engage with other authority figures, and how they like to holiday differently to previous generations.

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Belief 3:

The alpha male struggle. I’ve seen captains and owners of similar ages get caught in an interesting alpha male struggle and, as both parties age, both tend to get more set in their ways and the dynamic can get a bit tetchy. While it may seem odd (particularly to newcomers) that there could be any power struggle between a captain and owner, it can happen, particularly if the owner isn’t on the yacht very often and the captain becomes accustomed to the yacht being their domain. An owner may prefer a younger captain to avoid this kind of situation.

How to counter it: 

You know the drill. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of treating the yacht like it’s yours.

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Readers Comments

  • Comment by: Christopher Disney - 06/11/2017 12:15pm (17 days ago)

    I totaly agree with what you have said in you articale. There is no substitute for experience. However there is another issue that I believe is relevent. The new rich are not used to staff and seem to regard them as an additional burden rather than an asset.There seems to be a lack of respect or tust to someone in a Captains position who carries the ultimate responssbility of the safety of all onboard.

  • Comment by: Petrica Bunea - 06/11/2017 11:56am (17 days ago)

    Same situation for Qualified Chief Engineers!