Hospitality Industry
4 min read

Labor shortage in the cruise industry - How to attract the millenials

Dr Steffen Raub
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In the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic, labor shortage and talent management challenges have been propelled to the top of the agenda in many industries. However, the cruise industry has been particularly hard hit. While more than 1.8 million people were employed in the cruise industry in 2019, by 2022 that number had dropped by almost 40%. When business picked up faster than expected, filling open positions became the number one priority. However, of the nearly 600,000 cruise line employees laid off in 2021, nearly 40 percent have not returned to work in the industry.

Workforce challenges in the cruise industry

Several factors render talent management in the cruise industry particularly difficult. The industry shares the general problems of the larger hospitality industry, including a high turnover culture and a general trend for hospitality graduates to leave the industry. In addition, the particular characteristics of cruise industry jobs exacerbate the talent management challenge. Despite the “lifestyle” and “glamour” attributes often associated with working in the industry, actual working conditions are often described as challenging, including challenging work schedules, a feeling of being confined in limited space, the difficulties of managing conflict within a multi-national workforce and difficulties to balance work and private life.

In this context, attracting members of the Millenial generation to the industry is of paramount importance. The Millenials are currently the largest working generation. However, a lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that their expectations differ from those of previous generations. As a result, the industry’s standard talent management policies and practices may not be fully suited to the needs of this new generation of employees. We attempted to shed more light on this question…


Work values and generational changes

Work values are an interesting lens for analyzing effective attraction and retention strategies. Work values refer to the importance that individual employees put on achieving specific outcomes from their jobs. They can be related to the intrinsic benefits to be derived from an activity, such as a sense of achievement, autonomy or personal growth, or can be related to extrinsic rewards provided by the activity, such as income, security or status. Work values are particularly relevant for talent management due to the fact that they impact both attraction and retention. Work values determine which jobs, careers and industries job candidates feel attracted to. Moreover, when their work values are aligned with the corporate environment, they will stay committed to a job and employer for a longer period of time.

Generational research suggests that work values are shifting over time and many studies have suggested that there is a gap in work values between Generation X and the Millenials. The latter have been described as “digital natives” and “tech-savvy” and instant access to information has made them take a realistic stance to the challenges of modern work life. But how do these differences play out in job candidates looking at cruise industry jobs? We decided to ask them directly …

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Assessing the work values of candidates for cruise industry jobs

Our study of generational differences in work values relied on a very large sample of cruise industry job candidates. Access to them was facilitated by an international recruitment agency that agree to distribute our questionnaire to active applicants in their database.

We categorized generations according to commonly accepted cut-offs. Generation X was defined by birth dates between 1965 and 1980, whereas the Millennials were defined as those being born between 1981 and 1996. Respondents outside these ranges (a small minority of only 6%) were excluded from the analysis. Our final usable sample included 1254 job candidates of which 424 belonged to Generation X and 830 to the Millenials.

Our unique measure of work values was based on previous research combined with insights from an expert panel of cruise industry executives. The questionnaire encompassed 57 items which mapped on the following eight fundamental work value domains

  • CHALLENGE – an interesting and challenging work environment
  • SUPPORT – a supportive work culture and supportive leadership
  • GIVING – the possibility of contributing to society through one’s work
  • AUTONOMY – flexibility, autonomy and empowerment at work
  • COMPENSATION – compensation, benefits and other rewards
  • DEVELOPMENT – opportunities for training, development and promotion
  • WORK-LIFE BALANCE – reasonable work loads, scheduling flexibility and contract length
  • COMFORT – quality of life on board and onboard facilities for employees

Our respondents assessed the importance of these work value domains on a scale from 1 (completely unimportant) to 5 (very important).


Generational differences in work values between Gen X and the Millenials

The figures illustrates the comparative ranking of work values for the two generations. The results suggest that the differences are surprisingly minor. The overall ranking of the values is remarkably similar. But there are interesting nuances.

“Challenge”, “Autonomy” and “Support” are the top three values for both generations, but they come in a different order. For generation X, “Challenge” dominates, whereas for the Millenials the top spot goes to “Support”.

We further analyzed our data by looking at differences in the mean scores that are statistically significant (using a simple approach called an independent samples t-test). We find significant differences for “Support”, “Development”, “Compensation”, “Work-life balance” and “Comfort”. For all these work values, the mean score for Millenials is significantly higher than that for Generation X, indicating that the Millenials place more emphasis on these values.


So what’s the meat of it?

Our results suggest two different lines of interpretation. First, the overall ranking of work values between the two generations is relatively similar. This means that the “seismic shift” in work values which some authors have hinted at seems to be exaggerated, as least as far as our sample can tell.

Conversely, our results do suggest subtle generational differences. For Millennials, what we could call the “ego-driven” factors from which employees benefit directly and personally (e.g. support, development, compensation, work-life balance and comfort) obtain significantly higher importance ratings compared to generation X. This echoes previous research suggesting that Millenials emphasize status, freedom, and flexibility, but simultaneously demand clear directions, constant feedback and managerial support.

For what we could call the more “altruistic” factors, i.e. those which would require stronger involvement at work and/or may lead to benefits for third parties (e.g. challenge, autonomy and giving) no significant differences between the generations emerge. This contradicts to some extent previous research which suggested that Millenials seek intellectual challenge and meaningful tasks that help them achieve better career outcomes.

All in all, the results suggest that Millenials are more likely to ask the “what’s in at for me” question when it comes to making employment decisions. A challenge that talent management specialists in the cruise industry – and beyond – will have to rise up to …

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Full Professor of Organizational Behavior at EHL

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