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Hiring Captains: Youth over experience?

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 3 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! 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 belt 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 story.

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 yacht Owner and guests’ experiences onboard. Illustrate this with examples: talk about how you’ve prepared the yacht for a hurricane. Talk about the time you took the yacht through a 6-month refit on time and on budget. Talk about the brilliant longevity you had with your crew. 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 when you’ve shown them that 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 are now a growing number of yacht Owners who are millennials, also known as Gen Y. All of us over 40, let that sink in for a minute. These young Owners are often really active, want to cruise remotely, and may want Captains that are of a similar age to them and their families, and who have 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 your CV and interviewing. Be sure to highlight your technical abilities (and 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.

Belief 3: The alpha male struggle

I’ve also 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 a lot and the Captain becomes accustomed to the yacht as their domain. An Owner may prefer a younger Captain to avoid this kind of dynamic.

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

Belief 4: Young Captains have more energy

It’s possible some Owners believe young Captains will have more energy and enthusiasm for yachting and for showing them incredible places and experiences, as well as being more open to doing things in new ways. On occasion, experience bears this out, as some older Captains with families at home would rather not be away so much, and some Captains do lose their enthusiasm for the yachting life over time. It’s a career that requires huge sacrifices and ceaseless hard work, so no-one’s casting blame here.

How to counter it: Show your enthusiasm for global cruising and new developments in the yachting industry. Again, suggest exciting cruising ideas and share your experiences in the interviews. Show that you love new ways of doing things: whether that’s using new systems onboard, adapting to new crew training requirements, or taking on a completely new cruising schedule last-minute. Keep learning and demonstrate that you are constantly investing in self-development. If you don’t want to be away from your family yea- round or are finding that age is slowing you down, apply only for rotational positions so you can keep the fire alight for what you do. Few of us are as lively at 50 as we were at 30, so look after yourself, know your limits and in what circumstances you can be the best Captain possible.

Belief 5: Younger Captains understand the modern industry better

There’s also the possible factor that younger Captains are perceived to be more accustomed to the paperwork and regulation expectations of the modern yachting industry. After all, most younger Captains probably came into yachting in the early-to-mid 2000s, when STCW was coming in and MLC was just around the corner. There may be the expectation that younger Captains are therefore better equipped to handle the paperwork and take it on without complaint, whereas older Captains have had to make a big readjustment and often display nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of yachting where they weren’t chained to a desk. The same goes for cultural changes such as women on deck (and males on the interior)—there may be a perception by management that a younger Captain will be more ‘with the times’ and be less likely to have generational conflicts and complaints from today’s young crew.

How to counter it: I don’t think I’ve met a Captain yet, young or old, who likes the paperwork burden of modern yachting. But I do come across a lot of Captains, particularly older ones, who are continuing to beat their heads against a wall trying to resist it, and who waste a lot of time wishing for the days where Captains were out on deck. The fact is, there’s simply no point looking backwards. Pardon the pun, but that ship has sailed. The only way to deal with the rising tide of paperwork is to show that you’re on board with it and that you’re keen to learn and work within the new regulatory landscape. Show that you’re interested, get involved in forums, and present yourself as a progressive Captain who is totally open to change. Remember what happened to the dinosaurs!

Personally, I do genuinely believe that the older generation of Captains have a tremendous amount to give and I would love managers, agents, and Owner’s reps to really promote our older Captain candidates to Owners as the industry benefits enormously from their experience. What do you think? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this controversial but important topic!