Getting a Job on a Cruise Ship… and Getting Paid, Part 2

In Part 1 of this article series, Neil Maxwell Keys detailed the factors affecting wages on a cruise ship. Click here to read, “Getting a Job on a Cruise Ship… and Getting Paid, Part 1.”  In this article, Neil describes the work force aboard a typical cruise ship and the job opportunities available to (and appropriate for) North Americans.

Employment Aboard Foreign-Flagged Ships

Virtually all large cruise ships (with the exception of those operating in Hawaii) are staffed with international crew members and cruise under a foreign flag. Although an American company, Carnival Cruise Lines has ships registered in Liberia and Panama and employs shipboard personnel from over eighty-five different countries. Royal Caribbean has about fifty-five to sixty nationalities working on its vessels at any given time. With all these different cultures and customs, it makes you wonder exactly how cruise lines can manage such diversity in the work place! Well for the most part it’s through training, tolerance, and old fashioned segregation. Yes, cruise ships do tend to segregate their workers.

This might sound a little harsh, but cruise companies do vary in their hiring practices, and there are still plenty of jobs available on large cruise lines; you just need the right amount of persistence and determination. Furthermore, small, local companies tend to hire all-American crews.

What’s more, non-English speaking employees tend to work low-skill, lower paying positions such as kitchen staff, bedroom stewards, and janitorial positions. On many big-name cruise lines, these positions are filled almost exclusively with workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Korea. Of these lower skill departments, each is further segregated by hiring primarily one nationality or another. For your interest, this form of discrimination has been around since the early 1900s, borne out of the Passenger Service Act of 1886, a law forbidding foreign-flagged vessels from transporting passengers on one-way trips between ports in the United States.

This law, intended to help the U.S. shipbuilding industry, proved to actually work against it. Registering a ship in the United States requires the ship to be built in the United States and staffed with an American crew. However, paying American wages and complying with U.S. employment regulations is extremely expensive compared to using employees from developing countries, who will perform the same work for a fraction of the pay demanded by North Americans. Foreign countries also subsidize their cruise shipbuilding industry, while the United States does not. As a result, almost all major cruise lines use ships built in Germany, France, and Italy, and then register them in countries imposing less onerous requirements on employers, such as Liberia and Panama. Some cruise lines even maintain large recruiting and training facilities in places like Indonesia and the Philippines.

Foreign-flagged cruise vessels leave American ports on rather strange routes to circumvent the restriction created by the Passenger Service Act. Often cruise ships leaving San Diego or Los Angeles will first visit Ensenada, Mexico, before traveling to Hawaii. Premier Cruise Lines ships setting sail from Tampa, Florida, must detour to the tiny Bahamian island of Cay Sal (the passengers stay on board) before arriving at their real destination: Key West, Florida.

Recently, Congress listened to arguments against this arcane law and is considering easing restrictions on foreign vessels. This could open up new cruise itineraries such as San Diego to San Francisco or, as Tampa officials would like, a luxury car ferry that would make a twenty-six-hour, overnight journey from their city to New Orleans. Any change in legislation is likely to promote more hiring of American crew members, so keep an eye on these developments.

Opportunities for North Americans

Until changes come from the U.S. government, what does this mean for you as a job seeker when North Americans are somewhat excluded from the low wage housekeeping, maintenance, and kitchen support staff positions? Well the good news is that the majority of cruise ship passengers are North Americans, so cruise lines are eager to hire Americans, Canadians, Irish, Australian and British for customer service positions involving interaction with English-speaking tourists. This includes shore excursion directors, retail clerks, bartenders, cruise staff, casino staff, child care and hosts, just to name a few. Not only do these positions pay far better than most other shipboard jobs, they’re more interesting, carry more privileges and freedom to roam all areas of the ship and mingle with passengers, and often afford better living quarters than lower-wage jobs.

Of course, the drawback to this arrangement is that many low-skill jobs that would normally be entry-level on land simply won’t be available to you. This means that you must work hard to convince cruise lines that you already have the skills necessary to work on board in more specialized positions, such as casino work, retail sales, or aerobics instruction. Also, you must sell yourself as having the ability to interact well with passengers, one of a personnel manager’s primary concerns.

Not all cruise lines use foreign-registered vessels, and several use crews which are almost entirely American. These cruise lines are often more specialized and hire a much smaller staff than the large cruise lines, but they do hire Americans for entry-level work as room stewards and kitchen and maintenance staff. Since the staff is much smaller than on a large ship, you might find yourself with a greater combination of duties. For instance, you might clean rooms all morning, assist with meal preparation in the afternoon, and help with ship maintenance in the evening. These smaller companies often cruise exclusively along North America’s coasts and rivers or in Hawaii.

Excerpted and adapted from the ebook “How You Can Get a Job on a Luxury Cruise Ship Quickly and Easily” by Neil Maxwell Keys.