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Older colleagues’ experience needed as the 80’s generation take over the Viking ferries
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Older colleagues’ experience needed as the 80’s generation take over the Viking ferries

| Text: Helena Forsgård, photo: Viking Line images

Viking Line is facing a real challenge. The largest age group onboard their Baltic Sea passenger ferries is 50 to 59 year olds. When they retire, a big chunk of competence disappears. The company has decided to treat this as a challenge and not a problem.

“We are not overly worried about future recruitment, even though the younger generation has different demands and priorities. Viking Line is a secure employer and there are great opportunities to move up the ladder onboard,” says Lena Marcus, the shipping company’s Sea Personnel Manager.

Viking Line, established in 1959 as a family-owned shipping company in Åland, today operates seven passenger vessels which sail different routes between Finland, Åland and Sweden, as well as between Helsinki and Tallinn. Last year they transported 6.5 million passengers.  

The shipping company’s head quarters are in Mariehamn, and it is Åland’s largest employer by far. Last year the number of employees reached more than 2,700. Most of them, just under 2,100, work at sea. The rest work in offices in Åland, Finland, Sweden and Germany. Most of the employees live in Finland.   

A passenger shipping company needs navigation and machine workers, of course. But they are a minority. Most onboard work in the service sector, and deal with passengers directly or indirectly. Some 40 different occupations are represented at the company.    

Many work for longer

The people responsible for recruiting people to work at sea are based in Mariehamn. Lena Marcus is the Sea Personnel Manager and Leila Sundblom is the HR specialist and recruitment team leader. 

Leila is a typical Viking Line employee – someone who has worked for many years for the shipping company – a majority has worked for at least 16.5 years there – and who has climbed the company ladder. She has also seen how people’s attitude to the job has changed. People born in the 30s, 40s and 50s had safety as their top priority, while those born in the 60s were more focused on wages. 

Then the people born in the 80s arrived, and it showed.

“They wanted to participate, to be seen and heard. They questioned things and wanted influence,” says Leila Sundblom. 

Large group set to retire

Looking at the age distribution among the employees at sea, it is clear that the largest group is people between 50 and 59, 691 people. If you also add the 230 employees between 60 and 69, you realise there will be many positions to fill when they start retiring.  

“We choose to see this as a challenge and not a problem, and we mainly have an even spread of ages onboard. The number of people between 30 and 39 and between 40 and 49 represent more than 600 each. Recruitment goes up and down. In good economic times it is harder, during a recession it is easier. People’s interest in working at sea is also influenced by what is being written about the trade,” says Lena Marcus. The most difficult positions to fill are cooks and waiters. 

A chance to advance

One way of tempting new workers onboard is to point to the opportunities for advancement You could start as a nisse – someone who carries food to the buffets – and move on to become a waiter, head waiter, head of restaurant and perhaps finally a manager.   

Skills development can take many different forms. It is often a combination of internal schooling and courses in different educational institutions onshore. 

“We allow people to take study leave if they wish,” says Lena Marcus. Flexibility is another key word both for attracting labour and for keeping employees. 

“Most employees can do job rotation, within certain frameworks of course, to get more job variation. They can swap tasks onboard, or change ships in order to join a different team. This has turned out to be stimulating for many,” says Leila Sundblom. 

Sometimes people working at sea who want to go onshore, are offered office jobs. Different skills like booking, IT, economy, technology and procurement of tax free goods are needed here.    

Protecting family life

Lena Marcus and Leila Sundblom point out that there are some things about working at sea which requires some understanding and adjustments from the employees’ families. You cannot for instance always be sure to be home for birthdays and Christmas.

Viking employees enjoy good agreements and work the same number of hours as they have off – mostly one week on, one week off. But this does mean they are not home at all during working weeks.  

“Before, people were satisfied even though family life might have suffered. Today the younger employees have a different view. They are keen to be at home with their small children. Some stop working onboard after having children, others want to work part time. We try to adapt to this and to offer different alternatives. But offering shorter working days does not work, since you are already onboard the ship. Instead we offer fewer shifts.”

Younger people are also more mobile. They do not stay in one job until retirement, like many who were born in the 40s. 

“But it is important to have as great an age-mix as possible onboard. Once there was a trial with recruiting a young crew to a ship with a more party focused theme. The average age was 23.5. It did not go well. The older employees’ experience and competence was also needed,” notes Leila Sundblom and adds: 

“Not all new recruits are young. We have some newly hired staff who are more than 40 and even more than 50.”

Good salaries

Viking Line has signed the collective agreement for the shipping trade. This stipulates that service sector wages are generally higher than for similar onshore jobs. A survey of employees from 2015 shows that three in four would very much recommend Viking Line as an employer.

“We have a good reputation, but there are challenges coming up. Shipping is a dynamic and many-faceted trade. Things happen all the time, but I really believe we will succeed in recruiting new, keen Viking employees in the future,” says Lena Marcus.

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Viking Line

is the largest employer on Åland. It has seven passenger vessel sailing across the Baltic Sea.

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