Strategic Workforce Planning In The Cruise Industry


Fortune 500 companies like Apple, Royal Caribbean, Amazon and others don’t just stumble into success. Company leaders create short- and long-term business goals, assess company resources relative to their goals, and implement action plans to propel the organization forward.   Strategic workforce planning  is a critical business strategy to help companies ensure they have the human capital necessary to turn their goals into realities, and human resource professionals shape those workforce strategies.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “workforce planning is the process an organization uses to analyze its workforce and determine the steps it must take to prepare for future staffing needs.” Depending on an organization’s goals, workforce planning and talent management can involve   recruiting, training or outsourcing work. The age, experience level, skill availability and talent diversification of an organization’s workforce impacts whether it’s best for an organization to onboard new talent, train and develop current talent, or outsource work.  

“We look at [workforce planning] in terms of ‘Do I buy talent, do I build talent, or do I borrow talent?’” said Amy Alexy, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. “We're always looking ahead into the future to say, ‘Okay, what are the types of individuals that I need, and what options do I have?’”

“Borrowing” talent (outsourcing) has grown in popularity over the past several years, especially following the Great Resignation in spring 2021.

“There’s a lot of freelancers. People want flexibility, so they’re their own gig workers,” said Alexy. “I think more and more companies are going to [outsource] if they haven’t already, especially in situations where it’s hard to recruit certain talent. Sometimes it’s just more advantageous to hire contractors.”

Workforce planning involves assessing business goals, evaluating the kind of human capital needed to achieve those goals, and determining the best options to acquire that human capital – recruiting, training or outsourcing.

For   international cruise companies, strategic staffing increases in complexity. Filling regular roles in onshore offices while simultaneously creating a qualified workforce to fill roles at sea is a challenge unique to the cruise industry.   

“I've worked for financial companies, manufacturing organizations, pharmaceuticals, and now in hospitality and entertainment. [The cruise industry] is probably the   most complex workforce plan that I've ever been a part of in my history. We have about 70,000 crew members that service over 60 ships around the world. Every crew member has a different contract length. It’s extremely complex,” said Alexy.

The variety of professionals required to operate a fully functional cruise ship presents human resource leaders in the industry with challenges land-bound human resource management professionals may not face. Health and safety aboard cruise ships also directly relates to workforce staffing and vision.

“From an HR perspective, you’re recruiting and sourcing for what’s basically a hotel at sea,” said Alexy. “You have an entire marine/engineering organization that runs the vessels on a day-to-day basis. You also have an entertainment organization, and you have to make sure you stay staffed all the way, including positions like physicians and nurses.”

International Assignments

In addition to the challenges posed by staffing each cruise ship, Royal Caribbean and other global companies have onshore offices around the world that need qualified, quality workers. When hiring locally isn’t possible, relocating star employees for   international assignments  can help. However, transferring employees across countries, especially for non-permanent international assignments, requires significant emotional intelligence and guidance from company leadership and from the employees accepting the assignment.

“The notion of international assignments is a fascinating topic because I think everybody thinks it’s a great thing to have on your resume [and a] glamorous experience,” said Alexy. “As somebody who’s had two international assignments, there’s challenges that come with it, as wonderful as it is.”

First, human resource management leaders carefully evaluate an employee’s interpersonal skills before offering an international assignment.

“When I look for people to take international assignments, I think flexibility, problem solving, being empathetic and being open-minded [are] absolutely critical because it's not your way of doing things anymore,” said Alexy. “It's a necessity to adapt to another culture and be welcoming and open-minded to that.”

Flexibility, problem-solving skills, empathy and an open mind are vital for employees on international assignments to adapt to another country’s culture.

While human resource leaders must consider whether an employee is ready for an international assignment, employees themselves need to assess their personal and professional positions before accepting an international assignment. For professionals without a family, international relocation may seem simple logistically, but there are still serious impacts socially and emotionally.

“For my first international assignment, I was early in my career […] without a family. My boss said, ‘Do you want to go to Europe?’” I said yes, packed three suitcases, and moved over to France,” said Alexy. “It was a totally new experience. I literally traveled by myself through Western Europe. I was lonely. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I got lost on a number of occasions. I found myself in a lot of situations that I had to get myself out of through problem-solving, courage, and flexibility.”

International assignments with a family become even more complicated.

“Four years ago, […] I moved with my family. I had a husband and two children at the time,” said Alexy. “The challenges of moving with a family were very, very different from when I moved by myself. It wasn’t just about me anymore. It was about taking care of those that were coming with me – making sure that my kids found a good school and that they were settled, making sure that my husband had a good community that he could connect with, and making sure that our house was in a safe environment that had parks and places you could walk.” 

Lastly, human resource leaders must consider the long-term implications of international assignments for employees. What position will an employee fill on assignment, and how does that position differ from their regular role? How can the organization help smooth an employee’s transition from their regular role to their international assignment and the secondary transition from their international assignment back to their regular role?

“When you go to an international assignment, oftentimes your role is bigger in terms of responsibilities,” said Alexy. “A lot of times people expect that [they’re] going to come [back to headquarters] and go right back to the corner office [they] had on assignment, and a lot of times that’s not the case. Manage expectations in terms of why somebody is taking the assignment. What are the skills that we hope that the person gets from that experience, and how does that translate for when they come back to their initial location so that we can utilize those skills?”

Manage employees’ expectations with international assignments. Make the purpose of the assignment and the path forward after the completion of the assignment clear from the start.

To learn more about human resource management in international industries, check out Alexy’s full interview with Christopher Altizer of our   Master of Science in Human Resource Management  program in the video below. 

Video Table of Contents/Timestamps:

  • Topic 1 (begins at 0:46): Introduction to international strategic workforce planning, current challenges with hybrid work
  • Topic 2 (begins at 6:28):   Staffing key positions as a global company, what modern workers want for their careers
  • Topic 3 (begins at 11:35):   International assignments (recruiting, selecting, and repatriating talent), readjusting after returning home
  • Topic 4 (begins at 18:29): HR career advice directly from Amy Alexy, chief human resources officer at Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.