The want to learn fast, they want to be challenged, and they are already one-third of the U.S. population. The millennial generation is the future of the U.S. maritime industry, and they are already changing how it does business.

“We are in the middle of a perfect storm that has created a shortage of workers in the maritime industry,” said Capt. Jeff Slesinger, a 40-year maritime veteran and founder of Delphi Maritime in Seattle.

Slesinger, a longtime tugboat captain in Alaskan waters, spoke as part of the Maritime Workforce Career Fair on Thursday at the International WorkBoat Show in New Orleans. Slesinger focused on the generational differences between the industry’s older workers and those born in the latter years of the 20th century, and what that means for both workers and employers.

Of his generation, Slesinger said, “we liked this idea of being the lone sailor, being out there, cut off…doing a mission.” And he sees similarities among the young mariners coming into the industry. They are mission-oriented, have a passion for the sea, and value being a “member of the tribe,” he said.

The differences of course include the millennials’ exponential comfort level with digital technology.

“My peer group, they feel in control when they’re looking out the window,” Slesinger said. Millennials, he said, “will look at the electronic data and trust that more.”

There will be a convergence between the traditional ideals of eyeball lookout and technological watchstanding, Slesinger said: “That will happen as the senior millennials move up.” That new leadership will figure out how the manage the technology balance, including the dangers of digital distractions at work. “The best way to manage this is through peer pressure,” Slesinger said.

He related one example of a young tug captain who saw his deckhands handling lines with smartphones in their hands too. New rule: all phones stay on the galley table during deck operations. That became company policy, Slesinger said.

Then there are times when the gadgets save time and money. On a video screen Slesinger displayed a vivid close-up underwater image of a tug’s Z-drive that the crew had suspected of being fouled. The photo was not taken by a highly paid commercial diver – who ordinarily would have been called in – but by a crewman who put his waterproofed Go Pro digital camera on a pole and lowered it over the side.

Community, family, diversity and flexibility mean a lot to millennials, and the workboat industry has strengths it can market to them, Slesinger said.

“My generation, we lived to work. Work always came first,” Slesinger said. But the nature of the industry and its scheduling “could be marketed differently,” with the weeks on, weeks off aspects of the work, he said: “You have to talk about how this work empowers your life.”