You hear a lot of media chatter these days about the millennials, the last generation born in the latter 20th century. Most of it is marketing – a relentless drive to somehow wring more money out of young people who came up in an era of stagnant wages and the worst economic downturn in 70 years.

But in the maritime trades, the talk among management and labor is about how to give millennials money – recruiting them to an industry where the old guard is rapidly aging out.

“Their No. 1 concern is finding qualified people,” said Capt. Jeff Slesinger, a veteran tugboat captain in Alaskan waters and founder of Delphi Maritime in Seattle. “We are in the middle of a perfect storm that has created a shortage of workers in the maritime industry.”

The industry is staring into a "demographic hole," Slesinger said — a gulf between the bulk of the workforce, many of them just a few years from retirement, and a shortage of mid-career workers. With millennials now accounting for a third of the U.S. population, the workboat industry must invest in them, he said: "It's something that we have to do."

Slesinger spoke during the Maritime Workforce Career Fair held on the final day of last week’s International WorkBoat Show in New Orleans. Like other captains and shoreside managers, Slesinger sees the generation gap. Unlike that buzzword from the 1960s, it can be a good thing.

“Technology is a strong point, and one they will leverage into the future,” Slesinger said of the young crewmembers he has worked with. Their comfort with digital technology goes beyond the modern pilothouse, to inventiveness on deck. Slesinger related the story of one deckhand who saved his company the expense of a commercial diver, by simply lowering his GoPro digital camera over the side to see if a Z-drive was fouled (it was not).

Of course, there is the old danger of getting lost in the instruments, Slesinger acknowledged. “My peer group, they feel in control when they’re looking out the window,” he said. Millennials, he said, “will look at the electronic data and trust that more.”

In time there will be convergence of those skills “as the senior millennials move up” in the industry, Slesinger said.

With a maritime workforce average age of 57, recruiting and retaining new workers is a constant theme these days at industry gatherings, and got a lot of attention at the WorkBoat Maintenance and Repair Show last April. The issue goes beyond crewing vessels, deep into the construction and repair side of the business too.

It’s not just about the money, recruiters say. The software industry has no trouble filling its ranks, “and most of them are not making more money than in our industry,” Slesinger said.

The maritime industry can take a lesson from tech firms that recognize the generational differences, Slesinger and others say. Strengths the workboat industry can offer include flexible scheduling, continuing technical training, connectivity and community.

“They are a very diverse generation, and they demand diversity,” he said. “We have to stop looking for clones …You have to talk about how this work life empowers your non-work life.”

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.