The Millennials: How to Recruit, Train and Retain the Next Generation of Mariners
The Millennials, those born between 1982 and 2000, are currently the largest demographic group in the US population. Now numbering 83.1 million according to the US Census, they represent more than one quarter of the nation’s population, and will make up an estimated 50 percent of the workforce in 20 years. They are critical to the maritime industry workforce, because there is nobody else. We are in the midst of a “perfect storm” of circumstances that have created an acute and chronic shortage of qualified, competent mariners.
A Perfect Storm
The current shortage of mariners has been created by the confluence of five trends that began more than 20 years ago: a missing generation of mariners, an aging workforce, increasing training and certification regulations, time, and a healthy and growing workboat industry. The maritime workforce has a demographic hole – we have old mariners and young mariners but not much in between. Generation X, between the Boomers and Millennials, are largely missing. The reasons for their absence go beyond this article’s scope, but the inescapable fact is that they are proportionally underrepresented in the industry’s demographics. There are two dominant groups: the Boomers and the Millennials. The Boomers occupy many of the critical, key senior vessel positions – masters, chief engineers and chief mates. But the Boomers are rapidly disappearing from these positions; in the mariner’s vernacular, they are “swallowing the anchor” and coming ashore to fill shore-side industry positions or retire.
Although Generation X should be ready to move into these senior vessel positions, they are simply not there in the numbers the industry requires. Part of the reason they are missing is the changing regulations of licensing, certification and training. Traditionally, 90 percent of the workboat industry workforce came ‘’through the hawsepipe”. These individuals started as deckhands, learning and polishing the practical skills of their trade as they worked their way to licensed positions in the wheelhouse or engine room. Sea-time was the main qualification for obtaining a license. That changed with the implementation of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping of 1995 (STCW 95) and its subsequent amendments. STCW-95 brought more rigorous training and certification requirements – many of which required lengthy and costly attendance at maritime training institutions or academies. Unfortunately, the first implementation of these new standards effectively choked off the hawsepipe career path. Industry and regulatory bodies have worked hard to successfully resurrect the hawsepipe pathway since then. But the damage was done; for a decade, the traditional workforce supply chain was down to a trickle.
While these winds of change were buffeting the industry, time marched on. The Boomers continued to age, and the demographic gap grew; but, most important, the time to acquire practical experience and true competence expired. A mariner’s profession requires experienced-based competency. Training and certification provide mariners with a fundamental understanding of the skills required of their positions and the legal eligibility to occupy them. But they do not polish the practical application of those skills in the real world. It is one thing to understand the concept of a ship’s pivot point and the mathematical effect of current on a vessel’s hull. It is quite another to apply that understanding at night, in driving rain, with a strong current angling toward the dock. That comes only from experience – not one experience, but many applications of professional skills in a variety of practical circumstances. And that takes time. It is not unusual to take 7 to 10 years to develop a qualified and competent captain in the workboat industry. The seeds of the today’s captain had to have been planted 5 to 10 years ago.
The catalyst for unleashing this perfect storm is ironic – it is the strength of the workboat industry. Despite some economic bumps in the road, the workboat industry remains healthy and growing. Industry growth alone requires more mariners. This demand in combination with an aging workforce, a missing generation of mariners and the Millennials coming of age leaves the industry with a puzzle – how to attract, train and retain young, talented but inexperienced Millennials to fill the gaps left by the attrition of older experienced mariners and the expanding demands of a healthy workboat industry.
The media have made much about the differences between the Millennials and previous generations. There are certainly differences, but also similarities. Recruiting Millennials to the maritime workforce requires emphasizing the similarities, reconciling the differences and adapting the workplace.
Emphasize the Similarities
Working at sea, messing around in boats for a living, is a time-honored profession, and it has been around since the dawn of modern man. Vessel technology has changed, generations have come and gone, but there remains a universal bond between mariners of all generations. Whether a Millennial stepping onto the deck of a modern tug or a 19th century merchant seaman boarding a square-rigger, the draw to work on the water is universal to those who feel the irresistible pull. We share a passion for the sea, we are mission oriented, and we welcome the challenge of working in the sea’s unforgiving environment. It is an intoxicating cocktail of excitement, anxiety and longing – the anticipation of unknown challenges that lie ahead, the sense of comradery with fellow crewmen working toward a common goal, and an inexplicable desire to cast off our ties to the shore and challenge ourselves in the world of rivers, bays and oceans. Recruiting efforts must include that conversation to identify and attract those who have the soul of a sailor. The first step in recruiting is to shine the light on our similarities as mariners rather than the differences in generational values.
Reconcile the Differences
Friction between generations is nothing new:
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households… They contradict their parents, chatter before company… and tyrannize their teachers.”
-Attributed to Socrates by Plato
Every generation is shaped by the events of their lifetimes. The Millennials are no different. They came of age in an era of strong parental guidance (helicopter parents), the diffusion of global terrorism, a series of massive financial scandals and recession, and of course the rise of the Internet and its subsequent trends – Social Media, Reality TV and the “Sharing Economy”.
Common generalizations of Millennial Mariners are:
• They’re always on their phone
• They have no work ethic
• They work only when they want to work.
• They rely too much on electronic navigation
• They don’t want to pay their dues
• What’s with all the tattoos and piercings?
A maritime company trying to recruit and retain Millennials will be at a serious disadvantage if it falls into the trap of stereotyping this essential demographic group. There is some truth to these generalizations, but the truth must be re-framed to reconcile the differences between generations. Re-framing requires an understanding and acceptance of Millennial values.
• Work/Life Balance
• The power of technology
• Tolerance for Diversity
We reconcile the negative generalizations by translating them into an understanding and acceptance of the Millennial Values they represent.
They’re always on their phone = my connection to the world is through electronics
The Millennials have been brought up in an era in which electronic connectivity is as essential to an individual’s quality of life as food and shelter. The primary portal to maintaining relationships with loved ones, family, friends, social community, world events, personal banking and consumer needs is through cell phones and the internet. It has led all of us to a more mobile lifestyle.
Yet the marine industry has lagged in providing crewmembers with dependable and consistent electronic connectivity. Ironically, an industry that by its nature demands physical separation from all shore-side resources is slow to embrace the best tool to empower a mariner’s mobile life. Electronic connectivity aboard vessels, although not cheap, has been viewed as a necessary and expensive evil. The cost was justified in the context of conducting a vessel’s business. Non-business access was viewed as an expensive and optional benefit for crewmembers.
Today, that is an archaic perspective. Crew wellness has seen many evolutions in the maritime workplace. Providing electronic connectivity aboard vessels today is no different than was the transition a century ago from salt beef to refrigerated foods. Can you survive onboard with a diet of salt beef? Certainly, but who would sign up for that voyage? Electronic connectivity, which is quickly approaching the same threshold, is no longer an option; it is now a fundamental requirement. If a company is to recruit and retain Millennials, it must provide consistent access to electronic connectivity.
They have no work ethic = I value creativity
Previous generations tended to define their self-worth by their work – hence the importance of a good work ethic – i.e. if I work hard, I’m a good person. The Millennials have a different definition of “good work”. Good work is not hard work for work’s sake, but work that requires ingenuity and offers an opportunity for personal growth. Creativity is a key value among Millennials. It isn’t that they don’t want to work – they want to be engaged in work that is challenging and part of a creative process. The software industry has figured that out. They have Millennials working sweatshop hours that would be blatantly illegal in the maritime world. How? Because they have them engaged in cutting-edge creative processes that challenge them.
The Maritime workplace can hold the same attraction to a Millennial who is passionate about working on the water. The key is to include him in the decision-making process and listen to his contributions. A simple example would be docking a barge. The pre-docking meeting should be a community communication in which all participants can provide input. This doesn’t mean a millennial deckhand should tell the captain how to do his job. It does mean the captain should listen to a millennial’s suggestion such as “Cap, what do you think about switching out the poly-dac line for the spectra – it’s windy today and I couldn’t get enough turns on the cleat to hold with the spectra the last time we were here. The poly-dac will hold better plus it will stretch if the current and wind catch the barge.”
A suggestion like this 20-years ago would have bordered on maritime heresy. Now it has to be part of today’s dialogue and management style. The captain doesn’t have to follow the millennial’s suggestion. But he does have to listen, acknowledge, and respond. He can’t just dismiss the idea as a suggestion from a young kid who knows nothing. If it’s a good idea, use it and credit its source; if it’s not appropriate explain why. Above all, set a leadership atmosphere that promotes a sense of community, clearly communicates that the captain is in control and command, but is open to the knowledge, expertise and perspective of all crewmembers.
They work only when they want to work = I value Work/Life Balance and Community
Previous generations of mariners lived to work; the Millennials work to live. The criteria for a “good job” have changed over the years. After the Great Depression and World War II, a “good job” meant one that provided financial security and a foundation for building a better life for the next generation. A person’s work, career and job were the primary vehicle toward a good life. Until the Millennials, a job and career came first in the maritime world; family, community and social connections came second. The nature of maritime work forced families and a mariner’s shore life to bend around the demands of his work life – long periods away from home, sporadic communication from vessel to shore and a general unpredictability of the duration and destination of the vessel’s voyages. However, that priority has changed with the Millennials and the evolution of the internet, connectivity and social media.
Millennials are the first generation to have grown up with this broad sense of connectivity and community. As a result, Millennials regard social networking and community at equal or greater value than the workplace as vehicles toward a rewarding life. To the Millennials the job must at a minimum facilitate, and if possible enhance, a work/life balance. The number-one tool the maritime industry has to attract and retain Millennials is schedule. A predictable and sacred schedule empowers the Millennial mariner to keep the life-balance that is so important. Predictable means the mariner can make and keep shore-based and community commitments. Sacred means the employer can’t mess with the schedule once it’s set. Many Millennials have left a workplace with great equipment, good pay and challenging work for a lesser workplace with a better schedule. Companies that build a work environment that gives the mariner control over his or her work/life balance has a competitive advantage in the Millennial job market.
They rely too much on electronic navigation = I value technology
You find an interesting paradox on most vessels. The young Millennial is chastised for being married to his smart phone, but he or she is the first one called to the wheelhouse to troubleshoot technological problems with computers, navigation or communication equipment. The Millennials are criticized for relying too heavily on electronic navigation, but they are also the ones who know how to use navigation technology to its full functionality.
Millennials have grown up in the era that went from landlines to the internet – from a 30 lb. desktop computer to a smartphone. They’ve been brought up in an era that went from radars that were essentially oscilloscope displays to digital displays that provide course, speed and CPA of targets. Why wouldn’t they have faith in the power of technology? They’ve known no other world and are used to an accelerated pace of technological evolution. How many of us drive a car with backup camera and never turn our head to see what’s really behind us? Reliance on technology is not just a Millennial phenomenon – it’s multi-generational.
The Millennial Mariner today is in the process of finding a balance between the power of technology and the reality out of the wheelhouse window. They are not finished with that process. Yes, there is a tendency to over-rely on technology. Nevertheless, it is wrong to judge where they will be tomorrow based on where they are today. The older Millennial Mariners are beginning to assume more and more senior positions – as chief mates, chief engineers, captains and shore-side management. They are currently experiencing the pitfalls of over-reliance on technology – the near misses and accidents that occur due to complete faith in the information on an LED screen, versus the reality out the wheelhouse window. That experience combined with talent for operating the hardware and software will provide the balance between the pitfalls and power of technology – managing one and leveraging the other. The maritime industry will never go back to the days of relying solely on a sounding lead for depth, a sextant for position and whistle signals for communicating. Technological advances have a long history of making maritime operations safer and more efficient and profitable. The Millennials are already leaders in leveraging the power of technology in productive ways in many businesses. The maritime industry will be no different.
They don’t want to pay their dues = I am used to instant access to knowledge
The boomer generation of mariners was brought up in the era of “learning by osmosis”. The real “tricks of the trade” could be learned on board a vessel only by observing and, if you were fortunate, being taken under their wing of a mentor and “shown the ropes”. That process took years and was dependent on the relationship between apprentice and mentor. The mentor held and in some cases hoarded key bits of wisdom. Good mentors distributed these nuggets of knowledge when the apprentice showed he was ready to absorb; other mentors would use them as a manipulative tool – they would share tips only if they thought the apprentice was worthy and deserved it. The mentor held the key to the power of knowledge.
The Millennial mariner has little tolerance for that learning mode. He or she has grown up in an open-source world with instant access to knowledge on the internet. These days, “How to” books, manufacturer’s manuals, and You Tube videos can all be found instantly and describe everything from how to change a tire to how to rebuild an engine. In addition, sharing knowledge – what you do and how you do it is a Millennial cultural value. Millennial mariners are eager to acquire the knowledge and skills to do their job well. But they do not tolerate barriers or gatekeepers that limit access to that knowledge. It is hypocritical to a Millennial that a company or individual would limit access to the very kernels of knowledge that empower on-the-job competence.
That being said, Millennials will have to learn the value of patience. There’s a big difference between acquiring knowledge and applying it successfully in practical situations. There is no getting around the fact that competence in the maritime workplace requires repetition and experience – multiple applications of knowledge in a variety of practical circumstances. It takes months or years to have had the chance to repeat skill sets in a variety of conditions. It is no different than becoming a good baseball hitter. You can work on the fundamentals hitting the ball off a tee. But it takes many swings of the bat in live games to become a good hitter.
The senior Millennials who have moved up to be captains, chief engineer and chief mates appreciate that it takes experience – sometimes years of experience – to be able to apply the knowledge appropriately in changing circumstances. They will be leaders in promoting open access to knowledge and the value and necessity of experience.
They all have tattoos and some kind of piercing = I value and tolerate diversity
Millennials are now the largest and most diverse generation in the US population. They come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds and represent diverse cultures.
They embrace multiple modes of self-expression. Nearly four-in-ten have a tattoo and many of them have more than one. Nearly one-in-four have a piercing in some place other than an earlobe. Maritime companies certainly have the option to demand a certain state of appearance in the workplace. But they should recognize that too much restriction on body art might exclude a talented, competent Millennial that could be an asset. As one Millennial stated: “If a company doesn’t want to hire me because of my tattoos, I don’t want to work there”. The translation of that is “I don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t value diversity”
Over the centuries, the Maritime World has gone though many changes. We are now in the midst of such a transition. Older, experienced mariners are leaving the industry in large numbers and being replaced by Millennials. We have a short-lived opportunity to leverage the experience and wisdom of the experienced mariner with the energy and talent of the Millennials. There may be generational differences, but we must reconcile them, recognize our mutual passion for working at sea, make the workplace more attractive, and find ways to unite the creativity and technological savvy of the Millennials with the experience and expertise of senior mariners. That is what will ensure a robust and thriving maritime workforce for the future.
Captain Slesinger is a tugboat captain with more than 35-years of experience operating Harbor and coastal tugs. He created Delphi Maritime, LLC in 2008 to harness and integrate the collective expertise of Industry experts, executives, management and vessel crewmembers to create innovative and powerful business solutions for the maritime industry. Captain Slesinger can be reached at email@example.com.