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Water Transportation and Merchant Mariner Careers and Jobs

Water Transportation and Mariner Career and Job Highlights

  • A U.S. Coast Guard-issued merchant mariner’s license is required for many water transportation jobs.
  • Oceangoing ships generally hire merchant mariners on a voyage by voyage basis. Merchant mariners on these ships may spend months at a time away from home.
  • Merchant mariners on oceangoing ships earn high wages, but there is significant competition for available positions. Some workers are thus forced to wait several months between assignments.

Water Transportation and Mariner Career and Job Description

Water transportation workers—known on commercial ships as merchant mariners—perform services that help provide mass local and international cargo and passenger transportation. Merchant mariners operate and maintain numerous types of watercraft, including tugboats, dredges, towboats, ferries, deep-sea merchant ships and excursion vessels. These vessels provide transportation services on rivers, canals, the Great Lakes, Oceans, within harbors and on other bodies of water.

Ships and water vessels on both domestic and international bodies of water are supervised or commanded by pilots, captains and mates. The chief commander and supervisor of a water vessel’s crew and operations is called a captain or master. A captain or master decides on the appropriate course and velocity for their vessel. They also monitor their craft’s position using navigational charts and instruments, and maneuver the ship to avoid potential hazards. Captains supervise crew members who perform basic operational tasks, which include steering the vessel, operating its engines, determining its location, performing maintenance, handling lines, operating equipment and communicating with other vessels. With the assistance of department heads, captains ensure the safe and proper operation of the vessel, verify the proper working order of equipment and machinery, and direct passenger and cargo loading procedures. In addition to these tasks, captains and department heads keep careful records of their ship’s movements, the cargo and passengers transported and efforts taken to control pollution.

Routine vessel operations are directed by deck officers or mates, who stand watch for defined periods that are typically 4 hours on and 8 hours off. In the case of some small vessels that have only one mate, the captain and the mate (sometimes called a pilot) alternate watches. If the captain becomes incapacitated, the mate takes full command of the vessel. On ships that operate with more than one mate, different mates are referred to as first (or chief) mate, second mate, third mate and so forth. Mates help direct the crew’s activities, such as maintenance and upkeep operations. Mates also ensure proper loading procedures by inspecting cargo holds during loading.

Pilots are responsible for steering ships through confined waterways, such as harbors, rivers and through straits. In such areas, pilots provide vital knowledge of local water conditions, including depths, currents, wind, tides and hazards, such as shoals and reefs. On river and canal watercrafts, pilots—like mates—are generally regular crew members. Harbor pilots normally work on an independent contract basis, often guiding numerous ships each day as they enter and exit port. Motorboat operators transport small groups of people (6 or less) on fishing charters. They operate small, motor-powered watercrafts. Motorboat operators also perform other tasks, such as taking depth soundings in turning basins and providing liaison services between ships, ships and shores, harbors and beaches or on area patrol.

Watercraft machinery such as pumps, boilers, generators and engines are maintained, repaired and operated by ship engineers. Most merchant marine vessels employ a chief engineer along with three assistant engineers, whose job it is to stand periodic watches to monitor the safety of engine and machinery operations.

Under the supervision of the ship’s engineering officers, marine oilers and more experienced qualified members of the engine department (QMEDs), work in the engine spaces below deck to maintain the craft’s proper running order. This work involves lubricating the numerous moving parts of the engines and motors, including bearings, gears and shafts. Marine oilers and QMEDs also read temperature and pressure gauges, record data and occasionally help with machinery repairs and adjustments.

The ships officers supervise sailors, who are responsible for maintaining the proper condition of non-engineering areas and for operating the vessel and its deck equipment. Sailors act as lookouts for possible hazards as well as for buoys, lighthouses and other navigational tools. Other sailor tasks include measuring water depth in shallow water, steering the shift and operating and maintaining such deck equipment as anchors, lifeboats and cargo-handling gear. Vessels that transport liquid freight employ pumpmen, who operate pumps, clean tanks and hook up hoses. Pumpmen also work on tugboats and other tow vessels, connecting, inspecting and ultimately disconnecting towed vessels. Pumpmen also handle lines at docking, and perform other general tasks, such as chipping rust, repairing lines and cleaning and painting various parts of the ship. Oceangoing vessels refer to experienced sailors as able seamen, while inland-waters vessels refer to them as deckhands. On large vessels, there is frequently a head seaman, called a boatswain.

The average deep-sea merchant ship crew consists of a captain, three mates or deck officers, a chief engineer with three assistants, a radio operator and at least six unlicensed seaman, such as cooks, oilers, QMEDs and able seamen. The exact number of crewmembers for each voyage depends on the ship’s size and the services it provides. Crews on some small harbor, river and coastal vessels consist only of a captain and a single deckhand. In such cases, the deckhand is generally responsible for cooking.

Crews on larger coastal ships may consist of a captain, a pilot or mate, an engineer and seven or eight seamen. Entry-level apprentice trainees sometimes receive special unlicensed positions, such as electrician, full-time cook or mechanic. Cruise ships employ bedroom stewards who clean passenger living quarters.

Merchant mariners are generally hired on a voyage to voyage basis, often remaining at sea for months at a time. There is no guarantee of continuous work, and the time merchant mariners spend between voyages depends both on personal preference and on job availability.

About 24 percent of merchant mariners belong to unions, a significantly higher proportion than the national average for all occupations. Because of the large union influence, merchant marine officers and seamen who are not hired directly by shipping companies are generally hired for voyages though union hiring halls. Union hiring halls cater to both beginning and veteran merchant mariners, and fill open positions according to who has been out of work the longest. Hiring halls are generally located at major seaports.

Marine mariners generally stand watch 7 days a week in 4-hours-on/8-hours-off shifts. Workers on Great Lakes ships do not work when the lakes are frozen in the winter, but work 60-days-on/30-days-off the rest of the year. Year-round routes are more common for those who work in harbors, on rivers and on canals. These workers may work regular 8-12 hour shifts, returning home daily. Other workers alternate steady periods (weeks or months) of work with extended off time. These workers alternate between 6 or 12 hours of on duty and 6 or 12 hours of off duty. Small vessels generally offer workers steady employment on one ship.

Water transportation workers work in all types of weather. Despite efforts to avoid severe storms during a voyage, it is impossible for merchant mariners to completely avoid working in cold, damp conditions. Although modern ships are rarely subject to major disasters (fires, explosions, sinking, etc.), workers must still be prepared to abandon shift in case of a collision or other emergency. Serious injury or death can also result from falling overboard or from dangers involved with operating machinery and handling heavy and hazardous cargo. Despite these risks, modern merchant mariners face significantly less danger than their predecessors due to advanced emergency communications, effective international rescue systems and modern sfety management procedures.

The majority of new watercrafts are equipped with comfortable living quarters, air conditioning and soundproofing from loud machinery. These conveniences help reduce the strain of being away from home for long periods. Mariners also benefit from modern communications technology, such as email, which allows them to easily keep in touch with family. In spite of these amenities, however, the confinement of the ship and the long periods away from home cause some mariners to leave the industry for other occupations.

Water Transport Training and Job Qualifications

The U.S. Coast Guard—an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—establishes and regulates the entry, educational and training requirements for the majority of water transportation jobs. The Coast Guard offers a wide variety of water transportation licenses, according to different types of vessels and occupations. A Coast Guard-issued license is required for all operators and officers of commercial vessels.

Applicants may obtain an engineering or deck officer’s license by qualifying in one of the following two ways. First, applicants may gain sea-time experience and meet certain regulatory requirements. Second, applicants may graduate from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or from one of six other maritime academies located throughout the nation. A written examination is a required part of both of these licensing paths. A National Driver Register Check, a physical examination and a drug screening are also federally required for all applicants. Although persons who have not been formally trained may obtain a license by possessing appropriate sea experience and by passing the written exam, the exam is sufficiently difficult to require at least substantial independent study, if not extensive formal schooling. It may also take between 5 and 8 years for an applicant to obtain sufficient sea experience, since many seamen work for only 6 months each year. Persons who graduate from an academy receive a bachelor-of-science degree, and a Coast Guard-issued license as a third mate (deck officer) or third assistant engineer (engineering officer). Qualified graduates may also receive a commission as an ensign with the Coast Guard Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve or U.S. Naval reserve. Third officers may receive higher ranks with additional training and experience.

Unlicensed engineers and sailors must obtain a document from the Coast Guard in order to work on U.S. deep-sea and Great Lakes vessels. Workers on vessels that haul liquid cargo must be specially certified. Government certification is also required for all able seamen. The Coast Guard generally issues merchant mariner’s documents to unlicensed seamen who are U.S. citizens. In some cases, non-U.S. citizens may obtain a merchant mariner’s document if they are legal aliens and possess a green card. Higher level deckhands and unlicensed engineers must pass a general medical examination and demonstrate good vision and color perception. Although formal schooling and experience are not required, applicants may receive training from a union-operated school. Beginning workers are called ordinary seamen, and receive an assignment in the unlicensed deck, unlicensed steward or unlicensed engine department. After three years of service, ordinary seamen can become able seamen by passing the able seaman examination.

Harbor, river and other waterway vessels do not require any special experience or training of prospective deckhands or seamen. Beginning workers on these types of vessels generally receive some brief introductory training and gain the necessary skills with on-the-job experience. With experience, these workers can eventually become mates, captains or pilots by passing a Coast Guard exam—a task that requires significant knowledge gained through work experience, personal study and courses offered by approved schools.

Able seamen and licensed officers may eventually become harbor pilots by apprenticing with a pilots’ association or towing company.

Water Transportation Job and Employment Opportunities

Available water transportation jobs are expected to continue to garner high levels of competition. Through 2012, overall employment of water transportation workers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations. The specific job market will vary with different jobs, with the best opportunities in deep sea, Great Lakes and coastal transportation, as well as the scenic and sightseeing sectors of the industry.

Despite several years of decline in employment for American deep-sea shipping mariners, the job market should stabilize with the implementation of new regulations that monitor safety, training and working conditions standards within the international shipping industry. Because of these regulations, U.S. ships will see less competition from ships that sail under foreign flags of convenience that encounter higher insurance rates for failing to meet the new standards. The ships of industrialized countries, such as the U.S., will see relatively lower insurance rates, and will therefore carry more international cargo. Because the federal government places a high national defense value on having a large fleet of U.S.-flagged deep-sea ships, some ships benefit from government support in the form of maritime security subsidies and laws that require specific federal cargoes to be hauled exclusively by U.S. ships. The oceangoing shipping industry may also see increases in business and employment with the development of new technologies, such as jet-propelled “fast” ships that would significantly reduce the duration of ocean voyages.

River, canal and Great Lakes vessels primarily transport bulk products, such as sand, gravel, coal, petroleum, chemicals and iron ore. Despite anticipated increases in shipping demand for these products through 2012, water transportation employment on the Great Lakes has been hard hit by current steel importation. However, those same steel imports have actually increased employment opportunities along the
Mississippi River transport system. Federal efforts to increase ferry use to manage heavy metropolitan commuter traffic should contribute to overall increases in water transportation services employment.

Within U.S. waters, the passenger cruise ship industry should also experience employment growth. Federal law requires that all vessels operating exclusively between U.S. ports be U.S.-flagged. The foreign-dominated cruise ship industry should see American employment growth with the construction and staffing of multiple new cruise vessels that will navigate the Hawaiian Islands.

Although the job market for merchant mariners is experiencing only minor expansion, the high level of water transportation workers leaving the industry creates a constant demand for replacements. It is true that some veteran merchant mariners still experience periods of joblessness, but increased demand for licensed and unlicensed workers should improve job security in the future. Graduates of maritime academies who are unable to find jobs as licensed U.S. merchant mariners can often find work in related trades. Graduates that receive ensign commissions in the Coast Guard or Naval Reserves may become active-duty military personnel. Others may become seamen on U.S. or foreign-flagged ships, or find civilian employment with the U.S. Coast Guard or Navy. Industries that may offer land-based employment for maritime academy graduates include manufacturers of shipping machinery (such as boilers), marine insurance companies, shipping companies, and other related businesses.

Historical Earnings Information

Water transportation wages vary according to each worker’s specific position and experience. Beginning seamen and mates may only make minimum wage, while experienced engineers may make as much as $37.37 per hour. The following chart indicates the median hourly wages for water transportation occupations in 2002:

  • Ship engineers – $24.61
  • Captains, mates, and water vessel pilots – $23.97
  • All other water transportation workers – $14.67
  • Marine oilers and sailors – $13.64
  • Motorboat operators – $12.71

Captains that have many years of experience and command large vessels, such as passenger ships, container ships and oil tankers may earn in excess of $100,000 per year. Tugboat captains also tend to earn more than the above reported median earnings, with wages dependant on the type of cargo and the captain’s particular port of service.