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Water Transportation Occupations

Significant Points
  • Merchant mariners spend extended periods at sea.
  • Entry, training, and educational requirements for most water transportation occupations are established and regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
  • Increasing global trade and tourism will generate growth in water transportation occupations.

    Nature of the Work

    The movement of huge amounts of cargo, as well as passengers, between nations and within our Nation depends on workers in water transportation occupations, also known on commercial ships as merchant mariners. They operate and maintain deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, excursion vessels, and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, and other waterways, as well as in harbors.

    Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels command or supervise the operations of ships and water vessels, both within domestic waterways and on the deep sea. Captains or masters are in overall command of the operation of a vessel, and they supervise the work of all other officers and crew. They determine the course and speed of the vessel, maneuver to avoid hazards, and continuously monitor the vessel’s position with charts and navigational aides. Captains either direct or oversee crew members who steer the vessel, determine its location, operate engines, communicate with other vessels, perform maintenance, handle lines, or operate equipment on the vessel. Captains and their department heads ensure that proper procedures and safety practices are followed, check to make sure that machinery and equipment are in good working order, and oversee the loading and discharging of cargo or passengers. They also maintain logs and other records tracking the ships’ movements, efforts at controlling pollution, and cargo and passengers carried.

    Deck officers or mates direct the routine operation of the vessel for the captain during the shifts when they are on watch. All mates stand watch for specified periods, usually 4 hours on and 8 hours off. However, on smaller vessels, there may be only one mate (called a pilot on some inland towing vessels), who alternates watches with the captain. The mate would assume command of the ship if the captain became incapacitated. When more than one mate is necessary aboard a ship, they typically are designated chief mate or first mate, second mate, third mate, etc. Mates also supervise and coordinate activities of the crew aboard the ship. They inspect the cargo holds during loading to ensure that the load is stowed according to specifications and regulations. Mates supervise crew members engaged in maintenance and the primary upkeep of the vessel.

    Pilots guide ships in and out of harbors, through straits, and on rivers and other confined waterways where a familiarity with local water depths, winds, tides, currents, and hazards such as reefs and shoals are of prime importance. Pilots on river and canal vessels usually are regular crew members, like mates. Harbor pilots are generally independent contractors who accompany vessels while they enter or leave port. Harbor pilots may pilot many ships in a single day. Motorboat operators operate small, motor-driven boats that carry six of fewer passengers on fishing charters. They also take depth soundings in turning basins and serve as liaisons between ships, between ship and shore, between harbors and beaches, or on area patrol.

    Ship engineers operate, maintain, and repair propulsion engines, boilers, generators, pumps, and other machinery. Merchant marine vessels usually have four engineering officers: A chief engineer and a first, second, and third assistant engineer. Assistant engineers stand periodic watches, overseeing the safe operation of engines and machinery.

    Marine oilers and more experienced qualified members of the engine department, or QMEDs, maintain the vessel in proper running order in the engine spaces below decks, under the direction of the ship’s engineering officers. These workers lubricate gears, shafts, bearings, and other moving parts of engines and motors; read pressure and temperature gauges; record data; and sometimes assist with repairs and adjust machinery.

    Sailors operate the vessel and its deck equipment under the direction of the ship’s officers and keep the nonengineering areas in good condition. They stand watch, looking out for other vessels and obstructions in the ship’s path, as well as for navigational aids such as buoys and lighthouses. They also steer the ship, measure water depth in shallow water, and maintain and operate deck equipment such as lifeboats, anchors, and cargo-handling gear. On vessels handling liquid cargo, mariners designated as pumpmen hook up hoses, operate pumps, and clean tanks; on tugboats or tow vessels, they tie barges together into tow units, inspect them periodically, and disconnect them when the destination is reached. When docking or departing, they handle lines. They also perform routine maintenance chores, such as repairing lines, chipping rust, and painting and cleaning decks or other areas. Experienced sailors are designated able seamen on oceangoing vessels, but may be called simply deckhands on inland waters; larger vessels usually have a boatswain, or head seaman.

    A typical deep-sea merchant ship has a captain, three deck officers or mates, a chief engineer and three assistant engineers, a radio operator, plus six or more unlicensed seamen, such as able seamen, oilers, QMEDs, and cooks or food handlers. The size and service of the ship determine the number of crewmembers for a particular voyage. Small vessels operating in harbors, on rivers, or along the coast may have a crew comprising only a captain and one deckhand. The cooking responsibilities usually fall under the deckhands’ duties.

    On larger coastal ships, the crew may include a captain, a mate or pilot, an engineer, and seven or eight seamen. Some ships may have special unlicensed positions for entry level apprentice trainees. Unlicensed positions on a large ship may include a full-time cook, an electrician, and machinery mechanics. On cruise ships, bedroom stewards keep passengers’ quarters clean and comfortable.

    Working Conditions

    Merchant mariners spend extended periods at sea. Most deep-sea mariners are hired for one or more voyages that last for several months; there is no job security after that. The length of time between voyages varies depending on job availability and personal preference.

    The rate of unionization for these workers is about 36 percent, much higher than the average for all occupations. Consequently, merchant marine officers and seamen, both veterans and beginners, are hired for voyages through union hiring halls or directly by shipping companies. Hiring halls rank the candidates by the length of time the person has been out of work and fill open slots accordingly. Hiring halls typically are found in major seaports.

    At sea, these workers usually stand watch for 4 hours and are off for 8 hours, 7 days a week. Those employed on Great Lakes ships work 60 days and have 30 days off, but do not work in the winter when the lakes are frozen. Workers on rivers, on canals, and in harbors are more likely to have year-round work. Some work 8-hour or 12-hour shifts and go home every day. Others work steadily for a week or a month and then have an extended period off. When working, they usually are on duty for 6 or 12 hours and off for 6 or 12 hours. Those on smaller vessels are normally assigned to one vessel and have steady employment.

    People in water transportation occupations work in all weather conditions. Although merchant mariners try to avoid severe storms while at sea, working in damp and cold conditions often is inevitable. While it is uncommon nowadays for vessels to suffer disasters such as fire, explosion, or a sinking, workers face the possibility that they may have to abandon their craft on short notice if it collides with other vessels or runs aground. They also risk injury or death from falling overboard and hazards associated with working with machinery, heavy loads, and dangerous cargo. However, modern safety management procedures, advanced emergency communications, and effective international rescue systems place modern mariners in a much safer position.

    Most newer vessels are air conditioned, soundproofed from noisy machinery, and equipped with comfortable living quarters. For some mariners, these amenities have helped ease the sometimes difficult circumstances of long periods away from home. Also, modern communications, especially email, link modern mariners to their families. Nevertheless, some mariners dislike the long periods away from home and the confinement aboard ship and consequently leave the occupation.

    Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

    Entry, training, and educational requirements for most water transportation occupations are established and regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. All officers and operators of commercially operated vessels must be licensed by the Coast Guard, which offers various kinds of licenses, depending on the position and type of vessel.

    There are two ways to qualify for a deck or engineering officer’s license: applicants either must accumulate sea time and meet regulatory requirements, or must graduate from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or one of the six State maritime academies. In both cases, applicants must pass a written examination. Federal regulations also require that an applicant pass a physical examination, a drug screening, and a National Driver Register Check before being considered. Persons without formal training can be licensed if they pass the written exam and possess sea service appropriate to the license for which they are applying. However, it is difficult to pass the examination without substantial formal schooling or independent study. Also, because seamen may work 6 or fewer months a year, it can take 5 to 8 years to accumulate the necessary experience. The academies offer a 4-year academic program leading to a bachelor-of-science degree, a license (issued only by the Coast Guard) as a third mate (deck officer) or third assistant engineer (engineering officer), and, if the person is qualified, a commission as ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or Coast Guard Reserve. With experience and additional training, third officers may qualify for higher rank.

    Sailors and unlicensed engineers working on U.S. flagged deep-sea and Great Lakes vessels must hold a Coast Guard-issued document. In addition, they must hold certification when working aboard liquid-carrying vessels. Able seamen also must hold government-issued certification. For employment in the merchant marine as an unlicensed seaman, a merchant mariner’s document issued by the Coast Guard is needed. Most of the jobs must be filled by U.S. citizens; however, a small percentage of applicants for merchant mariner documents do not need to be U.S. citizens, but must at least be aliens legally admitted into the United States and holding a green card. A medical certificate of excellent health attesting to vision, color perception, and general physical condition is required for higher level deckhands and unlicensed engineers. While no experience or formal schooling is required, training at a union-operated school is the best source. Beginners are classified as ordinary seamen and may be assigned to any of the three unlicensed departments: Deck, engine, or steward. With experience at sea and perhaps union-sponsored training, an ordinary seaman can pass the able-seaman exam and move up with 3 years of service.

    No special training or experience is needed to become a seaman or deckhand on vessels operating in harbors or on rivers or other waterways. Newly hired workers generally are given a short introductory course and then learn skills on the job. After sufficient experience, they are eligible to take a Coast Guard exam to qualify as a mate, pilot, or captain. Substantial knowledge gained through experience, courses taught at approved schools, and independent study is needed to pass the exam.

    Harbor pilot training usually consists of an extended apprenticeship with a towing company or a pilots’ association. Entrants may be able seamen or licensed officers.


    Water transportation workers held more than 72,000 jobs in 2004. The total number who worked at some point in the year was perhaps twice as large because many merchant marine officers and seamen worked only part of the year. The following tabulation shows employment in the occupations that make up this group:

    Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels 29,000
    Sailors and marine oilers 28,000
    Ship engineers 12,000
    Motorboat operators 3,400

    About 33 percent of all workers were employed in water transportation services. About 17 percent worked in inland water transportation—primarily the Mississippi River system—while the other 16 percent were employed in water transportation on the deep seas, along the coasts, and on the Great Lakes. Another 25 percent worked in establishments related to port and harbor operations, marine cargo handling, or navigational services to shipping. The Federal government employed approximately 5 percent of all water transportation workers, most of whom worked on supply ships and are Civilian Mariners of the Department Navy’s Military Sealift Command.

    Job Outlook

    Employment in water transportation occupations is projected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2014. Job growth will stem from increasing tourism and increases in shipping traffic due to rising imports that will provide greater employment in and around major port cities.

    Employment in deep-sea shipping for American mariners is expected to stabilize after several years of decline. International regulations have raised shipping standards with respect to safety, training, and working conditions. Consequently, competition from ships that sail under foreign flags of convenience has lessened as the standards of operation become more uniform. This has made the costs of operating a U.S. ship more comparable to foreign-flagged ships and has modestly increased the amount of international cargo carried by U.S. ships. A fleet of deep-sea U.S.-flagged ships is also considered to be vital to the Nation’s defense, so some receive Federal support through a maritime security subsidy and other provisions in laws that limit certain Federal cargoes to ships that fly the U.S. flag.

    Employment growth also is expected in passenger cruise ships within U.S. waters. Vessels that operate between U.S. ports are required by law to be U.S.-flagged vessels. The building and staffing of several new cruise ships that will travel around the Hawaiian Islands will create new opportunities for employment at sea in the cruise line industry, which is composed mostly of foreign-flagged ships. In addition efforts are underway at the Federal level that could lead to greater use of ferries to handle commuter traffic around major metropolitan areas, which may cause more workers to be hired.

    Moderating the growth in water transportation occupations is a projected decline in vessels operating in the Great Lakes and inland waterways. Vessels on rivers and canals and on the Great Lakes carry mostly bulk products, such as coal, iron ore, petroleum, sand and gravel, grain, and chemicals. Although shipments of most of these products are expected to grow through the year 2014, imports of steel are dampening employment on the Lakes.

    Job openings will also result from the need to replace those leaving the occupation. Some experienced merchant mariners may continue to go without work for varying periods. However, this situation appears to be changing, with demand for licensed and unlicensed personnel rising. Maritime academy graduates who have not found licensed shipboard jobs in the U.S. merchant marine find jobs in related industries. Because they are commissioned as ensigns in the Naval or Coast Guard Reserve, some are selected for active duty in those branches of the Service. Some find jobs as seamen on U.S.-flagged or foreign-flagged vessels, tugboats, and other watercraft or enter civilian jobs with the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard. Some take land-based jobs with shipping companies, marine insurance companies, manufacturers of boilers or related machinery, or other related jobs.


    Earnings vary widely with the particular water transportation position and the worker’s experience, ranging from the minimum wage for some beginning seamen or mate positions to more than $42.02 an hour for some experienced ship engineers. Median hourly earnings of water transportation occupations in May 2004 were:

    Ship engineers $26.42
    Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels 24.20
    Motorboat operators 15.39
    Sailors and marine oilers 14.00

    Annual pay for captains of larger vessels, such as container ships, oil tankers, or passenger ships, may exceed $100,000, but only after many years of experience. Similarly, captains of tugboats often earn more than the median reported here, with earnings dependent on the port and the nature of the cargo.

    Related Occupations

    Workers in other occupations who make their living on the seas and coastal waters include fishers and fishing vessel operators and some members of the Armed Forces.

    Sources of Additional Information

    Information on a program called “Careers Afloat”, which includes a substantial listing of training and employment descriptive information and contacts in the U.S., may be obtained through:

    Information on merchant marine careers, training, and licensing requirements is available from any of the following organizations:

    • Military Sealift Command, APMC, PO Box 120, Camp Pendleton, Virginia Beach, VA 23458-0120. Internet: http://www.sealiftcommand.com/
    • Seafarers’ International Union, 5201 Auth Way, Camp Springs, MD 20746.

    • Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, P.O. Box 75, Piney Point, MD 20674-0075. Internet: http://www.seafarers.org/phc
    • International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots, 700 Maritime Blvd., Linthicum Heights, MD 21090-1941.
    • U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center, 4200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 630, Arlington, VA 22203-1804. Internet: http://www.uscg.mil/stcw/index.htm
      • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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