How a hamburger affects your wage – Part 1 of 2

Art by Claes Oldenburg

I was asked some time ago by a crewing manager, what a proper wage for a seagoing Marine Engineer should be. An answer was given, one that I detail in Part Two of this post, but in general, I could not answer her adequately, and it took me quite some time to mull it over; here’s what I think.

As far as wages for Canadian certified Marine Engineers are concerned, I am familiar with what’s being offered now, but these wages rarely take into consideration many basic factors – like license cost upkeep, isolation, technical expertise, etc. They seem to be based, loosely, on slightly higher wages than a classic trades person, like a plumber or a welder. Wages now are essentially the lowest that engineers will settle for, to go to sea, based on their needs – social and material – not really reflective of the sacrifices and investments involved.

But why is that?


Canada’s maritime workforce

We are well aware that over the last 30-40 years there has been a steady decline in pay, or at least a stagnation of wages and conditions, especially in Canada, and particularly for men. As our social fabric has changed there have been many changes in the workplace as well, some might say, except for the male dominated marine industry.

The Canadian marine industry has failed to establish a sustainable chain of succession with their workers. Therefore, the backbone of the Canadian marine workforce has been, and still is, the “baby boomer” generation. With a “boom” of employees entering the workforce in the 60’s 70’s, peaking in the 80’s. Then, the trend for a nation’s trade to be carried out on Flag of Convenience vessels began.

With the exploitation of “third world” seafarers, the fleet of most “western” nations, including Canada’s has steadily been getting smaller and smaller. With crewing cut, and ships retired, there was no room for new people into the system from the mid 80’s to early 2000’s, or at least very few Marine Engineers were trained, and few opportunities existed for young people.


A stale marriage

Like an old couple, the workers and management learned how to “dance” with each other, and did not make much of an effort to improve conditions, or demands for them to be improved – conditions stayed stagnate. Owners just drove the crews, and the assets hard, the work force “parked itself”, and learned to do the bare minimum to get by, as their lives progressed, and their personal needs changed. Perhaps no progress, but predictability was welcomed.

In the 2000’s, with an upswing in “trade” and the fact that the ship-owners could no longer keep the regulators at bay, there were forced to start renewing their fleet to comply with new standards. With that, comes a new way to do things, and some new people; which can be troublesome to a system that has so long resisted change, and is not accustomed to it.

2008 comes along, with an obvious shortage of seagoing Marine Engineers, not to mention experienced people ashore, there was panic among crewing departments, and finally wages and conditions went up. But with the gambling of bankers, the economy tanked, and ship owners are back to the tried and true tactic of driving down wages – which is what they always done since the 80’s, but it’s really hard, because there is no Marine Engineers out there.

In the 2010’s, comes the new people, the young ‘uns, who started entering the training system in the early 2000, they start to enter the workforce. They are full of expectations and enthusiasm, not like the old workforce.

Most industry in Canada seems to follow a similar path, but it may be more pointed in the marine industry, due to the very real and hard demands of ship operations. You now have two groups of people in the workforce; the dominate, older group, ready to retire, and the smaller group, young and enthusiastic, but miles apart in expectations and drive. In the middle, which should be the bulk of the workforce, there are very few traditional family people who have a career as a Marine Engineer.


Source –

It’s in our DNA

Why is it important to recognize the needs of these generational differences, because they are dramatically skewing the compensation package? And generally, it’s not good for the future of the workforce, or its employer.

What seems to be missing with pay and workforce productivity discussions is humanity. In our world of assets and liabilities – “money” is essentially all bullshit – we seem to forget that humans are still very important, and they have basic needs to be met, that money, an arbitrary thing, helps achieve. One of the most important “need” is procreation, which usually coincides with the productive working years that an employer desires. Having kids, and a social life is a big part of being human, and is a particular challenge when going to sea.

Starting or even having a family is very expensive, but this is an undeniable part of life, whether a young person accepts it or not, it will, at some point happen. The workplace seems to have forgotten that. In general, one income is not sufficient to nurture a growing family in today’s world. It is a real challenge to have a healthy family life, when one of the partners is entirely absent for more than half the year, there just isn’t the ability for a spouse to work outside the home in a reliable way.  Throw in a sick child, and one of the partners going to sea, just makes no sense.


Workforce hamburger

So back to the question of wages. A wages for a seagoing Marine Engineer should be set to support a healthy family as this should be the majority of the people – the meaty middle of the workforce.

A balance workforce should be like a hamburger. The top bun – a few new engineers coming in; the protein part – the bulk of professionals in the middle, steady, reliable, experience, mature but still driven; and then the bottom bun, a few in their final days before retirement.

With a spouse working in the home, because childcare costs are prohibitive for the partner to work outside the home, and knowing that two incomes are needed to survive in today’s world, we quickly deduced that you are not hiring one Marine Engineer, you are hiring a team. Therefore the pay and conditions should be sufficient for the team. Anything less than that, is asking a Marine Engineering “team” to live with little comforts, a high stress home life, which leads to marital problems, health issues, substance abuse, and damaged kids – obviously something that is not sustainable, for the marine professional, or the company.


Where’s the beef

The older generation, who have raised their kids, and paid their houses off, still dominate the marine industry workforce. But they have different priorities now, keeping what they have, while needing less, their bigger decisions revolve around where to vacation, and for how long. Deservingly, but one can see issues with their needs, and how that affect wages they demand.

The next “big” group, the new joiners are just happy to get seatime, in order to build their careers (so they can find a mate to procreate), they are just happy to get a berth. Industry in general, has capitalized on this group’s inexperience in the workplace in a big way, by dropping these people’s wage and benefits considerably; while the older generation is just happy to retain their pension, and without effective push back from the middle experienced people – because there aren’t any. However it will not be long before they realize this sleigh of hand, and that could get messy.

The resulting trend is that wages are too low to be sustainable for the average professional in the middle – the steady worker, with maturity, but still driven – in the prime of their life. The young people will be getting there eventually, and they will realize that “decent wages” to go to sea, they are getting at the beginning of their working life, is not at all compatible with the demands of family life.

Throw in the mix, the stop gap measure of poaching mature Marine Engineer from other countries to be the “protein” in our marine industry workforce sandwich, resulting in further skewing of the wages and conditions scale downwards. Immigrants gamble a great deal when making a major move to another country, and therefore, like the new joiners, are just happy to put bread on the table. But like the new joiners, that can only work for about five years, and then the economics of working at sea – costs vs benefits – have to start making sense for the “team”.

The old “fall back reliable” for Canadian ship owners of teasing the older generation with a little more cash, to stretch out their working life, is also becoming a non-option, especially with the high demand of maintaining a license and passing medicals – not to mention the wear on the ship, of someone that knows they are only there for a short time.


Stay the course, at your own peril

So what are companies to do, where should the wages for seagoing Marine Engineering professionals be? Well, much higher, because of the living expenses of a family is much higher – they are the steady unit that nurture the next generation, and therefore obvious targets of crafty hands into their pockets – from never-ending taxes and fees, housing to groceries, drop in service, and all those extras, like sports and cultural activities. In a shore job, the family unit can develop some flexibility in their day to day operations to accommodate these pesky drains, but with one person away, it just becomes too much.

If a company wants a sustainable workforce, they should consider treating then like humans. They should realize that hiring a marine engineers for a ship, is not just hiring one person. Additionally, they should not be swayed by “fringe” groups within the workforce, even though these groups are the large percentage of the workforce, for the (short) time being. If they want a mature steady workforce, then employers need to consider the facts and act appropriately.

Alternatively, we can continue to hope that technology, such as autonomous vessels will save shipping companies the “burden” of treating employees like humans. But unfortunately burying your head in the sand will not make the problem go away. Experienced professionals will only be more “concentrated”, skilled, and therefore more expensive with an automated transportation system. Marine Engineers are resourceful people to start with, if the conditions are so that that there is not a net gain at the end of the day, working on-board ships, there are plenty of other industries that will appreciate their unique skill sets.

In Part 2, I lay out what I think should be a fair compensation package for Canadian Engineering Professionals.


Transport Canada and Australian Marine Safety certified Marine Engineer, over 25 years experience sailing professionally on commercial ships all over the world. Creator and editor of Father of three, based in Nanaimo, British Columbia.

4 Responses

  1. Fantastic article Martin. You really hit the nail on the head with this one. Keep up the good work.

  2. Good article!
    It describes my organization very well, except in this case, the middle patty is very lean. There are the top patty of those ready to retire or very close to it and a gap where normally you would have people ready to step into ship managerial positions, then the newly minted engineers who haven’t the experience.
    Top it off with the difficulty of hiring in the federal government and lower wages then commercial shipping, there is a cycle of retired engineers coming back to work.
    Given the difficulties of the Governments new pay system, even that well is drying up because they aren’t getting paid.

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