An interview with a Marine Engineer

An interview with a Marine Engineer

Martin answer student's questions

Authored by: Martin Leduc 2006, updated 2015

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I often get emails from student requesting information, or wanting to do an interview on what is it to be, or become, a licensed Marine Engineer. I have received numerous request, and basically most are of the same type of questions. So, below are the answers I have provided over time to a series of student questions.  
Click here to find out a little more about ships at sea and the how marine engineers fit into equation. You can also read a marine engineer's job description here and here.

Q1 - Why did you become interested in Marine Engineering?

A1 - A great way to make a living. Decent money, big chunks of time off, almost no commute. Somewhat of an adventure, interesting, challenging, industrious are some words I like, which describe what I do. 

Q2 - Have you always wanted to be a Marine Engineer? or What made you become a marine engineer?

A2 - Not really. I have always like machinery or structures: drawing trucks and buildings were always my favourite pastime. LEGO were my favourite toys. I always wanted to do something creative which would perform a function. I originally wanted to get into graphic arts and advertising, but was lured away by the honesty of the sea and nature.

Q3 - What do you like most about your job? or What is the best part of your job?

A3 - There are many aspects that I really like; but standing between two main engines while we are full away; the car size turbo-chargers whining, the "rumble" shakes your very core; is very awe inspiring. Then to think, it's your responsibility!

Q4 - What tasks does your specific job involve?

A4 - The list is very big. Too big in fact. The engineer is in charge of everything mechanical, electrical, or structural on the ship. The toilets don't work, we go find the problems - and it's usually not pretty. From the computers to the crankshaft, air conditioning to refrigerators, doors to windshield wipers, you name it, we must be able to make it work. I say that because we usually know how to fix, but as you can well imagine, a person can't know it all. So basically, we must be knowledgeable enough to recognize a problem, then either fix it, make due, or call in the specialists. We deal with it! out in the middle of the Atlantic, there's not many auto parts stores, and even less room for excuses.

Q5 - Are you given a variety of projects to work on so that the job does not become boring? or Is it fun and exciting?

A5 - The nature of the Job always poses a large variety of challenges, everyday it's a different one. But boredom is definitely present on some ships. For instance search and rescue ships which do allot of waiting and "sitting around", just like a fire dept. Some keep busy doing "rabbits" -a personal project. One guy machined an entire miniature steam engine over a period of time. It is a bit mundane at times, but I think it takes many year before you start getting bored, and that might be only if you are on the same ship, on the same run.

Q6 - What kinds of challenges are you faced with while on the job? or What's the hardest thing you've had to do at your job?

The biggest challenge is getting along with people you have never met before and entrusting your life to them, like you would to your best friend. Might seem a bit dramatic, but I think it's the most challenging task. You don't have the option to go to a warm home and "recharge your batteries" if you've had a bad day. As for the rest of the tasks, you do what you can. Generally everyone on a ship is qualified to be there and somewhat competent. You can work together to tackle big technical challenges, which goes to the top of the answer, getting along is the biggest challenge.

Q7 - What sort of risks do you deal with? 

A7 - Life threatening risk are very present everywhere on a ship. The sea itself is not always picturesque, large machines moving fast, lots of fuel to fuel fires, a multitude of chemicals, large quantity of electromagnetic waves: The ship in itself can be a very hazardous place to be, it is always moving, even more so when you're doing work like commercial fishing, or replacing a ten ton buoy while at sea.

Q8 - What physical condition must you be in?

A8 - The mental state is most crucial. But you're physical well being contributes a great deal as well. Most ships have work out rooms where you can exercise. You have to be reasonably in good shape, this is to climb all those stairs. You need people that can, and will react in times of emergencies -such as firefighting on board.

Q9 - What does one need to do in order to succeed in Marine Engineering?

A9 - Good questions, when you find out, please let me know. I think its a matter of living in harmony, with people, machines and the environment. You give respect, and hopefully you get it in return. Respect, in my opinion, is based on knowledge, the more you know the better decision you can make, the better things go, the more respect you can command.

Q10 - Is there an equal opportunity for women. Is it a popular career with women?

Q10 - Not really. It is a worldwide occupation and allot of the seafarers in the modern merchant marine come from third world countries, where it is not readily accepted to work for a woman. So allot of companies, I think, tend to shy away from crewing with a mix. This is changing, albeit slowly, but changing. 

Q11A - I heard its tough to move up through the ranks, is Marine Engineering a serious career consideration for young Canadian?
Q11B - Did you experience any challenges in your career?
Q11C - Would you recommend this career to any student? 
Q11D - Do you have any tips or advice on becoming a Marine Engineer? 

A11A - Your questions, which seem to me to be as simple as "I'm I going to have a tough time feeding myself with dignity" the short answer is perhaps. It is a very reasonable question since your candidate profession is not an easy choice. You would be better off getting a BSc from UBC since it cost about as much, but you wont deal with isolation from civilization and probably wont have a tough time finding a job after your final year because "people" are more familiar with what a University or College is. 

A11AB - The main reason for this answer is that our profession is an international one, and the realities is that Canada, and our standard of pay is higher due to our high taxes and cost of living compared to other countries. As a result it will be hard for you, at first, to find a job that you would be happy with internationally; and locally you will not be taken seriously because you haven't been in the field for 20 years. That's just the way it is.

A11C - Having said that, I love my job. I love being around machinery, being around different people, and the ability to work in environments people only fantasize about. It was tough at first, matching the needed ambition to complete the program, with the realities of the work, and its availability, but things are getting better now. With self confidence that comes with experience, I believe my outlook is very bright in Canada, and overseas. ...but it has taken me almost ten years !

A11D - Another words, if you are into instant gratification, marine engineering is not for you. You are getting into a field that requires a great deal of long term investing towards something where the payday is, in monetary terms, generally not that impressive compared to other viable avenues for young Canadians. There are allot of unknowns, upsets, tough times, but if you can keep focus on the big picture and persevere, you will be able draw much satisfaction and pride that comes from working in environments that challenges most human faculties. You'll have to have the confidence to tackle just about anything, and generally never be out of work. Some other benefits are - reasonably good pay, legislated jobs opportunities (you'll always be needed), when you are not away working, your home for months at a time without having to take work with you (unless you have a website), you can work anywhere in the world equally well. And you can branch out into numerous career alternatives to sea going. 

So its up to you to decide. If you play the lottery all the time hoping for a big payoff, then this career may not be for you. If you feel gratified by displaying patience, dedication, and applying yourself to hard work, then you will appreciate this line of work. There is no easy meals, but you'll never go hungry being a Marine Engineer in any part of the globe.

Q13 - How much time do you spend on ships?

A13 - That depends on the company or the type of work. Generally, as an officer, you get one day off the ship for everyday worked, I usually don't work for anything less than day for day. I onced worked 14 weeks away working on a ship, then I go home for 14 weeks, I've also worked  3 months on 2 months off, 2 weeks on 2 weeks off. 4 weeks on 4 week off is my favorite, but right now I work 6 weeks on 6 weeks off.  

Q14 - Do you travel a lot for your job? 

A14 - A ship by its very nature is always moving, not always to new places, but yes we travel allot. Signing on the ship and signing off the ship, on the other hand, means we travel on planes, buses, trains, vans, cars, water taxis, walking and spending lots of time in airports. I consider myself a seasoned traveller.

Q15 - Do you design new equipment for ships?

A15 - Currently no. I work on the operational side of things onboard, so just maintaining the machines is a big enough job. We always have some improvements to machines designs or processes but these are usually minor in nature.

Q16 - How long have you been a Marine Engineer?

A16 - I started as a Marine Engineering Apprentice in 1996, achieved my first license level, a 4th Class Certificate of Competency (CoC) in 1999. I achieved my second license level in 2002. There are four license levels.

Q17 - What do you do on a daily basis? or What exactly do you do?

A17 - Right now, 2015, I work as Chief Engineer onboard a smaller Trailing Suction Hopper Dredge, a sort of big vacuum cleaner ship. My responsibilities are extensive and I answer only to the Captain and the Superintendent ashore. I usually manage at least one other Engineer, and together, we maintain the vessel with the aim of it always being available to perform its task.

In 2006, I worked on a large passenger ship in the capacity of Second Engineer. At any given point in the day there is two officers in charge of the operations of the ship; one is on the Bridge - the Navigational Officer of the Watch (OOW) - one is in the Engine Room - the Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOW) - I am the one in the engine room. I am in the control room of the ship (see picture), and monitor the engines and just about every other system on the ship - from elevators function to fuel temperature, to water pressure for the showers. If there is any problems, I rely on my experience and expertise to figure where the problem is and formulate a response. We have three Engineers in this particular position and we are assisted by 1-3 other crew in the actual engine room. The OEW work 8 hours a day in the Control Room, and we also have areas of responsibility in the engine room, where we spend an additional 3-4 hours maintaining "our" equipment.  

Q18 - Where do you do your work? and How long did it take to get to your current place in your career?

A19 - Right now, in 2015, I work as a Chief Engineer the most senior engineer onboard, on smaller ships and large tugs. I am limited to the size of ships (amount of horsepower - 4000hp) due to my lower Certificate of Competency (CoC). When I reach the First Class CoC, I will be able to be CE on any ship, anywhere in the world. It took me about 9 years after my initial training to get to be in the position of CE.

In 2006, I work on the Rhapsody of the Seas (pictured), and large passenger cruise ship operating out of Galveston, Texas, in the Gulf of Mexico. It had taken me about 6 years to get to this current position of responsibility. 

Q19 - How many years of college did you go through? and What college would you recommend to pursue a career in marine engineering? or What type of education do you need to get to your current place in your career?

A19 - On the Training Page you will find most answers to these questions. As for me, I completed a four year Marine Engineering Apprenticeship which means that I was hired by a company, then sent to a dedicated school, BCIT's Pacific Marine Campus in North Vancouver, where I had structured formal training for about 4 months every year. Currently, its a little different, you sign up as a Cadet with the school and then you do your practical time at sea with various companies. Check out the Training Page for further info.  

Q20 - What was the best moment in your career?

A20 - There is no particular best moment I can remember. They're are so many, even more that I've forgotten until someone brings it up again over beers. So there is no answers to this question. As most everyday, something new and sometimes, exciting, happens.

Q21 - Did you ever come across something you couldn't do in your career?

A21 - As engineers, most people turn to us for answers and results, generally there is nothing we can't do; and those things are only restricted by preconceived notions of what should be and accountants.

Q22 - What college degree do most marine engineers have ?

A22 - Most Marine Engineers in Canada do not have a degree per se, if they work on a ship. There is a title of Marine Engineers that some people carry, because they have gone to University, have taken Mechanical Engineering and specialized in marine structures such as wharves, oil rigs, ship design, etc. Marine Engineers referred to in this website, are operational engineers for the most part. They have taken pretty much the same basic courses as a Mechanical Engineer, but also have much more hands on courses as well. Ship's engineers do not specifically hold a "Degree" but instead hold a "License" or "Certificate of Competency (CoC)" which is issued by high level government agency, and is recognized internationally. The CoC is what allows persons to claim the title of Officer on a Ship. Some marine university offer "bridging" courses which will enhance the Officer's training to achieve a "land recognized" University Degree. 

Nowadays, new entrant in the field under the Cadet Program are granted a Bachelor of Science degree with the completion of the program. However, this is still a gray area, and certainly worth investigating, as generally, a shore side position later in life, values these paper things more than seagoing experience.  

Q23 - What subjects in school would you need to excel at to become a marine engineer?

A23 - Physics, calculus, trigonometry, algebra, so on and so forth play a major role in the training, also sciences are pretty important, in particular Chemistry. Anyone considering any engineering path should feel comfortable challenging these subjects.

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