US goverment marine worker job description

Marine occupation

Official Description from the US Government

Authored by: Government of the USA, 2000

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Update 05.2010 - Some of the information on this page is not updated but it still offers pertinent general resource, please see source file at the US Government website for update information. - Martin


Workers in water transportation occupations operate and maintain deep sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, research vessels, and other waterborne craft on the oceans and the Great Lakes, in harbors, on rivers and canals, and on other waterways.

Captains or masters are in overall command of the operation of a vessel and they supervise the work of the other officers and the crew. They set course and speed, maneuver the vessel to avoid hazards and other ships, and periodically determine its position using navigation aids, celestial observations, and charts. They direct crew members who steer the vessel, operate engines, signal to other vessels, perform maintenance and handle lines, or operate towing or dredging gear. Captains insure that proper procedures and safety practices are followed, check that machinery and equipment are in good working order, and oversee the loading and unloading of cargo or passengers. They also maintain logs and other records of ships' movements and cargo carried. On large vessels, captains are assisted by deck officers or mates. Merchant marine vessels-those carrying cargo overseas-have a chief or first mate, a second mate, and a third mate. Mates oversee the operation of the vessel, or "stand watch" for specified periods, usually 4 hours on and 8 off. On smaller vessels, there may be only one mate (called a pilot on some inland vessels) who alternates watches with the captain.

Engineers or marine 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 operation of engines and machinery.

Seamen, also called deckhands, particularly on inland waters, 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, obstructions in the ship's path, and aids to navigation. They also steer the ship, measure water depth in shallow water, and maintain and operate deck equipment such as life boats, anchors, and cargohandling gear. When docking or departing, they handle lines. They also perform maintenance chores such as repairing lines, chipping rust, and painting and cleaning decks and other areas. Seamen may also load and unload cargo. On vessels handling liquid cargo, they hook up hoses, operate pumps, and clean tanks. Deckhands on tugboats or tow vessels tie barges together into tow units, inspect them periodically, and break them apart when the destination is reached. Larger vessels have a boatswain or head seaman.

Marine oilers work below decks under the direction of the ship's engineers. They lubricate gears, shafts, bearings, and other moving parts of engines and motors, read pressure and temperature gauges and record data, and may repair and adjust machinery.

A typical deep sea merchant ship has a captain, three deck officers or mates, a chief engineer and three assistant engineers, plus six or more seamen and oilers. Depending on their size, vessels operating in harbors, rivers, or along the coast may have a crew comprising only of a captain and one deckhand, or as many as a captain, a mate or pilot, an engineer, and seven or eight seamen. Large vessels also have a full-time cook and helper, while on small ones, a seaman does the cooking. Merchant mariners also have an electrician, machinery mechanics, and a radio officer.

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 is 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. They may pilot many ships in a single day.

Working Conditions

Merchant mariners are away from home for extended periods, but earn long leaves. Most are hired for one voyage, with no job security after that. At sea, they 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 over. Workers on rivers and canals and in harbors are more likely to have year-round work. Some work 8- or 12-hour shifts and go home every day. Others work steadily for a week or month and then have an extended period off. When working, they are usually on duty for 6 or 12 hours and are off for 6 or 12 hours.

People in water transportation occupations work in all weather conditions and although merchant mariners try to avoid severe storms while at sea, working in damp and cold conditions can be unpleasant. It is uncommon for vessels to sink, but workers nevertheless 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.

Some newer vessels are air-conditioned, soundproofed from noisy machinery, and have comfortable living quarters. Nevertheless, some workers do not like the long periods away from home and the confinement aboard ship.


Water transportation workers held about 54,000 jobs in 1992. Many merchant marine officers and seamen worked only part of the year, so the total number who worked some time during the year was somewhat greater. The following tabulation shows employment in the occupations that make up this group:

Seamen and marine oilers


Captains and pilots






A few of the captains and pilots were self-employed, operating their own vessel, or were pilots who were independent contractors.

About 40 percent of all water transportation workers were employed on board merchant marine ships or U.S. Navy Military Sealift ships operating on the oceans or Great Lakes. Another 40 percent were employed in transportation services, working on tugs, towboats, ferries, dredges, and other watercraft in harbors, on rivers and canals, and other waterways. Others worked in water transportation services such as piloting vessels in and out of harbors, operating lighters and chartered boats, and in marine construction, salvaging, and surveying. The remaining water transportation workers were employed on vessels that carry passengers, such as cruise ships, sightseeing and excursion boats, and ferries.

Training and Other Qualifications

Entry, training, and educational requirements for most water transportation occupations are established and regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard. All officers and operators of watercraft must be licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard, which offers nearly 60 different licenses, depending on the position and type of craft. Licensing differs somewhat between the merchant marine and others.

Deck and engineering officers in the merchant marine must be licensed. To qualify for a license, applicants must have graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, or one of the six State academies, and pass a written examination. Persons with at least 3 years of appropriate sea experience also can be licensed if they pass the exam, but it is difficult to pass without substantial formal schooling or independent study. Also, because seamen may work 6 months a year or less, it can take 5 to 8 years to accumulate the necessary experience. The academies offer 4-year bachelor's degree programs (one offers a 3-year associate program) in nautical science or marine engineering to prepare students to be third mates or third assistant engineers. With experience and passing of additional exams, third officers may qualify for higher rank. Because of keen competition, however, officers may have to take jobs below the grade they are qualified for.

For employment in the merchant marine as an unlicensed seaman, a merchant mariner's document is needed. Applicants must be U.S. citizens, have a medical certificate of excellent health, and a U.S. Public Health Service certificate attesting to vision, color perception, and general physical condition. While no experience or formal schooling is required, training at a union-operated school is helpful. Beginners are classified as ordinary seaman and may be assigned to the deck or engineering department. With experience at sea, and perhaps union-sponsored training, an ordinary seaman can pass the able seaman exam.

Merchant marine officers and seamen (experienced and beginners) are hired for voyages through union hiring halls or directly by shipping companies.

Harbor pilot training is usually an apprenticeship with a shipping company or a pilot employees' association. Entrants may be able seamen or licensed officers.

No 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 learn skills on the job. With experience, they are eligible to take a Coast Guard exam to qualify as a mate, pilot, or captain. Substantial knowledge gained through experience, courses in seamanship schools, and independent study are needed to pass the exam.

Job Outlook

Keen competition is expected to continue for jobs in water transportation occupations. Overall, employment in these jobs is projected to decline through the year 2005, but opportunities will vary by sector.

Employment in deep sea shipping is expected to continue its long-term sharp decline as U.S.-manned ships carry an even smaller proportion of international cargo. (In 1991, only 4 percent of our imports and exports were carried on U.S.-manned ships.) Stringent Federal regulations that require larger crews allow unregulated vessels that fly foreign flags to charge lower shipping rates. A fleet of deep sea U.S.-manned ships is considered to be vital to the Nation's defense, so they receive Federal support through operating subsidies and provisions in laws that limit certain Federal cargoes to ships that fly the U.S. flag.

Newer ships are designed to be operated safely by much smaller crews. Innovations include automated controls and computerized monitoring systems in navigation, engine control, watchkeeping, ship management, and cargo handling. As older vessels are replaced, crew sizes will shrink, and employed seamen will need greater skills.

Vessels on rivers and canals and on the Great Lakes mostly carry bulk products such as coal, iron ore, petroleum, sand and gravel, grain, and chemicals. Shipments of these products are expected to grow through the year 2005, but productivity increases should cause employment to decline. Employment in water transportation services is likely to show little or no change.

The decline in jobs has created competition for jobs, with many experienced merchant mariners going for long periods without work. As a result, unions generally accept few new members. Also, many merchant marine academy graduates have not found licensed shipboard jobs in the U.S. merchant marine, although most do find related jobs. All are commissioned as ensigns in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and many go on active duty in the Navy. Some find jobs on tugboats or other watercraft or on foreign-flag vessels, or take jobs as seamen on U.S. flag ships. Some take land-based jobs with shipping companies, marine insurance companies, manufacturers of boilers or related machinery, civilian jobs with the U.S. Navy, or other related jobs. Unless the number of people seeking merchant marine jobs declines sharply, the present keen competition is likely to continue.


Water transportation workers who usually worked full time had median weekly earnings of $611 in 1992. The middle 50 percent earned between $463 and $900 a week. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $350, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $1,050 a week. Captains and mates had median weekly earnings of $871 a week in 1992. The middle 50 percent earned between $650 and $1,150 a week. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $500, while the highest more than $1,500 a week. Seamen had median weekly earnings of $512 a week in 1992. The middle 50 percent earned between $350 and $600 a week. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $175 a week, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $833 a week.