Workers in water transportation occupations operate and maintain ships that take cargo and people over water. The are sometimes called merchant mariners. These ships travel to and from foreign ports across the ocean to domestic ports along the coasts, across the Great Lakes, and along the country’s many inland waterways. Work schedules and conditions vary by the type of ship. Most workers work long hours while they are on the ship.
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Water transport workers typically do the following:
These workers work on a variety of ships. Some operate large deep-sea container ships to transport manufactured goods around the world. Motorboat operators work on bulk carriers that move heavy commodities, such as coal or steel across the oceans and over the Great Lakes. Others work on both large and small tankers that carry oil and other liquid products around the world. Some may work on supply ships that transport equipment and supplies to offshore oil and gas platforms.
Workers on tugboats help barges and other boats maneuver in small harbours and at sea.
Salvage vessels that offer emergency services also employ merchant mariners.
Cruise ships employ a large number of water transportation workers, and some merchant mariners work on ferries to transport passengers along shorter distances.
A typical deep sea merchant ship, large coastal ship, or Great Lakes merchant ship employs a captain and chief engineer, along with three mates, three assistant engineers, and a number of sailors and marine oilers. Smaller vessels that operate in harbors or rivers may have a smaller crew, with a captain, sometimes a mate, and one to a few sailors.
Most motorboat operators have a bachelor’s degree from a merchant marine academy. The programs offer a bachelor’s degree and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC) with an endorsement as a third mate or third assistant engineer. Non-officers, such as sailors or marine oilers, usually do not have to have a degree.
Ordinary seamen, wipers, and other entry-level mariners get on-the-job training for several months to a year. Length of training depends on the size and type of ship and waterway they work on. For example, workers on deep sea vessels need more complex training than those whose ships travel on a river.
Ordinary seamen can get an able seamen endorsement after six months to three years of experience, depending on the type of ship they work on, by passing a written test.
Able seamen can complete a number of training and testing requirements, after at least three years of experience in the deck department, to get an endorsement as a third mate. Experience and testing requirements increase with the size and complexity of the ship.
Officers who graduate from a maritime academy receive an MMC with a third mate or third assistant engineer endorsement, depending on which department they are trained in.
To move up each step of the occupation ladder from third mate/third assistant engineer to second to first and then to captain or chief engineer requires 365 days of experience at the previous level. A second mate or second assistant engineer who wants to move to first mate/first assistant engineer must also complete a 12-week training course and pass an exam.
Pilots are licensed by the jurisdiction in which they work. The Coast Guard licenses pilots on the Great Lakes. The requirements for these licenses vary, depending on where a pilot works.
Instead of attending a maritime academy, captains and mates can attain their position after at least three to four years of experience as a member of a deck crew. This experience must be on a ship similar to the type they hope to serve on as an officer. They must also take several training courses and pass written and on-board exams. The difficulty of these requirements increases with the complexity and size of the vessel. Most officers who take this career path work on inland waterways, rather than on deep-sea ships. Although there are no license requirements for motorboat operators, most employers prefer applicants who have several years of boating experience.
Workers in water transportation occupations usually work for long periods on small and cramped ships, which can be uncomfortable. Many people decide life at sea is not for them because of difficult conditions onboard ships and long periods away from home. However, companies have worked hard to improve living conditions on their ships. Most ships are now air-conditioned and include comfortable living quarters. Many ships also include entertainment systems with satellite TV and Internet connections. Large ships usually have a full-time cook, as well.
The median annual wage of water transportation occupations was $46,610 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $24,890, and the top 10% earned more than $99,690.