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How to Become a Merchant Marine

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Merchant Marines: A Challenging and Rewarding Job

If you have great customer service skills or like working around water, you may want to consider becoming a merchant marine. Most people think of merchant marines as being service-connected, but you can actually work on a cruise ship in this profession. It can be an exciting career path to see different parts of the world, but most likely a career to embark on before you plan a family. Some decent-paying part-time positions can work for someone with a family.

Job Description

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recognizes merchant marines as water transportation workers who work on numerous types of vessels. The main objective of all merchant marines is to maintain and operate the vessel following the chain of command and to make certain that all cargo and people onboard the vessel are safe.

Different types of vessels employing merchant marines include cruise ships, ferries, tugboats and oil tankers as well as bulk carriers and large deep-sea container ships. You can also secure employment in this profession as a cook or electrician or in a general repair and maintenance position.

The captain of a ship is the highest in the chain of command. A captain directs all others on the ship, steers and operates the vessel and tracks the movement and location of the vessel. On a cruise ship, the captain interacts with passengers and helps them locate items and areas on the ship.

Deck officers or mates take the place of the captain when she is off duty. They also assist with docking of the vessel and inspecting cargo during loading and unloading.

Pilots guide vessels in harbors, confined waterways and rivers. A harbor pilot works in a specific harbor during the day and returns home at night. A captain may turn over control of his vessel to a harbor pilot who guides it safely into the harbor.

Sailors and deckhands are in charge of operating and maintaining the vessel by doing routine maintenance, tying barges together, loading and unloading cargo and keeping the inside of the ship clean.

Ship engineers are needed to maintain the engine, pumps and any other machinery that propels the vessel through the water.

Marine oilers work in the engine room under the engineer. They oil and lubricate all parts of the engine, record data and make connections of engine components. They also perform cleaning in the engine room as well as necessary maintenance.

A motorboat operator runs a small boat with an inboard or outboard motor that generally carries just a few passengers. This position includes helping passengers on and off the boat and even acting as a tour guide or fishing guide in some cases.

Education Requirements

Some companies hire merchant marines as oilers or sailors with little experience, allowing them to work their way up through the company; however, you'll have a better chance at a heftier paycheck if you pursue education first.

To enter the workforce above entry level, you'll need to secure a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. Coast Guard-approved program, such as one offered by a merchant marine academy. You'll also receive a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) with an endorsement in your particular area of study such as engineering, operator or a deck cadet or officer.

After you earn your bachelor’s degree, you'll undergo on-the-job training for about six months to a year, depending on your type of job and the size of the vessel.

All merchant marines must have a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) confirming U.S. citizenship and completion of security screening. The TWIC must be renewed every five years to continue working as a merchant marine.

Most water transportation workers need to pass a written test by the U.S. Coast Guard to receive the MMC.

As a pilot, you would be licensed by the state where you work.

Salaries vary quite a bit from each job title as a merchant marine. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average annual wage for captains, mates and pilots is $72,680. Ship engineers average $70,570 annually and sailors and oilers earn an average annual salary of $42,060. Motorboat operators can expect to earn $40,210 annually.


Depending on which type of vessel you work on, the environment can be stressful. A deep-sea ship, for example, exposes workers to all types of weather conditions and long trips away from home. Supply ship workers are onboard for only a few hours or days at a time. Work on tugboats and barges can require two to three weeks. Cruise ships employ workers for varying lengths, depending on the cruise schedule. Ferry and motorboat operators work a few hours a day, making such work more feasible for someone with a family.

Working in the Great Lakes on a vessel can involve trips lasting about two months, but frozen waters mean no winter work.

All workers on all types of vessels have the comforts of home with climate-controlled sleeping areas, satellite TV and internet connections. Most include meals prepared by onboard cooks.

Years of Experience

Getting a bachelor’s degree from the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) greatly increases your starting salary as well as your increases in pay as you gain experience. PayScale reports the average amount of money you can earn annually after graduation from USMMA to be:

  • 1-4 years: $81,035
  • 5-9 years: $91,563
  • 10-19 years: $114,144
  • Over 20 years: $133,959

Job Growth Trend

The job outlook for merchant marines is slated to grow approximately 8 percent over the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This rate is about the same as for all occupations over the next 10 years.

The job growth trend can be attributed to an increase in riverboat cruises, in trade and production of goods and increases in the oil and gas industries. High demands for large loads of commodities drive the market also—more demand means more workers needed in these areas. An increase in tourism will open more jobs for motorboat operators to give tours and entertainment to small groups of people on vacation.


Mary Lougee has been writing for over 10 years. She holds a Bachelor's Degree with a major in Management and a double minor in accounting and computer science. She loves writing about careers for busy families as well as family oriented planning, meals and activities for all ages.

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