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The Average Salary of Merchant Marines

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In peacetime, the United States Merchant Marines plays a vital role in U.S. commerce, transporting goods within the country and between the United States and foreign nations. To command a U.S. Merchant Marine ship, merchant mariners must complete a four-year degree program sponsored by the United States government. Completing the program sets them on a course for a life of maritime adventure, as well as a merchant mariner officer salary.

What Is the Merchant Marines?

Merchant mariners have played an important role in United States security since the American War of Independence. However, the Merchant Marines did not become an official part of the country’s wartime and peacetime strategic plan until the passage of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936.

The Merchant Marines is a fleet of commercial ships used to import and export goods, raw materials and commodities during peacetime. During wartime, the Merchant Marine transports troops, military equipment and other materials used to support the war effort. Merchant mariners, also called Merchant Marines, are officers in the Merchant Marine.

During World War II, the Merchant Marine took the brunt of Nazi Germany’s earliest assaults against the United States, as German U-boats torpedoed commercial ships along the East and Gulf coasts. The relentless bombardments continued throughout the war, leading to the deaths of more than 9,000 Merchant Marines.

Today’s Merchant Marine fleet includes tankers, freighters, ferries and tugboats. They sail within America’s waterways and on the sea, transporting goods between countries. All Merchant Marine ships fly the United States flag and private companies own most of the fleet.

Maritime Academies

Many Merchant Marines receive their training at a government-sponsored maritime academy. The Maritime Administration, a U.S. Department of Transportation agency, operates the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, New York. The Administration also provides some funding to six State Maritime Academies: California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, California; Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City, Michigan; Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine; Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts; SUNY Maritime College in Fort Schuyler, New York and Texas A&M Maritime Academy in Galveston, Texas.

Maritime academies offer programs for Merchant Marines and the U.S. Armed Forces. The academies’ four-year Merchant Marine program leads to a Bachelor of Science degree. Coursework includes marine transportation, logistics and intermodal transportation, marine engineering, maritime technology and shipyard management.

Academy students earn the rank of Midshipman, which means junior officer. During the course, Midshipmen spend a year working on commercials ships, serving as crew.

To qualify for admission to a maritime academy, you must be at least 17 years old, but younger than 25. Most applicants must be United States citizens. International applicants require congressional authorization. All applicants must obtain a nomination by a United States member of Congress, meet physical and character requirements, and pass a security check.

Merchant Marine Service Obligation

Students who attend a maritime academy for more than two years must complete a service committed, mandated by their education contracts. After graduation, they must maintain an officer’s license for at least six years and serve in the Merchant Marine for five years. Additionally, they must serve for eight years as a reserve officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, U.S. National Guard or U.S. Coast Guard. In the event a Midshipman does not meet the commitment, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation can order her or him to serve three years active duty in the U.S. Navy.

Military to Mariner Program

The Maritime Administration administers the Military to Mariner program, which helps U.S. Navy officers find Merchant Marine jobs after they leave the service. The program also helps service members navigate licensing requirements.

Merchant Marine Licensing

Students of the Merchant Marine Academy earn a Midshipman’s license as part of their program. The U.S. Coast Guard administers licensing of all Merchant Marine officers. In some cases, experienced mariners who did not attend a merchant marine academy can qualify for a Merchant Marine’s license.

Skilled, unlicensed crew members can work in entry-level positions on Merchant Marine vessels. Most unlicensed crew members have sea experience and training. The Coast Guard offers licenses with a variety of endorsements. First class pilots can navigate ships as they enter and leave harbors. Operators can operate certain types of vessels that do not require Coast Guard inspection. Masters are qualified to command ships and mates serve as Masters’ second in command. Ship Engineers operate and maintain vessel systems such as engines, electrical systems and pumps.

Obtaining a Merchant Marine license involves passing an examination and passing a drug test, along with paying fees.

Merchant Seaman Salary

In 2017, water transportation workers earned a median salary of more than $55,000, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of all seamen. Ship engineers made the most money, around $73,000.

According to the employment website ZipRecruiter, Merchant Marines earn $18,000 to $111,500, with an average income of $53,661.

Merchant Marine Jobs Outlook

According to the BLS, job opportunities for water transportation workers should increase by around 8 percent, through 2026. Much of the increase stems from the demand for commodities such as grains and petroleum products.


Michael Evans’ career path has taken many planned and unexpected twists and turns, from TV sports producer to internet project manager to cargo ship deckhand. He has worked in numerous industries, including higher education, government, transportation, finance, manufacturing, journalism and travel. Along the way, he has developed job descriptions, interviewed job applicants and gained insight into the types of education, work experience and personal characteristics employers seek in job candidates. Michael graduated from The University of Memphis, where he studied photography and film production. He began writing professionally while working for an online finance company in San Francisco, California. His writings have appeared in print and online publications, including Fox Business, Yahoo! Finance, Motley Fool and Bankrate.

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