Modern ships are vastly more complex than their ancestors. Propulsion comes from massive diesels, gas turbines or nuclear reactors, and each vessel contains numerous subsystems for electrical power, water and plumbing, hydraulics, communications and high-tech computerized controls. Designing and operating these floating towns requires tremendous technical and engineering expertise. Both the designers and the operators of ships include professionals called "marine engineers," though their training and duties are different.
Marine engineers don't design a ship's hull, which is the work of a naval architect, but they're responsible for most of its contents. This includes its main engines, steering mechanism, electrical generation and other major subsystems. Engineers use sophisticated computer modeling to design plans for the ship's systems, ensuring they meet all appropriate safety and regulatory standards. They also oversee contractors during the actual construction, making sure the correct materials and processes are utilized. They have overall responsibility for testing and troubleshooting the design before the vessel enters service. Their duties are similar when refitting and updating older vessels to improve their safety or extend their service life.
Training and Career
Marine engineers must hold at least a bachelor's degree in engineering from a school approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET. Some positions require a graduate degree. Practical expertise in seafaring is a useful complement to their technical knowledge, so most marine engineers also earn a mariner's license through the U.S. Coast Guard. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects demand for marine engineers to grow 17 percent between 2010 and 2020, slightly higher than the average for all occupations.
Ship's engineers are also often referred to as marine engineers. Like the stationary engineers who operate large buildings, they're responsible for keeping the ship running on a day-to-day basis. This includes performing routine maintenance on all the ship's systems and monitoring them to ensure they're within standard operating parameters. When there's a malfunction on the vessel, the ship's engineers must be able to repair the problem or improvise a workaround. Keeping a suitable inventory of parts and components is an important part of the job, since a ship on the open ocean can't easily obtain spares.
Training and Career
Ship's engineers hold at least a bachelor's degree from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or one of its state-run counterparts. In addition to their degree, graduates receive a merchant marine credential that endorses them as a third assistant engineer. They must also receive a Transportation Worker Identification Credential from the Department of Homeland Security, which includes a background check and verifies their identity. With experience and a few weeks' formal instruction each year, engineers gradually upgrade their merchant marine credential and exercise greater responsibility on the job. The BLS expects employment for ship's engineers to grow by 18 percent between 2010 and 2020, slightly better than the average for all occupations.
2016 Salary Information for Marine Engineers and Naval Architects
Marine engineers and naval architects earned a median annual salary of $93,350 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, marine engineers and naval architects earned a 25th percentile salary of $72,600, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $120,210, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 8,200 people were employed in the U.S. as marine engineers and naval architects.