Water Transportation Occupations

Merchant mariners operate and maintain civilian-owned deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, barges, offshore supply vessels, cruise ships, and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, and other waterways, as well as in harbors. Captains or masters are in overall command of the operation of a vessel. Deck officers or mates direct the routine operation of the vessel. On smaller vessels, there may be only one mate. The mate takes command of the vessel if the captain becomes incapacitated.

Captains and mates determine the course and speed of the vessel, while overseeing the crew who work and maintain the ship. Pilots take ships in and out of harbors, on rivers, and on other confined waterways. Harbor pilots are usually independent contractors guiding vessels entering or leaving port, often piloting several ships in one day.

Ship engineers are responsible for the operation, repair, and maintenance of a ship’s machinery and engines. There are usually four engineering officers aboard a ship. Marine oilers and more experienced qualified members of the engine department or QMEDs assist the engineers. Sailors or deckhands operate the vessel and keep the non-engineering areas in good shape. Vessels that carry liquid cargo such as oil have mariners called pump men who are responsible for loading and unloading the cargo. Larger vessels also have a boatswain or head seaman.

The size and service of the ship determine the number of crew members necessary. While ocean-going ships usually have thirteen officers and crewmen in addition to the captain, small vessels may only have a captain and a deckhand. Crews are usually on duty for half a day, seven days a week while on the water. Deep-sea mariners spend extended periods at sea, with no job security after that. Supply vessels move workers, supplies, and equipment to oil and gas drilling platforms. Tugs and barges run on rivers, lakes, inland waterways, and along the coast. Most tugs have two crews and operate constantly, each crew working two to three weeks on and two to three weeks off. Many who work on the Great Lakes work sixty days with thirty days off, but they do not work in winter. Work in harbors and on ferries is highly sought after since workers may return home at night.

Merchant mariners work in all kinds of weather conditions. They risk injury or death in the course of their work, but modern safety management procedures have significantly improved safety on board ships. Newer vessels have air-conditioning, soundproofing, and comfortable living quarters in an attempt to reduce employee turnover.


Entry-level workers are called ordinary seamen or deckhands; they have a few days of basic training. There are two paths to becoming a deck officer or engineer. Applicants must either accumulate thousands of hours of experience as a deckhand or graduate from one of seven U.S. merchant marine academies. In each case, the applicant must pass a written examination. The academies offer a four-year academic program leading to a B.S., a Merchant Marine Credential as a third mate or third assistant engineer, and if desired, a commission as ensign in the U.S. Naval, Merchant Marine, or Coast Guard Reserve. Usually officers on deepwater vessels are academy graduates and those on smaller, inland vessels gained their positions from years of experience.

Those mariners who are required to have Coast Guard credentials must obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as well as an MMC. Entry-level seamen do not need an MMC. Applicants also have to pass a drug screen, medical exam, and meet minimum age requirements. Merchant mariners must have excellent health and good vision and color perception. They have to be in good physical condition to perform strenuous duties and avoid hazards while aboard ship.

To advance, a merchant seaman must gain experience and pass exams. Assistant engineers and deck officers can advance to become chief engineers or captains. On smaller vessels, a captain may choose to buy his own boat and become an owner-operator.


Job growth in water transportation will be faster than average because of increasing tourism and greater offshore oil and gas production. Because of increases in international trade, employment will rise around the major port cities. Employment in deep-sea shipping is expected to remain stable. Growth is also projected in passenger cruise-ship positions, ferry operations, and Great Lakes water transportation.

Excellent job opportunities are anticipated in the near future due to the need to replace workers, particularly officers, who retire or leave the profession. Growth in international trade will likely produce more jobs than there will be people to fill them.

Earnings are higher than in most occupations with similar educational requirements for entry-level positions. Workers are normally paid by the day. Median annual wages of captains, mates, and pilots are about $62,000. Earnings of tugboat captains depend on the nature of the cargo and the port itself. Median annual wages of sailors and marine oilers are about $34,000. Ship engineers’ median wages are about $61,000. In unionized areas, officers and seamen are hired through union hiring halls or directly by the shipping company. Most major seaports have hiring halls.