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If you love working around water and have a passion for sailing, you may want to consider a career as a merchant mariner. The job is a great deal more exciting than your typical nine-to-five office job. Plus, you’ll get paid to travel the world and experience things your friends back home never will. This profession isn’t for the faint of heart, but those who choose it will find a rewarding, lucrative career that’s unlike any other. 

What Is a Merchant Mariner?

A merchant mariner is someone who serves on a civilian merchant ship to ensure the safe transport of goods. Unlike the marines, merchant mariners are not part of the U.S. military since they don’t take part in active combat. Instead, these officers and seamen sail oceans, lakes, and rivers for months at a time. After training with the U.S. Coast Guard, they may choose to take one of many roles onboard a merchant vessel. 

1. Cook

Cooks see to the daily nutritional needs of the crew and passengers. Chief cooks supervise the preparation of food and are responsible for ordering, storing, and taking inventory of all food onboard. They also supervise the other kitchen staff, plan menus, and butcher meat. Often, mariner cooks begin their careers as mess attendants or utility hands and advance through the ranks of third cook and baker before achieving the title of chief cook.

2. Deckhand 

Jobs like painting, cleaning, tying barges together, and loading and unloading cargo belong to the deckhands. They may also assist passengers and stand watch at times. Generally, deckhands are the lowest merchant mariner ranking. However, within this rank, there are able seamen and ordinary seamen. The former are sailors with more experience and usually tend to more complicated tasks than ordinary seamen and less experienced deckhands. 

3. Pilot 

Ship pilots are responsible for steering boats in and out of harbors and through high-traffic zones and canals. Their knowledge of the wind, tide, current, berth, anchors, and more allow them to maneuver the vessel safely without running ground. Moreover, they can devise and execute a plan of action while remaining flexible enough to alter the course should circumstances change. Pilots make an average of $56,000 to $84,000 annually. 

Ship Pilot driving the steering wheel of the ship

4. Engineer

If you love engineering, you might consider taking your career to sea. Ship engineers work on everything from electrical systems to boilers and generators — all while keeping official logbooks. They are also in charge of managing pumps, starting the engine, regulating the ship’s speed, and maintaining all other machinery that keeps the vessel afloat and allows it to continue its voyage. 

5. Oiler 

Marine oilers spend most of their time in the engine room and work under the supervision of the engineer. They perform general maintenance and cleaning and often keep detailed records as well. An oiler’s work may also include lubricating gears, reading temperatures, and assisting with repairs. 

6. Deck Officer

Deck officers are second in command to the ship captain and oversee goings-on while the captain is off-duty. They also are responsible for inspecting cargo, docking, and ensuring deckhands complete their duties properly. Typically, you must work aboard a vessel for many years and spend months taking classes to earn your officer license. However, if you do achieve this rank, the role is an incredibly rewarding one. 

7. Captain 

As the highest-ranking merchant mariner on a vessel, the captain is responsible for everything that happens onboard. They also have the privilege of setting the ship’s course, navigating, and making safe, smooth passage to each destination. To become a captain, you must gain years of experience, apply for a license through the U.S. Coast Guard, and then gain more experience as a deck officer. To outshine the competition, you might also take continuing education courses to further your learning.

Why You Should Become a Merchant Mariner

As a merchant mariner, you’ll likely spend months away from your friends and family. You’ll battle nature and all her fury and unite with your crewmates to defeat the odds. At times, your life will be put on the line. Yet, as treacherous and unfamiliar as this career path may be, there are still benefits to choosing it. In fact, there are many reasons why you should consider becoming a merchant mariner. 

1. Good Salary

Merchant mariners make a fairly decent salary, especially in comparison to other recent high school and college graduates. A rookie sailor earns a median salary of $40,730 annually. Meanwhile, a merchant mariner engineer generally makes about $73,000. Plus, their employer typically pays for meals aboard the ship and their lodging. Naturally, this general lack of expenses allows mariners the opportunity to save money. In fact, many successful businesspeople earned their startup money in this field before switching career paths. 

2. Job Growth Stability 

While the day-to-day work may seem to be anything but stable, the industry’s job growth trend offers a certain level of stability. Some have projected the outlook of merchant marine jobs and water transportation workers to remain the same for the next decade. Others predict it will grow 8% over the next few years. Regardless, the industry is not declining yet, so if you want to become a merchant mariner, now is the time. 

3. Travel Opportunities

While some may view frequent uprooting and travel as a negative aspect of becoming a merchant mariner, others see it as a huge benefit. Those looking to see the world after years of schooling find a perfect opportunity to have a few adventures before settling down. Plus, you may very well visit coastlines and islands a typical vacationer could never access, making your experiences unique and something worth bragging about. 

seaport abroad

3. Skill Development

As a merchant mariner, you’ll also develop new skills and sharpen old ones as you work alongside your crewmates. Each voyage will test your communication abilities, resourcefulness, problem-solving skills, and self-determination. Developing these essential traits will better prepare you for whichever career path you choose. Moreover, they’ll set you up for success if you’re striving to work your way up the ranks as a merchant marine.

4. Fast Track to Success

Unlike most companies, the merchant marine commonly employs applicants without college degrees. With just a high school diploma, you can enter the field and begin your career as a mariner. Of course, you may have to work a few years before upgrading your rank. However, you’ll still be receiving good pay, food, room and board, and a one-of-a-kind experience those first few years. Meanwhile, your friends back home will be in college, racking up debt. 

Merchant Marine Requirements

Just as the military requires you to meet certain prerequisites before applying, so does the merchant marines. If you’re seriously considering a naval career, you must satisfy several physical and educational requirements. 

1. Physical Requirements

If you’re old enough to work full time, you can apply to the merchant marine. However, some companies may not hire you until you’re 18. Moreover, some endorsements might require mariners to be at least 18 years old, including able seaman and lifeboat endorsements. On the other end of the spectrum, there is no age upper limit to your career as a mariner. In other words, there is no time at which you must retire. 

Additionally, you must be in the good physical condition and pass a physical exam before pre-employment. This examination will include vision, hearing, and fitness tests to accurately assess whether or not you can successfully meet the demands of life as a mariner. Typically, a deckhand’s body mass index must be 40 or lower and you must have 20/40 corrected vision. However, those working in more contained environments — like engineers and radio operators — may only need 20/50 corrected vision.

2. Education Requirements

You may not need a bachelor’s degree to become a merchant mariner, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Without a college education, you’ll only have the opportunity to fill the position of a sailor, marine oiler, deckhand, or other entry-level position. However, with higher education, you may be a prime candidate for an officer. Earn your bachelor’s through the Merchant Marine Academy or a U.S. Coast Guard training program if you’d like to enter the industry with a higher rank. 

You’ll also receive a heftier paycheck if you earn a bachelor’s degree before applying for the merchant marine. Moreover, as you gain experience and a working knowledge of the vessel while on the job, you’ll likely receive a raise and begin moving up the ranks. Continue taking classes on your offtime to earn the rank of master, officer or even captain.

How to Become a Merchant Marine

If becoming a merchant mariner still sounds appealing, you may be cut out for the job. Follow the steps below to begin your journey as a sailor and join the marines.  

Cargo ship anchored in a port

1. Choose Your Career Path 

Before entering the field, you must choose a career path so you can complete specific training for that position. For instance, if the engine room piques your interest, you may consider becoming an engineer mariner. To apply for the position, you must take courses in marine sea systems and diesel engines and receive your license from a marine academy. Thus, knowing which career you’d like to have will determine your classes, training, licensure and all other requirements you may need. 

2. Apply for the TWIC 

All merchant mariners must also have a Transportation Worker Identification Credential indicating they don’t pose any security threats. You must undergo thorough screening and pass the criminal history, terrorist watch list, and immigration status background checks. Typically, you will go through the Transportation Security Administration to complete all assessments and pay a nonrefundable fee that’s valid for five years. 

3. Complete Basic Safety Training

If you plan to set sail on the high seas, you’ll also have to complete the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping Basic Safety Training. The STCW is a five-day course that covers survival techniques, firefighting and prevention, elementary first aid, personal safety, and social responsibilities, and security awareness. Once you finish BST, your certification is valid for five years, at which point you must complete refresher training and renew your certification.

4. Apply for the MMC

After receiving your TWIC card, you may apply for merchant marine credentials by submitting forms that prove you passed all drug tests and medical exams and that you hold a valid TWIC. You must also swear an oath to honestly and faithfully perform all mariner duties and obey the commands of superior officers. Upon meeting these requirements and submitting all necessary forms, the regional transportation center will process and issue your MMC which you will receive in the mail.

5. Find Work 

Finally, you may begin your job hunt. If you graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy, the search may be a very brief one, as the academy offers job placement services for officers. The Coast Guard will also help you find a job upon graduation. If you did not attend an academy, you may boost your chances of finding work by joining an apprenticeship program. Most mariners receive job placement after one or two years of apprenticeship. 

Advancing Your Career 

Once you land a job, the goal is to move up the ladder and into whatever position you desire on the ship. To do so, you must be willing to put in a few years of dedication and effort and gain hands-on experience aboard a vessel. Since captains promote officers from within, those with more time on deck will be first in line. Therefore, if you want to move up, you must commit to at least five years of sailing. 

As a new mariner, you can also stay sharp and advance your career by furthering your education. Take courses that teach specialized seafaring skills like mechanical maintenance, navigation, and first aid. You may also continue your maritime education through graduate studies as you accumulate more time on the water. Remember to complete all refresher courses on time as well to ensure you don’t lose any licenses, certifications, or credentials.

Written By
Alyssa Abel is an education writer specializing in student life and academia. She writes on everything from college and career prep to K-12 methodologies and educator resources. Follow her updates on her website Syllabusy

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