Merchant Marine Engineer

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Merchant Marine Engineer

Education and Training Academy

Salary Median—$26.42 per hour

Employment Outlook Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Engineers in the merchant marine monitor and maintain ships' machinery, especially the engines that propel the vessels. They work on all kinds of ships, although most merchant marine ships are freighters or tankers that carry cargo.

Chief engineers supervise the seamen in engine departments and are responsible for main power plants and their auxiliary equipment. In addition, chief engineers direct and keep records of the repair and maintenance of the ships' equipment.

First assistant engineers are in charge of starting, stopping, and controlling the speed of the engines. Second assistant engineers are responsible for the fuel and water aboard ships, including all boilers and pumps. Third assistant engineers are in charge of lubrication systems and, on some ships, refrigeration and electrical equipment.

Engine departments have several other types of workers. Firers and water tenders check the flow of oil and water in the ships' oil-burning equipment and boilers. Oilers lubricate the moving parts in the mechanical equipment, while wipers clean engine rooms and the machinery.

Education and Training Requirements

Ship engineers start out as third assistant engineers and work their way up the ranks. Some third assistant engineers get their licenses without formal training: workers who have had three years of experience in engine rooms may take the licensing test if they are older than nineteen. However, the test is so difficult that few applicants pass it without formal training. That is why most ship engineers are graduates of approved training programs.

Graduates of marine academies receive U.S. Coast Guard licenses as third assistant engineers along with their bachelor's degrees. In school they take courses in marine steam systems and diesel engines. The marine academies in the United States include the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and state academies in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Texas.

To advance through the ranks to become chief engineers, workers must pass Coast Guard licensing tests at every level. Labor unions offer training programs to help employees pass promotional examinations.

Getting the Job

The best way to become marine engineers is to attend one of the marine academies. While candidates for the Naval Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy must be nominated by members of Congress, admission to the other academies is competitive. Graduates of the academies must pass the Coast Guard licensing test before they can become ship engineers at any level. New graduates, upon getting their licenses, usually get jobs as third assistant engineers.

Academy placement offices or unions can help new graduates find jobs.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Third assistant engineers may advance to second assistant engineers after one year of work. They must pass the Coast Guard test for the position and be at least twenty-one years old. With experience, second assistant engineers may progress to jobs as first assistants and then as chief engineers after they pass Coast Guard exams for each rank.

Employment of marine engineers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. While the merchant marine fleet should expand over the next decade, engineers may face stiff competition for available positions because newer, more automated ships require fewer workers. Openings may occur when experienced engineers retire or leave the field.

Working Conditions

Marine engineers are away from home for long periods. Accommodations on board ship are adequate and clean but not luxurious. Although conditions are better on newer ships, engine rooms are usually hot and cramped, and the work can be hazardous. Exposure to the weather and the risk of fire, collision, and sinking go with the job.

Engineers usually work two shifts lasting four hours during each day, with eight hours off between shifts. However, at sea they are on call twenty-four hours. In port engineers work forty hours per week.

Earnings and Benefits

Wages depend on rank and the size of the ship. In 2004 the median wage for all ship engineers was $26.42 per hour. The most experienced engineers earned more than $42.02 per hour. Overtime pay can increase engineers' wages considerably.

Where to Go for More Information

Military Sealift Command
6353 Center Dr., Bldg. 8, Ste. 202
Norfolk, VA 23502
(877) 562-7672

National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors
1055 Crupper Ave.
Columbus, OH 43229
(614) 888-8320

National Marine Engineers Beneficial Association
444 N. Capitol St., Ste. 800
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 638-5355

Seafarers International Union
5201 Auth Way
Camp Springs, MD 20746
(301) 899-0675

Benefits include room and board; eighteen to thirty days of paid vacation for each thirty days of work; and medical, dental, and hospital insurance. Partial pensions are available for engineers forced to retire prematurely by permanent disabilities.