Water Transportation Workers

Career, Salary and Education Information

What Water Transportation Workers Do[About this section] [To Top]

Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water. The vessels travel to and from foreign ports across the ocean and to domestic ports along the coasts, across the Great Lakes, and along the country’s many inland waterways.

Duties of Water Transportation Workers

Water transportation workers typically do the following:

  • Operate and maintain nonmilitary vessels
  • Follow their vessel’s strict chain of command
  • Ensure the safety of all people and cargo on board

These workers, sometimes called merchant mariners, work on a variety of ships.

Some operate large deep-sea container ships to transport manufactured goods and refrigerated cargos around the world.

Others work on bulk carriers that move heavy commodities, such as coal or iron ore, across the oceans and over the Great Lakes.

Still others work on both large and small tankers that carry oil and other liquid products around the country and the world. Others work on supply ships that transport equipment and supplies to offshore oil and gas platforms.

Workers on tugboats help barges and other boats maneuver in small harbors and at sea.

Salvage vessels that offer emergency services also employ merchant mariners.

Cruise ships employ a large number of water transportation workers, and some merchant mariners work on ferries to transport passengers along shorter distances.

A typical deep-sea merchant ship, large coastal ship, or Great Lakes merchant ship employs a captain and a chief engineer, along with three mates, three assistant engineers, and a number of sailors and marine oilers. Smaller vessels that operate in harbors or rivers may have a smaller crew. The specific complement of mariners is dependent on U.S. Coast Guard regulations.

Also, there are other workers on ships, such as cooks, electricians, and mechanics. For more information, see the profiles on cooks, electricians, and general maintenance and repair workers.

Captains, sometimes called masters, have overall command of a vessel. They have the final responsibility for the safety of the crew, cargo, and passengers. Captains typically do the following:

  • Supervise the work of the crew, including other officers
  • Ensure that proper safety procedures are followed
  • Prepare a maintenance and repair budget
  • Oversee the loading and unloading of cargo or passengers
  • Keep logs and other records that track the ship’s movements and activities
  • Interact with passengers on cruise ships

Mates, or deck officers, direct the operation of a vessel while the captain is off duty. Large ships have three officers, called first, second, and third mates. The first mate has the highest authority and takes command of the ship if the captain is incapacitated. Usually, the first mate is in charge of the cargo and/or passengers, the second mate is in charge of navigation, and the third mate is in charge of safety. On smaller vessels, there may be only one mate who handles all of the responsibilities. Deck officers typically do the following:

  • Alternate watches with the captain and other officers
  • Supervise and coordinate the activities of the deck crew
  • Assist with docking the ship
  • Monitor the ship’s position, using charts and other navigational aides
  • Determine the speed and direction of the vessel
  • Inspect the cargo hold during loading, to ensure that the cargo is stowed according to specifications
  • Make announcements to passengers when needed

Pilots guide ships in harbors, on rivers, and on other confined waterways. They are not part of a ship’s crew but go aboard a ship to guide it through a particular waterway that they are familiar with. They work in places where a high degree of familiarity with local tides, currents, and hazards is needed. Some, called harbor pilots, work for ports and help many ships that come into the harbor during the day. When coming into a commercial port, a captain will often have to turn control of the vessel over to a pilot, who can safely guide it into the harbor. Pilots typically do the following:

  • Board an unfamiliar ship from a small boat in the open water, often using a ladder
  • Confer with a ship’s captain about the vessel’s destination and any special requirements it has
  • Establish a positive working relationship with a vessel’s captain and deck officers
  • Receive mooring instructions from shore dispatchers

Sailors, or deckhands, operate and maintain the vessel and deck equipment. They make up the deck crew and keep all parts of a ship, other than areas related to the engine and motor, in good working order. New deckhands are called ordinary seamen and do the least complicated tasks. Experienced deckhands are called able seamen and usually make up most of a crew. Some large ships have a boatswain, who is the chief of the deck crew. Sailors typically do the following:

  • Stand watch, looking for other vessels or obstructions in their ship’s path and for navigational aids, such as buoys and lighthouses
  • Steer the ship and measure water depth in shallow water
  • Do routine maintenance, such as painting the deck and chipping away rust
  • Keep the inside of the ship clean
  • Handle lines when docking or departing
  • Tie barges together when they are being towed
  • Load and unload cargo
  • Help passengers when needed

Ship engineers operate and maintain a vessel’s propulsion system, which includes the engine, boilers, generators, pumps, and other machinery. Large vessels usually carry a chief engineer, who has command of the engine room and its crew, and a first, second, and third assistant engineer. The assistant engineer oversees the engine and related machinery when the chief engineer is off duty. Small ships might have only one engineer. Engineers typically do the following:

  • Maintain the electrical, refrigeration, and ventilation systems of a ship
  • Start the engine and regulate the vessel’s speed, following the captain’s orders
  • Record information in an engineering log
  • Keep an inventory of mechanical parts and supplies
  • Do routine maintenance checks throughout the day
  • Calculate refueling requirements

Marine oilers work in the engine room, helping the engineers keep the propulsion system in working order. They are the engine room equivalent of sailors. New oilers usually are called wipers, or pumpmen, on vessels handling liquid cargo. With experience, a wiper can become a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED). Marine oilers typically do the following:

  • Lubricate gears, shafts, bearings, and other parts of the engine or motor
  • Read pressure and temperature gauges and record data
  • Help engineers with repairs to machinery
  • Connect hoses, operate pumps, and clean tanks
  • Assist the deck crew with loading or unloading of cargo, if necessary

Motorboat operators run small, motor-driven boats that carry only a few passengers. They provide a variety of services, such as fishing charters, tours, and harbor patrols. Motorboat operators typically do the following:

  • Check and change the oil and other fluids on their boat
  • Pick up passengers and help them board the boat
  • Act as a tour guide, if necessary

Work Environment for Water Transportation Workers[About this section] [To Top]

Water transportation workers held about 78,500 jobs in 2014. The industries that employed the most water transportation workers were as follows:

Support activities for water transportation 22%
Inland water transportation 21
Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation 19
Government 11
Scenic and sightseeing transportation, water 7

Water transportation workers usually work for long periods and can be exposed to all kinds of weather. Many people decide that life at sea is not for them because of difficult conditions onboard ships and long periods away from home.

However, companies try to provide pleasant living conditions aboard their vessels. Most vessels are now air-conditioned and include comfortable living quarters. Many also include entertainment systems with satellite TV and Internet connections. Large ships usually have one or two full-time cooks as well.

Water Transportation Worker Work Schedules

Workers on deep-sea ships can spend months at a time away from home.

Workers on supply ships have shorter trips, usually lasting for a few hours or days.

Tugboats and barges travel along the coasts and on inland waterways, and crews are usually away for 2 to 3 weeks at a time.

Those who work on the Great Lakes have longer trips, around 2 months, but often do not work in the winter, when the lakes freeze.

Crews on all vessels often work for long periods, 7 days a week, while aboard.

Ferry workers and motorboat operators usually are away only for a few hours at a time and return home each night. Many ferry and motorboat operators service ships for vacation destinations and have seasonal schedules.

How to Become a Water Transportation Worker[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Water Transportation Workers near you!

Education and training requirements vary by the type of job. There are no educational requirements for entry-level sailors and oilers, but officers and engineers usually must have an endorsement certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard. Most water transportation jobs require the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the Transportation Security Administration and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC).

Water Transportation Worker Education

Some deck officers, engineers, and pilots have a bachelor’s degree from a merchant marine academy. The academy programs offer a bachelor’s degree and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC) with an endorsement as a third mate or third assistant engineer. Graduates of these programs also can choose to receive a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.

Nonofficers, such as sailors or marine oilers, usually do not need a degree.

Water Transportation Worker Training

Ordinary seamen, wipers, and other entry-level mariners get on-the-job training for 6 months to a year. The length of training depends on the size and type of ship and waterway they work on. For example, workers on deep-sea vessels need more complex training than those whose ships travel on a river.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All mariners working on ships with U.S. flags must have a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the Transportation Security Administration. This credential states that a person is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and has passed a security screening. The TWIC must be renewed every 5 years.

Mariners who work on ships traveling on the open ocean require the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STWC) endorsement. Regional U.S. Coast Guard offices provide this training, and it includes topics such as first aid and lifeboat safety. The STWC training must be completed every 5 years. Mariners who work on inland waterways and the Great Lakes are excluded from the STWC endorsement.

Most mariners also must have a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC), which they can apply for at a U.S. Coast Guard regional examination center. Entry-level employees, such as ordinary seamen or wipers, do not have to pass a written exam. However, some have to pass physical, hearing, and vision tests, and all must undergo a drug screening, to get their MMC. They also have to take a class on shipboard safety. The MMC must also be renewed every 5 years. More information on MMCs and endorsements is available from the U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center.

Pilots are licensed by the state in which they work. The U.S. Coast Guard licenses pilots on the Great Lakes. The requirements for these licenses vary, depending on where a pilot works.

Advancement for Water Transportation Workers

Crewmembers can apply for endorsements to their MMC that allow them to move into more advanced positions.

Wipers can get an endorsement to become a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED) after 6 months of experience by passing a written test.

It takes 3 years of experience and the passing of a written test for an ordinary seaman to become an unlimited able seaman. However, several able seaman endorsements below the level of unlimited are available after 6 months to 1 year of experience, depending on the type of ship the seamen work on.

Able seamen can advance to become third mates after at least 3 years of experience in the deck department. This experience must be on a ship similar to the type they hope to serve on as an officer. They also must take several training courses and pass written and onboard exams to receive the third-mate endorsement on their MMC. The difficulty of these requirements increases with the complexity and size of the vessel. Similarly, QMEDs can receive an endorsement as a third assistant engineer after 3 years of experience in the engine room and upon completion of a number of training and testing requirements. Experience and testing requirements increase with the size and complexity of the ship.

Officers who graduate from a maritime academy receive an MMC with an endorsement of third mate or third assistant engineer, depending on which department they are trained in.

To move up each step of the occupation ladder, from third mate/third assistant engineer, to second mate, to first mate, and then to captain or chief engineer, requires 365 days of experience at the previous level. A second mate or second assistant engineer who wants to move to first mate/first assistant engineer also must complete a 12-week training course and pass an exam.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Many pilots have years of experience as a mate on a ship. The ship should be of the type they expect to pilot. For example, if they work at a deep-sea port, they should have experience on an oceangoing vessel.

Similarly, many motorboat operators must have several years of experience working on and driving a boat.

Important Qualities for Water Transportation Workers

Customer-service skills. Many motorboat operators interact with passengers and must ensure that the passengers have a pleasant experience.

Hand-eye coordination. Officers and pilots who steer ships have to operate various controls while staying aware of their surroundings.

Hearing ability. Mariners must pass a hearing test to get an MMC.

Manual dexterity. Crewmembers need good balance to maneuver through tight spaces and on wet or uneven surfaces.

Mechanical skills. Members of the engine department keep complex machines working properly.

Physical strength. Sailors on freight ships load and unload cargo. While away at sea, most workers have to do some heavy lifting.

Visual ability. Mariners must pass a vision test to get an MMC.

Water Transportation Worker Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for water transportation workers was $55,000 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,440, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $116,220.

Median annual wages for water transportation workers in May 2015 were as follows:

Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels $76,780
Ship engineers 72,870
Sailors and marine oilers 41,260
Motorboat operators 36,800

In May 2015, the median annual wages for water transportation workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Support activities for water transportation $65,340
Inland water transportation 63,550
Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation 55,640
Government 50,250
Scenic and sightseeing transportation, water 37,310

Workers on deep-sea ships can spend months at a time away from home.

Workers on supply ships have shorter trips, usually lasting for a few hours to a month.

Tugboats and barges travel along the coasts and on inland waterways and crews are usually away for 2 to 3 weeks at a time.

Those who work on the Great Lakes have longer trips, around 2 months, but often do not work in the winter, when the lakes freeze.

Crews on all vessels often work long hours, 7 days a week.

Ferry workers and motorboat operators usually are away only for a few hours at a time and return home each night. Many ferry and motorboat operators service ships for vacation destinations and have seasonal schedules.

Job Outlook for Water Transportation Workers[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of water transportation workers is projected to grow 9 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations.

Employment of sailors and marine oilers is projected to grow 9 percent from 2014 to 2024. Employment of captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels is projected to grow 10 percent. Employment of ship engineers is projected to grow 7 percent.

The rising demand for bulk commodities such as iron ore, grain, and petroleum should increase the need for these workers. Job growth is likely to be concentrated on inland rivers and the Great Lakes. As domestic oil production continues to increase, more oil tanker ships and barges may be called upon to deliver raw crude to refineries, which are typically located near waterways. In addition, the need to supply offshore oil platforms will contribute to some supply ship growth.

However, growth in domestic waterways freight may be limited because of strong competition from pipelines, railways, and trucks. Pipelines are the most efficient mode used to transport oil, and new systems are expected to be built to meet the growing demand. For other products, rail is a more direct route from the Midwest to a coastal port, which saves time and money.

Jobs in deep-sea shipping should remain stable because federal laws and subsidies ensure that there always will be a fleet of merchant ships with U.S. flags. Keeping a fleet of merchant ships is considered important for the nation’s defense.

The popularity of river cruises as a type of vacation is growing. This trend may lead to more opportunities for workers on inland rivers such as the Mississippi or Ohio River. However, most oceangoing cruise ships go to international destinations, and these ships generally do not employ U.S. workers.

Employment of motorboat operators is projected to grow 6 percent from 2014 to 2024. Demand for these workers will be driven by growth in tourism and recreational activities, where they are primarily employed.

Water Transportation Workers Job Prospects

Job prospects should be favorable for most water transportation workers. Many—especially sailors and marine oilers—leave these occupations, because recently hired workers often decide that they do not enjoy spending a lot of time away at sea.

High regulatory and security requirements may limit the number of applicants for all types of jobs.

Employment projections data for Water Transportation Workers, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Water transportation workers 78,500 85,700 9 7,200
  Sailors and marine oilers 28,300 30,900 9 2,600
  Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels 35,100 38,700 10 3,600
  Motorboat operators 4,700 5,000 6 300
  Ship engineers 10,300 11,100 7 800


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

Explore more careers: View all Careers or Browse Careers by Category

Search for jobs: