Transportation & me: A water transportation worker

Have you ever wanted a job where you could take off to sail the wide, open sea? Maybe a position as a water transportation worker is right for you. “Water transportation worker” is a broad term that includes jobs like merchant mariner, captain, mate, pilot, sailor, ship engineer, marine oiler, and more.

Water transportation workers play a crucial role in the world and the economy, operating and maintaining sea-going vessels that deliver cargo and people across the water and world. As a water transportation worker, you could journey to foreign ports or travel to and from domestic ports along the coast.

Jobs in water transportation

Let us take a look at a few of the more popular jobs that fit under the title “water transportation worker.”

Merchant mariner—Merchant mariners move cargo and passengers both nationally and internationally. A mariner operates and maintains deep-sea merchant ships (a boat or ship used to transport cargo/passengers for hire) and other waterborne vessels like tugboats, towboats, charter boats, and ferries. Merchant mariners are also sometimes called on in times of war to deliver military personnel and cargo.

Captain—A captain, also referred to as a sea captain, a ship’s captain, master, or shipmaster, is “a licensed mariner in ultimate command of the merchant vessel.” As a sea captain, you’d be responsible for a vessel’s safe and efficient voyage, including safety and security conditions, cargo operations, navigation, crew management, and complying with local and international laws. As a captain, every single person aboard the ship is your responsibility, and all public authorities, state authorities, officers, crewmembers, shipboard staff members, and pilots are under your authority.

A ship captain. Photo from Wikipedia via Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A ship captain.
Photo from Wikipedia via Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Mate—As a mate, you’re the captain’s right hand. You’d man the boat when the captain can’t, manage the staff, and generally perform everyday tasks as needed. You’d make sure the operation is following proper safety procedures and that all supplies, tools, and equipment are maintained. Keeping up with all activity on the boat, you’d constantly report to the captain and maintain communication with the rest of the crew.

Pilot—A pilot can also be called a marine, harbor, or bar pilot. As a pilot, you’d maneuver the ship through dangerous or congested waters. A pilot is often an ex-ship captain, and, in any case, is highly experienced with handling a ship. A pilot may have in-depth knowledge of a particular waterway, knowing the details of its actual depth, direction, and strength of the wind, current, and tide at all times of day. A pilot is a navigational expert.

A master, seaman, and harbor pilot in a ship’s wheelhouse. Photo from Wikipedia via Herve Cozanet
A master, seaman, and harbor pilot in a ship’s wheelhouse.
Photo from Wikipedia via Herve Cozanet

Sailor—A sailor can also be referred to as a seaman, mariner, or seafarer, and is defined as “a person who navigates waterborne vessels or assists as a crewmember in their operation and maintenance.” A sailor can include military (naval) and security (coast guard) positions and members of the merchant marine, as well as those who sail recreationally. Although the term “sailor” comes from a time when ships were powered by sails, it refers to working aboard any seagoing vessel today.

American naval sailor aboard a U.S. Navy ship. Photo from Wikipedia via United States Navy by Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Liz Dunagun
American naval sailor aboard a U.S. Navy ship.
Photo from Wikipedia via United States Navy by Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Liz Dunagun

Ship engineer—A ship engineer supervises the crew and technicians aboard a commercial, research, or military ship and oversees their activity. Ship engineers supervise, coordinate, and adjust all the machinery on board, including the operation of the engines, pumps, propeller shafts, and electronic and auxiliary equipment like refrigerators and communication equipment. As a ship engineer, you may have to perform emergency operations when out at sea, making quick, and often difficult, decisions.

Qualifications & credentials

What education, training, or certifications do you need to become a water transportation worker?

As we just learned, occupations within the water transport industry vary, and so the education or training you’d need varies by the job. The good news is, if you want to be a transportation water worker, there are jobs at almost every level, so there’s a good fit out there for anyone who wants to work at sea!

For example, there are no educational requirements for entry-level sailors and marine oilers, because they do not typically need a formal education (but rather merit or technical-based experience). These and other entry-level positions can get on-the-job training for 6 months to a year; the endurance of training depends on things like the size and type of ship as well as type of waterway. For example, a worker on a deep-sea vessel needs more thorough, complex training than a worker traveling on a riverway.

Other water-related transportation workers typically need to complete U.S. Coast Guard-approved training programs, and you may need to get transportation worker related credentials. Most water transportation jobs require the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC), and sometimes related endorsements from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Skills & more

There’s also a certain number of skills you should have if you’re looking into a career in the water transportation industry.

One of the most important skills that you wouldn’t necessarily think of is customer service, or people skills. For example, as a motorboat operator, you’d regularly interact with passengers and you’d want to make sure that your passengers have a good time aboard the boat. Other positions may be more solitary, but good people skills are encouraged in almost any field.

You’d also need certain physical skills like good hand-eye coordination, hearing ability, visual ability, and manual dexterity. Those who steer ships, like officers and pilots, have to operate various controls while keeping track of their surroundings. In relation to that, mariners must have good hearing and visual abilities in order to pass certain certification tests.

Working in the water transportation industry, you’d also need mechanical skills and physical strength. Members of the crew need to keep complex machinery intact. And those who work as sailors on freight ships need sheer physical strength to load and unload cargo. In general, most workers need to do heavy lifting while away at sea or when preparing for a voyage.

Outlook & salary

So, if you’ve made it this far and you’re still interested in a job as a water transportation worker, the real question is: What is the job outlook? And how much could you expect to make while away at sea?

In 2016, the median pay for a water transportation worker was $54,870 a year, or about $26.38 per hour. Keep in mind, however, that this estimate includes the sum of all water transportation-related positions, some of which make more than others.

For example, the lowest 10 percent of water transportation workers made about $34,950 annually as of May 2016, or about $16.81 per hour. However, the top 10 percent of water transportation workers made an estimated $134,390 annually, or about $64.61 per hour. You can typically assume that the more education, training, or credentials the position requires, the more income you’ll earn.

Now, let’s talk about job outlook. There were about 86,300 water transportation related jobs in 2016. The job outlook for this field is projected to rise about 8 percent from 2016 to 2026. Initiatives to expand the practice of water transportation, and an effort to always have a fleet of U.S. merchant ships for national defense, are projected to increase the need for jobs in the field in the next 10 years.

Transportation & you

If all of this sounds good to you, a job as a sailor, captain, mariner, or deck hand may be the right career path for you—as long as you’re willing to work long hours in all different kinds of weather conditions.

Appreciating the views at work.  Photo from Max Pixel
Appreciating the views at work.
Photo from Max Pixel

Look at it this way: A job as a water transportation worker has the potential to benefit both you and society. You could transport goods and people across the sea, both domestically and abroad. And while helping to get goods and other people from Point A to Point B, you can enjoy the pleasures of the wide open sea, domestic riverways, and international bodies of water.

Whether you’re looking to provide a helping hand as a deck mate, or navigate a vessel across the sea as its captain, a job awaits you out at sea. There’s no shortage of adventure, excitement, and unpredictability of mother nature when working as a transportation water worker. Could you be the next great sea captain? Then the transportation industry is calling you to the open water!

References

Related links

(Video) Captains, Mates and Pilots of Water Vessles: www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=31&v=V2zvpJucsK4

Water transportation workers by state: www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes535021.htm#st

An average day as a fishing boat first mate: www.insidejobs.com/careers/fishing-boat-first-mate

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer