What Is a Merchant Marine? - Definition, Requirements & Salary

Learn about the United States Merchant Marine and what they do. Find out about the numerous roles included under this banner, their training requirements, average salary, and more. Schools offering Driver Training degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Overview of the Merchant Marine

The US Merchant Marine is an organization that operates the large commercial and civilian vessels that enter American ports and travel the rivers and lakes of the country each year. While not a branch of the military, the merchant marine are closely related to the Navy and Coast Guard. Merchant mariners are a key part of the economy, keeping global shipments flowing smoothly and commercial vessels sailing safely.

Training Required Shipboard safety classes; on-the-job training
Other Requirements US citizenship or permanent residency status; background checks and security screening
Key Skills Physically fit, good vision and hearing, capable of dealing with stress, mechanical aptitude
Licensure Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC); Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW); Merchant Mariner Credentials (MMC)
Job Growth (2018-2028)* 2% decline (for all water transportation workers)
Median Salary (2018)* $54,400 (for all water transportation workers)

Source: *United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Are Merchant Mariners?

Merchant mariners include all of the individuals serving aboard non-military vessels above a certain size, from ordinary sailors up to the captain himself. As such, there are a wide variety of jobs that fall under this category. The entry-level positions include the sailors (also called seamen), who maintain the ship and stand watch for potential hazards, and marine oilers, who repair and maintain the engines and assist the engineers. Jobs in the merchant marine are merit based, so higher positions are generally achieved by gaining first-hand experience and being promoted over time.

What Are Some Career Goals for Merchant Mariners?

While few merchant mariners will achieve the rank of captain, there are numerous other respected positions aboard ships which a sailor or oiler might hope to become. Captains of large vessels typically have three officers, called mates, who execute the captain's orders, aid in navigation, and manage the deck crew. Experienced sailors, called able seamen, can become mates after at least three years. Marine oilers can gain a certification called Qualified Member of the Engineering Department after passing a test and following a similar period of time can step up to assistant engineers. The chief engineer is responsible for the entire engine system and oversees the oilers while keeping a record of the work done.

How Does One Become a Merchant Mariner?

For sailors and oilers, there are very few requirements outside of Transportation Worker Identification Credential awarded by the Transportation Security Administration. All mariners working on ships carrying a U.S. flag must have a TWIC. The MMC certification isn't necessarily needed when just starting out aboard small vessels, although it will be needed eventually. This credential requires passing physical, hearing, and vision tests, taking a class on ship safety, and passing a drug screening. The MMC must be renewed every five years.

For those who are more academically oriented, there is also the US Merchant Marine Academy, which provides a bachelor-level degree upon graduation, with the requirement of five to eight years service. USMMA graduates enter the work force with the endorsements and credentials needed to become a third mate.

How Much Do Merchant Mariners Make?

Marine oilers and sailors have a median annual income of $40,900, as of 2018, according to the BLS, although pay varies with the size of the ship and the conditions it works under. Captains and mates had a median income of $69,180, as befitting their increased responsibilities and experience, and engineers, with their more specific knowledge requirements, made the most, with a median income of $71,130, according to 2018 BLS data.

What Else Should I Know?

Merchant mariners can spend weeks or even months at a time aboard ship, depending on the size of the vessel and the routes it must travel. They rarely have time off while on board, as daily maintenance is key to keeping the ship functioning at optimal levels. For those who operate in inland areas, such as the Great Lakes, work may be sparse in the winter as the lakes freeze over. In times of war, the merchant marine fleet will be put to work delivering equipment and supplies to military vessels and troops, and officers in the Merchant Marine can be commissioned as military officers by the Department of Defense towards this end.

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