Wednesday, October 27, 2021

A Career in Marine Transport: Planning for a Life at Sea

Some of us hear the call of the sea at an early age. It is a romantic idea, setting out on the open ocean for a life of adventure, visiting exotic ports of call. Who is drawn to life as a seafarer? 

A few stereotypes come to mind: a tough, independent, lone wolf with a weather-worn complexion, a love of drink and salty language. In truth, many jobs fit that stereotype, but still more require skills not typically associated with marine transportation.

However, if you’ve come this far in your thinking, you really want to know one thing: is marine transportation a good career path? 

Let’s take a look at some things you may want to consider.

aerial-view-of-container-and-cargo-ships
A career in marine transport is not for the faint-hearted. Photo: avigatorphotographer/Freepik

What’s the Appeal of a Career in Marine Transport?

Beyond the thrill of the wind in your hair and traveling the world, the appeal of a marine transport career lies in its comparatively high wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2020 median annual wage in marine transportation was $59,250, above the $51,168 median wage nationally. 

The great thing about many jobs in marine transport is that they often require no more than a high school education or GED for entry-level positions.

Another draw is that marine transportation offers a much broader array of careers than you might think. You may be interested in a career in marine transport but don’t know how appealing life as a “salty sea dog” would be. However, many careers employ a range of skills that allow you to indulge your passion without leaving home. These include engineering, marine architecture, maritime law, maritime journalism, and many more.

Meanwhile, if the idea of a nine-to-five, button-down job in a cubicle fills you with dread, grab your boots, blue jeans, and outdoor gear. The dress code and hours for many marine transportation jobs are anything but standard office work.

It’s probably safe to say that many seafarers have a more independent streak than most. If that’s you, then marine transportation may just be a good career choice.

Do you think you have what it takes to be a sea dog out there on the open ocean? If you think you’re up for it, here’s how to go about embarking on a career at sea and what you can expect as you find your way.

What Jobs Can I Find in Marine Transport?

To start, let’s take a look at the classic maritime jobs. First, there are sailors. They assist in maintaining vessels, operate deck equipment, load and offload cargo, and stand watch for safety while at sea. Then there are marine oilers, who work in the engine room lubricating parts of the engine and performing maintenance under the supervision of an engineer, monitoring gauges, and assisting with repairs. 

Other careers include commercial fishing, deep-water or scuba divers, ship captains and other ship workers, marine welders, executive officers, engineers, ranking mates, commercial water transportation, and ferry workers.

Becoming Seaworthy: Marine Transport Education and Training

While there are no degree requirements for entry-level jobs in marine transport, to qualify for better-paying jobs you will need a college degree. Attending a trade school is also a good option to give you a leg up in certain careers.

Shipping off: Getting Into a Marine Transport Degree Program

A marine science major is generally a bachelor’s degree program. However, it can vary by institution. Marine transportation is a fairly niche field, awarding 657 degrees in 2018-2019 — a number that held steady in previous years.

There are 16 schools in the United States offering degrees in marine transportation, both public and private. These institutions will allow you to concentrate on specific subjects according to your career goals. These concentrations can include diving, maritime trade and logistics, commercial fishing, preparation for coast guard and navy careers, and marine science.

In addition to your specialization, you will be required to take courses in, for example math, science, navigation, maritime law, ship safety procedures, and shipboard power system engineering.

To be accepted into a program in marine transportation, you’ll have to have a high school diploma or a GED. Each school you apply to will have its own GPA and SAT or ACT test requirements (though many schools have recently dropped the requirement) and may be more or less selective, depending on the institution.

Once you graduate, you also need to get the appropriate marine transport certification to work at sea.

Learning the Ropes: Types of Degrees for a Career in Marine Transport

Marine transportation is also a great career to enter because of the surprisingly vast array of fields and types of degrees you can study within it. 

For example, at the Maine Maritime Academy, there is a wide variety of subjects you can study, from marine engineering to marine biology, logistics management to Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps. If studying for four years seems like too much of a commitment, the college also offers a two-year associate’s degree in small vessel operations. There are also a number of graduate programs from which you can choose.

Here is a breakdown of the educational attainment of marine transportation workers in 2019.

Level of EducationEmployee Percentage
High School Diploma34.9 percent
Post-Secondary Certificate43.8 percent
Some College 7.2 percent
Associate’s Degree4.5 percent
Bachelor’s Degree5.9 percent

The level of education you choose will depend on the career you are looking for in marine transport.

Testing the Waters: Entry-Level/On-the-Job Training

One of the greatest attractions to working in marine transportation is that a great many jobs do not have any formal educational requirements. Many of these entry-level careers will offer you on-the-job training with little to no experience in the field.

For jobs in which you are officially working in maritime transport, you will need a certificate such as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) issued by the Transportation Security Administration or the Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) issued by the US Coast Guard. Approximately 42 percent of workers had one of these in 2019.

A sample of some entry-level jobs and their median salaries will give you a better idea of what’s available and how much it pays. 

Job TitleMedian Salary (2018)
Sailors and Marine Oilers$40,900
Motorboat Operators$50,290
Marine Engineers and Naval Architects$92,560
Fishers and Related Fishing Workers$28,530 (2017)
Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers$41,380
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

With the exception of marine engineers and naval architects, none of these jobs requires more than a high school education (sometimes not even that) and will most likely offer on-the-job training.

Sink or Swim: What It Takes to Work in Marine Transport

If it isn’t already obvious, when considering whether or not marine transportation is a good career path for you, it’s necessary to know that a life at sea isn’t all swashbuckling and big paydays. Many maritime transportation jobs can be tough, cold, dirty, and dangerous, requiring you to be physically strong, work long hours in terrible weather, and have a high tolerance for boredom.

You should also have sharp vision and hearing, and be good at problem-solving and decision-making in stressful situations. These qualities are necessary due to the uncertain, occasionally perilous nature of working on the sea and with heavy, dangerous equipment.

It probably goes without saying that it is a heavily male-dominated field, so you’ll need to decide if that’s something that puts you off, male or female.

If you’re seeking a higher-level career in marine transportation, you should expect to take advanced math and science courses, ideally doing an internship in your chosen area of expertise to see if you have what it takes.

Setting Sail: Embarking on Your Marine Transport Career Path 

If you’ve been thinking of going out to sea, the first thing you should do is get a summer job or internship working as a deckhand on a ferry or fishing boat and talk to those in marine trade, industry, or shipbuilding. Rub elbows with people working in careers similar to what you’re considering. A sailing course is also good. If you’re planning on a more advanced career, make sure your math and sciences are up to snuff in preparation for a maritime academy.

Most importantly, as you’re “getting your feet wet” at sea, ask yourself how your aptitudes, interests, and outlook fit with a maritime career. While the idea of sailing off toward the sun may fill your heart with romance, you may discover that the life is too difficult or you just don’t have the personality for it.

So, is marine transportation a good career path? If it fits your personality, goals, and the kind of lifestyle you want, yes! Prepare for a life at sea!

Frequently Asked Questions About a Career in Marine Transport

How much money can I make with a career in marine transport?

Careers in marine transportation offer an above-average starting salary compared to many other careers. From entry-level careers which pay well above the median for other fields to a six-figure income in more advanced, technical areas of marine transport, there is a lot of money to be made in the marine transport sector.

What skills do you need for a successful career at sea?

There are several common skills generally needed for a career in marine transportation. Being “good with your hands” is a prerequisite for a majority of careers at sea. So is a certain strength, toughness, ability to work long hours, and a solid knowledge of math and science for higher-level careers.

What are the best jobs in marine transport?

Working as a ship’s captain, naval architect, engineer, or in logistics management are just some examples of the best jobs in marine transport. These careers generally require college or advanced degrees, command the highest salaries, and garner the greatest prestige.

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