A to Z Index  |  FAQs  |  About BLS  |  Contact Us    

Summary

Please enable javascript to play this video.

Video transcript available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2zvpJucsK4.
Quick Facts: Water Transportation Workers
2018 Median Pay $54,400 per year
$26.16 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education See How to Become One
Work Experience in a Related Occupation See How to Become One
On-the-job Training See How to Become One
Number of Jobs, 2018 83,400
Job Outlook, 2018-28 -2% (Decline)
Employment Change, 2018-28 -1,800

What Water Transportation Workers Do

Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water.

Work Environment

Water transportation workers usually work for long periods and can be exposed to all kinds of weather.

How to Become a Water Transportation Worker

Education and training requirements vary with the type of job. There are no educational requirements for entry-level sailors and marine oilers, but other types of water transportation workers typically complete U.S. Coast Guard-approved training programs.

Pay

The median annual wage for water transportation workers was $54,400 in May 2018.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of water transportation workers is projected to decline 2 percent from 2018 to 2028. Fluctuations in the demand for bulk commodities is a key factor influencing waterborne employment.

State & Area Data

Explore resources for employment and wages by state and area for water transportation workers.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of water transportation workers with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about water transportation workers by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Water Transportation Workers Do About this section

Water transportation occupations
Captains and mates supervise other workers.

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

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 also employ 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 general maintenance and repair workers.

The following are examples of types of water transportation 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:

  • Steer and operate vessels
  • Direct crew members
  • Ensure that proper safety procedures are followed
  • Purchase equipment and supplies and arrange for any necessary maintenance and repair 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 under the guidance of an officer 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 mooring 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 a ships’ mechanical and electrical equipment and systems
  • 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
  • Perform daily and periodic maintenance on engine room machinery
  • 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 About this section

Water transportation occupations
Long periods away from home are a reality for some workers.

Water transportation workers held about 83,400 jobs in 2018. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up water transportation workers was distributed as follows:

Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels 38,700
Sailors and marine oilers 33,000
Ship engineers 9,000
Motorboat operators 2,700

The largest employers of water transportation workers were as follows:

Support activities for water transportation 25%
Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation 23
Inland water transportation 21
Scenic and sightseeing transportation, water 7
Federal government, excluding postal service 6

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 air-conditioned and include comfortable living quarters. Many also include entertainment systems with satellite TV and Internet connections, and meals may be provided.

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

Water transportation occupations
Sailors and marine oilers typically receive training on the job.

Education and training requirements vary by the type of job. There are no educational requirements for entry-level sailors and marine oilers, but other types of water transportation workers typically complete U.S. Coast Guard-approved training programs. Most water transportation jobs require the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the Transportation Security Administration and a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC), plus any related endorsements, from the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Education

Sailors and marine oilers usually do not need formal education. Other types of water transportation workers often complete U.S. Coast Guard-approved training programs to help them obtain their required credentials.  

Employers may prefer to hire workers who have earned a bachelor’s degree from a merchant marine academy. The academy programs offer a bachelor’s degree and a Merchant Mariner 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.

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 Mariner 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, in order 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 related 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.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Water transportation workers typically progress from lower level positions to higher level ones, making work experience an important requirement for many jobs. A ship engineer, for example, might need experience as a marine oiler, and mates may have previously worked as sailors. In some cases, workers gain the needed hands-on experience as part of their education program.

Advancement

After obtaining their MMC, crewmembers can apply for endorsements that may 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’s 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 a third mate or third assistant engineer, depending on the department in which they are trained.

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.

Important Qualities

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.

Pay About this section

Water Transportation Workers

Median annual wages, May 2018

Water transportation workers

$54,400

Total, all occupations

$38,640

Transportation and material moving occupations

$32,730

 

The median annual wage for water transportation workers was $54,400 in May 2018. 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 $27,260, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $118,260.

Median annual wages for water transportation workers in May 2018 were as follows:

Ship engineers $71,130
Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels 69,180
Motorboat operators 50,290
Sailors and marine oilers 40,900

In May 2018, the median annual wages for water transportation workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Support activities for water transportation $58,540
Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation 56,700
Inland water transportation 52,780
Federal government, excluding postal service 49,940
Scenic and sightseeing transportation, water 38,350

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 About this section

Water Transportation Workers

Percent change in employment, projected 2018-28

Total, all occupations

5%

Transportation and material moving occupations

4%

Water transportation workers

-2%

 

Overall employment of water transportation workers is projected to decline 2 percent from 2018 to 2028.

Fluctuations in the demand for bulk commodities, such as petroleum products, iron ore, and grains, is a key factor influencing waterborne employment. When demand for these commodities is high, the need for water transportation workers goes up; when demand slows, so does the need for workers. In addition, larger vessels that can carry more cargo require fewer water transportation workers.

Nevertheless, these workers will continue to be needed as 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.

Job Prospects

Job prospects should be favorable for most water transportation workers. Some workers—especially sailors and marine oilers—may leave these occupations because they 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, 2018-28
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2018 Projected Employment, 2028 Change, 2018-28 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Water transportation workers

53-5000 83,400 81,600 -2 -1,800 Get data

Sailors and marine oilers

53-5011 33,000 32,100 -3 -900 Get data

Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels

53-5021 38,700 38,000 -2 -700 Get data

Motorboat operators

53-5022 2,700 2,800 3 100 Get data

Ship engineers

53-5031 9,000 8,700 -3 -300 Get data

State & Area Data About this section

Occupational Employment Statistics (OES)

The Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program produces employment and wage estimates annually for over 800 occupations. These estimates are available for the nation as a whole, for individual states, and for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. The link(s) below go to OES data maps for employment and wages by state and area.

Projections Central

Occupational employment projections are developed for all states by Labor Market Information (LMI) or individual state Employment Projections offices. All state projections data are available at www.projectionscentral.com. Information on this site allows projected employment growth for an occupation to be compared among states or to be compared within one state. In addition, states may produce projections for areas; there are links to each state’s websites where these data may be retrieved.

CareerOneStop

CareerOneStop includes hundreds of occupational profiles with data available by state and metro area. There are links in the left-hand side menu to compare occupational employment by state and occupational wages by local area or metro area. There is also a salary info tool to search for wages by zip code.

Similar Occupations About this section

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of water transportation workers.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION Help on Entry-Level Education 2018 MEDIAN PAY Help on Median Pay
Fishers and related fishing workers

Fishing and Hunting Workers

Fishing and hunting workers catch and trap various types of animal life.

No formal educational credential The annual wage is not available.
Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers

Heavy and Tractor-trailer Truck Drivers

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers transport goods from one location to another.

Postsecondary nondegree award $43,680
Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians

Heavy Vehicle and Mobile Equipment Service Technicians

Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians inspect, maintain, and repair vehicles and machinery used in construction, farming, and other industries.

High school diploma or equivalent $50,320
Material moving machine operators

Material Moving Machine Operators

Material moving machine operators use machinery to transport various objects.

See How to Become One $35,850
Train engineers and operators

Railroad Workers

Workers in railroad occupations ensure that passenger and freight trains safely run on time. They may drive trains, coordinate the activities of the trains, or operate signals and switches in the rail yard.

High school diploma or equivalent $61,480
Stationary engineers and boiler operators

Stationary Engineers and Boiler Operators

Stationary engineers and boiler operators control stationary engines, boilers, or other mechanical equipment.

High school diploma or equivalent $60,440
Laborers and material movers

Hand Laborers and Material Movers

Hand laborers and material movers manually move freight, stock, or other materials.

No formal educational credential $27,270
Airline and commercial pilots

Airline and Commercial Pilots

Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft.

See How to Become One $115,670

Contacts for More Information About this section

For more information about water transportation workers, including employment and training information, visit

Maritime Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation

For more information about licensing requirements and other credentials, visit

National Maritime Center, U.S. Coast Guard

Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

For information about jobs on barges, tugboats, and towboats traveling on inland and coastal waterways, visit

Lake Carriers’ Association

Passenger Vessel Association

The American Waterways Operators

CareerOneStop

For a career video on captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels, visit

Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels

O*NET

Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels

Mates- Ship, Boat, and Barge

Motorboat Operators

Pilots, Ship

Sailors and Marine Oilers

Ship Engineers

Ship and Boat Captains

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Water Transportation Workers,
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/water-transportation-occupations.htm (visited October 23, 2019).

Last Modified Date: Wednesday, September 4, 2019

What They Do

The What They Do tab describes the typical duties and responsibilities of workers in the occupation, including what tools and equipment they use and how closely they are supervised. This tab also covers different types of occupational specialties.

Work Environment

The Work Environment tab includes the number of jobs held in the occupation and describes the workplace, the level of physical activity expected, and typical hours worked. It may also discuss the major industries that employed the occupation. This tab may also describe opportunities for part-time work, the amount and type of travel required, any safety equipment that is used, and the risk of injury that workers may face.

How to Become One

The How to Become One tab describes how to prepare for a job in the occupation. This tab can include information on education, training, work experience, licensing and certification, and important qualities that are required or helpful for entering or working in the occupation.

Pay

The Pay tab describes typical earnings and how workers in the occupation are compensated—annual salaries, hourly wages, commissions, tips, or bonuses. Within every occupation, earnings vary by experience, responsibility, performance, tenure, and geographic area. For most profiles, this tab has a table with wages in the major industries employing the occupation. It does not include pay for self-employed workers, agriculture workers, or workers in private households because these data are not collected by the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey, the source of BLS wage data in the OOH.

State & Area Data

The State and Area Data tab provides links to state and area occupational data from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program, state projections data from Projections Central, and occupational information from the Department of Labor's CareerOneStop.

Job Outlook

The Job Outlook tab describes the factors that affect employment growth or decline in the occupation, and in some instances, describes the relationship between the number of job seekers and the number of job openings.

Similar Occupations

The Similar Occupations tab describes occupations that share similar duties, skills, interests, education, or training with the occupation covered in the profile.

Contacts for More Information

The More Information tab provides the Internet addresses of associations, government agencies, unions, and other organizations that can provide additional information on the occupation. This tab also includes links to relevant occupational information from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET).

2018 Median Pay

The wage at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Median wage data are from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics survey. In May 2018, the median annual wage for all workers was $38,640.

On-the-job Training

Additional training needed (postemployment) to attain competency in the skills needed in this occupation.

Entry-level Education

Typical level of education that most workers need to enter this occupation.

Work experience in a related occupation

Work experience that is commonly considered necessary by employers, or is a commonly accepted substitute for more formal types of training or education.

Number of Jobs, 2018

The employment, or size, of this occupation in 2018, which is the base year of the 2018-28 employment projections.

Job Outlook, 2018-28

The projected percent change in employment from 2018 to 2028. The average growth rate for all occupations is 5 percent.

Employment Change, 2018-28

The projected numeric change in employment from 2018 to 2028.

Entry-level Education

Typical level of education that most workers need to enter this occupation.

On-the-job Training

Additional training needed (postemployment) to attain competency in the skills needed in this occupation.

Employment Change, projected 2018-28

The projected numeric change in employment from 2018 to 2028.

Growth Rate (Projected)

The percent change of employment for each occupation from 2018 to 2028.

Projected Number of New Jobs

The projected numeric change in employment from 2018 to 2028.

Projected Growth Rate

The projected percent change in employment from 2018 to 2028.

2018 Median Pay

The wage at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Median wage data are from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics survey. In May 2018, the median annual wage for all workers was $38,640.