Watercraft Engineer Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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Get the truth about a watercraft engineer's salary, training requirements and career prospects. Read the job description and see the pros and cons of becoming a watercraft engineer.
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Pros and Cons of a Ship Engineer Career

Watercraft engineers, better known as ship engineers, are the individuals who oversee the various pieces of equipment that make up a ship's propulsion system. Read on to decide if becoming a ship engineer is right for you.

PROS of Being a Ship Engineer
Above-average wages (mean annual salary of about $75,000 in May 2014)*
Minimal education requirements (only about ten percent of ship engineers held a bachelor's degree in 2010)**
Variety of duties (regulate ship speed, perform maintenance, keep records, etc.)*
Retirement of older engineers is expected to drive job growth*

CONS of Being a Ship Engineer
Some ships take trips that can last weeks or months*
Jobs are limited to coastal states*
While at sea, shifts may be long and you may work 7-day weeks*
Work can be strenuous and hazardous*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net OnLine

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Ship engineers primarily work aboard ships to maintain, repair and operate boilers, generators, propulsion engines and other shipboard machinery. They monitor engines and ancillary machinery when vessels are in motion in order to detect any functional abnormalities. They also must perform general vessel maintenance operations such as refueling, repairing leaks and maintaining the decks of the ship. Ship engineers must accurately log and report their findings to other relevant crewmembers.

Many ship engineers are associated with the military or the merchant marine industry. Merchant marine vessels typically will have four engineering officers, including a chief engineer and a first, second and third assistant engineer. These engineers work together in finding problems and fixing machinery.

Salary Info and Job Growth

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the mean annual salary for ship engineers in 2014 was about $75,000. The lowest ten percent of these workers earned less than about $37,000 a year, while the top ten percent earned more than about $126,000 annually, according to the BLS. In 2014, the best paying industry for ship engineers was the deep sea, coastal, and great lake water transportation, where ship engineers earned a mean annual salary of about $74,000, according to the BLS. Ohio was the top-paying state that year, where ship engineers earned a mean annual salary of about $105,000, according to the BLS. From 2012-2022, the BLS expected ship engineers to see 8% growth in employment rates, which is about average for all occupations.

Education Requirements

Educational and training requirements will vary in accordance with individual career goals. Most ship engineers have completed some college, but few hold bachelor's degrees. In general, ship engineers must have a sound foundational understanding of shipboard motors, electrical systems and mechanical equipment. While some technical and community colleges offer programs that specialize in the repair and maintenance of marine equipment, they do not provide the training needed to work aboard ships. To receive shipboard training, individuals should attend a maritime academy or join a branch of the U.S. Military.

A number of maritime academies offer programs in marine engineering. These programs train students in the repair and maintenance of all shipboard systems, and require annual shipboard training experiences in order to prepare students for life at sea. Maritime academies may also require students to earn certifications through the U.S. Coast Guard, such as the Third Assistant Engineer and Unlimited Horsepower qualifications. Maritime academies may have the goal of training students to eventually become chief engineers aboard ships. According to the BLS, employers may prefer engineers who hold such bachelor's degrees.

Training and Useful Skills

The U.S. Military can provide military personnel with training through a combination of field and classroom learning experiences. After completing active military duty, veterans can find similar work on commercial vessels or repairing ships in marinas and shipyards.

In addition to education and training, ship engineers are typically expected to hold a common set of skills that are important to the job. Important skills can include:

  • A comprehensive understanding of all shipboard systems and how they interact
  • Mechanical aptitude and the ability to use a variety of tools
  • An understanding of safety precautions and emergency procedures
  • The ability to work independently as well as with a team
  • The ability to professionally keep track of repairs and keep detailed logs of maintenance operations
  • A willingness to work aboard a ship

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers typically seek individuals who hold at least a Third Assistant Engineer license issued by the U.S. Coast Guard and highly value workers with other official licenses and shipboard work experience. Individuals who are seeking more senior positions will need to hold licenses above the Third Assistant Engineer. The following examples are job posting that were open during March 2012:

  • A company based in Texas was seeking a chief engineer. Job duties included operating and maintaining an engine room, mechanical systems and shipboard equipment. This job required a 4-year degree and at least ten years of work experience.
  • A company in Virginia was seeking a Third Assistant Engineer to perform routine maintenance and repair operations of shipboard machinery. This job required an official U.S. Coast Guard endorsement as a Third Assistant Engineer (or above) and a License of Steam or Motor or Gas Turbine of any degree of horsepower.
  • An offshore drilling contractor who has a company office in Texas was seeking a Second Assistant Engineer. Job responsibilities included maintaining and repairing mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic equipment aboard an oilrig, assisting the First Engineer in all operations. This job required candidates to hold an official Second Assistant Engineer Unlimited License and the equivalent of a high school diploma.

How to Stand Out in the Field

By earning a bachelor's degree in marine engineering or a related field, you can stand out among the competition and may qualify for more senior positions. You can also qualify for more senior positions by earning licenses. The U.S. Coast Guard offers many different types of licenses that correspond to specific physical or geographical conditions and job duties.

In general, assistant engineer licenses can be augmented in both scope and grade. For example, by passing an examination a Third Assistant Engineer license can be upgraded to include more types of technologies (such as steam, motor or gas turbine engines) or can be upgraded to a Second Assistant Engineer. Among other things, these licenses require work experience, first aid and CPR certifications, successful completion of examinations and drug testing, but no postsecondary education is mandatory. However, some educational experiences may supplement work experience requirements.

Alternative Career Paths

Motorboat Mechanic

If you want to work on boats but you don't want to spend lengthy amounts of time at sea, you might consider becoming a motorboat mechanic. Boat mechanics service and repair both inboard and outboard boat engines, as well as various types of marine, electrical and mechanical equipment. Boat mechanics may also work on other components that comprise ships, such as bilge pumps, steering mechanisms and propulsion systems. A high school diploma is typically enough to get such a job, though vocational and technical schools do offer short training programs in small engine repair or marine equipment repair. In 2011, the BLS reported that these professionals earned a median annual salary of about $35,000, and from 2010-2020 they were expected to see a faster-than-average job growth of 21%.

Ship Pilot

If you are not interested in repair work but still desire a shipboard job that requires a lot of responsibility, then you may wish to consider a career as a pilot. Pilots set the course of ships and consult charts and maps in order to determine the safest or most efficient sailing routes. Pilots navigate ships through straits, on rivers and out of harbors, and must be familiar with local tides, currents, winds and water depths. Like with a ship engineer, employers might prefer to hire a ship pilot with a bachelor's degree, but very few pilots actually hold such degrees. In 2011, the BLS stated that these professionals earned a median annual salary of about $64,000, and from 2010-2020 they were expected to see a faster-than-average job growth of 20%.

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