Maritime Jobs 101

The average annual wage for captains and mates of water vessels is $87,420, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

If you’re interested in the professional boating or shipping world and excited by the possibility of avoiding a traditional nine-to-five, then a career in the maritime industry might be for you. It’s a profession that’s both exciting and financially rewarding — you get to travel the world and get paid to be on the open sea.

A maritime career isn’t for everyone, though — you have to be driven, adaptable and willing to work an alternative schedule. But if a job that’s consistently exciting and non-traditional sounds like you, you may opt to join the thousands of professional mariners who love their careers at sea.

People choose careers in the maritime industry for a variety of reasons, and there are many different career pathways you can take within the marine sector. Jobs range from everything from old-fashioned manual labor to highly skilled and technical positions that require years of training and mastery.

For those serious about entering the maritime industry, there’s no better way in than maritime apprentice programs.

Throughout this article, we’ll discuss maritime career paths, pros and cons of working at sea and give you some insight into marine apprenticeship programs.

How to Get an Entry-Level Job in the Maritime Industry

Mariner adjusting rope aboard a ship

Say you’ve done your research and decided a career at sea might be for you. How should you get started? This is how people usually break into the maritime industry:

1. Get an Entry-Level Maritime Job

If you’re not sure what your end goal is in your maritime career or don’t want to invest time before testing the waters, you may opt to jump into an entry-level position and then gradually work your way up from there. This strategy is only viable for smaller vessels — usually those that stay near the coast. Larger ships have more strict requirements for their crew members and often require certifications and training for the crew.

Some people start their maritime careers this way and then acquire the certifications and training as they want to advance in their career. But, this method is only advisable if you plan on staying on smaller vessels close to shore — getting involved with large ships, like in the shipping industry, requires more preparation.

2. Go to Maritime Training School

If you’re set on entering the maritime industry and are looking for a career working in the shipping industry or on large vessels — not just a summer job — then there’s no better way to break in than attending a maritime training academy. Mariners know and respect the importance of this training, and it will give you a significant edge over other applicants that don’t have it.

There are programs for entry-level students that train you for your shipboard duties, help you earn your certificates and even help find employment opportunities. There are different apprenticeship tracks to suit your goals as well, which we’ll discuss later.

Questions? Contact a school advisor here.

How to Work on a Boat — Different Maritime Career Options

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As mentioned before, there are several different career pathways to take within the maritime industry. And while crew members are literally all in the same boat, their day-to-day tasks may be very different. Let’s talk about the most common positions you could pursue.

1. General Crew

As general crew, you’re responsible for the hands-on work that gets done on deck. That means you’ll be helping with tasks like cargo operations, berthing and unberthing, equipment maintenance, vessel maintenance, handling deck machinery and possibly assisting with navigation.

2. Marine Engineer

As a marine engineer, you’re responsible for the more technical and complicated mechanical systems aboard a ship. Many engineers are highly specialized and only work in one area of the vessel, like the engine room or with electronic systems.

3. Deck Officer

A deck officer manages general crew members when in port to ensure safe berthing and unberthing, as well as the loading and unloading of cargo. They’re also responsible for managing navigational watch, monitoring a vessel’s position with navigational technology, developing passage plans and more.

4. Marine Cook

Everybody loves a good cook. If your passion is the culinary arts and a life at sea sounds exciting to you, you may consider this option. Marine chefs run the ship’s galley and are in charge of ordering and budgeting for supplies.

5. Steward

Stewards are more common on long-haul vessels and in the private yachting world — they are primarily responsible for helping with the chores or daily living and keeping everything in the living quarters clean and fresh. They help clean and maintain crew accommodations and will also assist the galley staff from time to time.

6. Land-Based Maritime Careers

What if you like ships and their operations, but you don’t want to head for the open seas? There are several land-based careers within the maritime industry that might be right for you. These include shipbuilding and repair, port operations, accounting and budgeting, parts ordering and more:

  • Shipbuilding and Repair: If you’re interested in the process of building massive ships and what goes into repairing them, then this exciting facet of the marine industry might be for you.
  • Port Operations: There are several different career opportunities solely within ports themselves — they can be as dynamic and exciting as working on boats. Boats from all over the world come in every day, and it takes an enormous number of people to handle the operations. You may work in passenger and cargo unloading, distribution or security. Specific jobs include longshoreman, truck and ship loader, cargo and freight agent, fleet engineer, shipping broker and many more.

7. Crossover Careers

If the maritime industry interests you but you don’t want to spend your working days at a port or at sea, there are jobs that interact with the shipping industry without directly being a part of it. Career fields like accounting, public relations, marine law, marine biology and more can play valuable roles for shipping companies, yet they don’t involve any of the actual shipping work.

Questions? Contact a school advisor here.

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Benefits and Disadvantages of Working at Sea


Now that you know the different types of work in the maritime industry, let’s get into the ups and downs of working at sea:

  • Good Wages: Simply because of the requirement for you to be away from your home on land, maritime positions typically pay better than similar work ashore.
  • Savings: When you’re working aboard a ship, all of your living expenses are essentially covered. Aside from the potential rent or mortgage of where you live when you’re not at sea, the money you can save on other expenses is a huge perk.
  • An Alternative to College: People can graduate from four-year colleges with heaps of student debt without knowing what they want to do next. Maritime training courses prepare you for a job and are more affordable than many college tuitions.
  • Responsibility: This could be good or bad, depending on your personality, but if you become a deck officer, you’ll be responsible for operations of the ship that aren’t to be taken lightly — tasks like supervision of deck operations, navigation and watchkeeping. However, if you like having your opinion respected and your actions make a difference, it can be very satisfying.
  • Travel: Again, this one depends on your personality. Living aboard a ship means you’ll be traveling the globe while you work. Some people don’t like being away from home for long periods, but to others, the freedom and escape are just what they’re looking for. Instead of working at the same desk all year long, you’ll have the ocean for an office.
  • Career Security: Ships are always going to need crew members and captains. The marine industry has been around for thousands of years, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Especially once you get experience under your belt and have marine training, it’s fairly certain you won’t have any problem getting and keeping positions. The marine sector is only expanding and is projected to grow by eight percent in coming years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Long Vacations: A lot of careers at sea require you to be onboard for long periods, sometimes months at a time. But those months are then followed by long periods off — sometimes an equal amount. This schedule is perfect for those who like to get all of their work done at once and reap the reward of uninterrupted vacation time.
  • International Recognition: An officer’s qualifications are based on international shipping standards and can be transferable to other maritime jobs around the world. The United States is an especially respected entity for maritime certifications.

Certification as a Deck Officer


If you’ve made it this far in the article, we’re going to assume you’re interested in what the maritime industry has to offer. So, we’ll dive deeper into what it’s like to work toward being a senior deck officer and what the different types mean for your career.

Depending on what type of marine work you want to get into and how long you want to be at sea may help you determine what kind of deck officer you’ll strive to become. Here are the different types of deck officers and what their work is like:

1. Deck Officer Limited

If you’d like to work in the marine industry but would rather not go for long-haul trips that take several months at a time, you may opt to work aboard smaller vessels — ‘smaller’ meaning vessels not as big as cargo ships. These types of vessels are commonly referred to as ‘workboats’ and could be anything from ferry boats, small cruise ships, dredging vessels, research boats and underwater salvage vessels, typically between 500-1,600 GRT.

For these types of vessels, you’ll need to become certified as a Deck Officer Limited and work under a senior deck officer. The ‘limited’ portion of the title refers to the fact that you are limited to smaller vessels and also a shorter range of travel.

Does this mean getting a Deck Officer Limited license is less valuable than an Unlimited license?

No — if you want to work on smaller, non-shipping vessels, a Deck Officer Limited may be all you need to reach your career goals. If your certification meets the requirement for a position, marine companies are most interested in the experience you’ve accumulated working similar jobs, which means you could be in higher demand than someone with an Unlimited certification — if they only have experience working aboard large shipping vessels.

Working aboard different, smaller vessels makes you a well-rounded mariner and will make you more attractive to workboat employers.

Trips a Deck Officer Limited would undergo are typically near coastal waters, ranging anywhere from just a day onboard to close to a month for port-to-port journeys. Your crew size is often smaller, too, usually between four to eight members. Those aboard usually share the duties of cleaning and cooking.

One area where workboat crew members tend to gain valuable experience is in rigging. Smaller, more maneuverable vessels often need to rig cargo to tow or transit, and learning how to do this the right way is valuable knowledge.

2. Deck Officer Unlimited

If you like the idea of working aboard a large container ship, then pursuing your Deck Officer Unlimited license may be the best goal for you.

You’ll be responsible for overseeing the safe transit of valuable cargo while protecting the lives of your crew through different oceans and countries across the globe. You’ll share these duties and act as an apprentice to the senior officers aboard your vessel.

Here’s what serving under the senior officers entails:

  • You’ll be responsible for the inspection and maintenance of safety and life-saving equipment, which includes lifeboats and fire-fighting gear.
  • You’ll oversee the deck crew and make sure deck equipment is used correctly and maintained.
  • You’ll stand navigational watch to ensure the course of the ship is true and safe.
  • You’ll work alongside the ship’s helmsman to plot courses, practice collision avoidance, use navigational equipment and more.
  • When you come into port, you’ll oversee the safe unloading and loading of cargo and control ship stability and mooring lines. It’s your job to communicate between the captain and crew members.

Like any high-level marine certification, getting your Deck Officer Unlimited license is a prestigious achievement. Your experience on long-haul trips and with crew, equipment, cargo management, navigation and watchkeeping make you a highly capable and sought-after employee.

The average salary of deck officers in 2017 was $80,970, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but there is much room for upward mobility and significant increases in pay as you advance. If you do wish to continue to climb the ladder, you can use your seatime gained as a deck officer to move up the ranks and work as a senior deck officer or captain.

Questions? Contact a School Advisor

Maritime Apprenticeship Programs at MITAGS

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Here at MITAGS, we think the best way to learn is by doing. Our apprenticeship model is designed to make high-quality mariners with real experience who are ready to begin a career at sea.

Our course consists of a 28-month program that’s divided into 26 weeks of classroom training and 360 calendar days of training at sea. The program is all-inclusive and provides you with the training and support you need to obtain your Deck Officer rating. You’ll be confident and prepared to take on your responsibilities when you step foot aboard a merchant vessel.

All of our shore-based training is supported with real-world and simulation training that puts your learning to use, which means you can immediately apply new knowledge to actual functions on the job. We work with you to gradually and logically build your skills from the ground up.

To learn more about our classes or a career at sea, please don’t hesitate to contact a school advisor today.