how to become merchant seaman

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Merchant Marines, or mariners, serve as officers on civilian ships to ensure the safety and protection of U.S. goods and transport. While considered part of the U.S. military, merchant marines have no active combat role. Rather, they serve as captains, mates, pilots and seaman serve on ships sailing on oceans, lakes and inland rivers. They can be commissioned as officers or serve as unlicensed seaman. Merchant marines travel constantly and are away from home for long periods of time.

Career Requirements

DegreeBachelor’s degree for officers; none for entry level mariners
Degree FieldNaval Science; Marine Engineering; Marine Transportation
RequirementsBetween age 17-25; Congressional letter of recommendation; (for officers) drug free; pass background test; U.S. citizen
LicensingTransportation Workers Identification Cards; Merchant Marine Credential
Salary$39,100 (2014 BLS Median for Sailors and Marine Oilers)

Source: US Navy; US Bureau of Labor Statistics; US Coast Guard

Step 1: Consider the Merchant Marine Academy

Students who attend the Merchant Marine Academy after high school receive MMCs, Bachelor of Science degrees and the rating of officers and merchant marine officer licenses upon graduating. The application for admittance requires three letters of recommendation, a biographical essay, the Candidate Fitness Assessment, a medical exam and nomination from a U.S. Senator or Representative. At the academy, students can choose majors such as maritime technology and operations, marine engineering and marine transportation. As part of the academy’s curriculum, students spend 13 weeks at sea receiving hands-on training.

Step 2: Apply for a Transportation Workers Identification Credential

Individuals applying for MMCs must first apply for Transportation Workers Identification Credentials (TWIC). The TWIC is used to show operators of secure facilities and vessels that a worker poses no security threat. Before receiving the TWIC, the Transportation Security Administration requires applicants to pass background checks conducted by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. The background screening includes an immigration status check, terrorist watch list check and criminal history check. The TWIC application typically takes 6-8 weeks to process and the credential is valid for five years.

Step 3: Select a Career

Aspiring mariners should choose careers before submitting applications for the MMC, since the requirements depend on the chosen career paths. Members of the merchant marine work in either the engineering, deck or steward’s department. Mariners in the deck department, such as seamean and lifeboatmen, assist in navigation and operating the ship. Engineers, mechanics, oilers and electricians in the engineering department maintain a the ship’s machinery. The steward’s department is responsible for providing food on board the ship.

Step 4: Meet Rating and Endorsement Requirements

Most mariners working in the engineering and deck departments have qualified ratings, which means sea experience is necessary for MMCs. For example, a lifeboatman must have one year of experience working on a ship’s deck, and an electrician needs six months experience in a vessel’s engine room. Mariners working in the steward’s department and those with ratings of wiper and ordinary seaman have unqualified ratings and do not need sea experience. An engineering and deck exam is required for mariners working in those departments. To receive an officer endorsement,s such as chief mate, first class pilot and chief engineer on an MMC, applicants need three letters of recommendation in addition to experience.

Step 5: Apply for the MMC

To complete the MMC application, candidates must submit forms that prove they passed drug tests and medical exams. The medical exam includes physical ability, hearing and vision tests. Medical conditions that can cause ineligibility include heart disease, psychiatric illnesses, diabetes and sleep apnea. Applicants must also provide proof of American citizenship and sea service experience. Mariners traveling in foreign waters must meet Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) requirements. To get an STWC certificate, mariners must complete training programs, such as the five-day Basic Safety Training course.

Step 6: Find Work on a Ship

The Merchant Marine Academy offers job placement services for graduating officers, as does the Coast Guard. For entry level mariners, consider joining an apprenticeship program or join a marine union for job placement services.

Step 7: Gain Experience and Continue Education to Advance Career

The best career advancement opportunity for merchant marines is promotion within command structures. Shipboard officers are promoted from within; more experienced officers are first in line for advancement. For entry level, or unlicensed, merchant marines adding specialized skills through training and continuing education, such as mechanical maintenance, navigation or health services offers the best opportunities for advancement.

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