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How to Become a Water Transportation Worker

Education and training requirements vary by the type of job. Officers and engineers usually must have a bachelor’s degree. Most water transportation jobs require the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC).


Most deck officers, engineers, and pilots have a bachelor’s degree from a merchant marine academy. The programs offer a bachelor’s degree and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC) with an endorsement as a third mate or third assistant engineer. Graduates of these programs can also choose to receive a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.

Non-officers, such as sailors or marine oilers, usually do not have to have a degree.


Ordinary seamen, wipers, and other entry-level mariners get on-the-job training for several months to a year. 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.


All mariners working on ships with U.S. flags must have a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This credential states that a person is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and has passed a security screening.

Most mariners must also have a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC). They can apply for an MMC 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, they do have to pass physical, hearing, and vision tests, as well as a drug screening, to get their MMC.

Crew members can apply for endorsements to their MMC that 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.

Ordinary seamen can get an able seamen endorsement after 6 months to 3 years of experience, depending on the type of ship they work on, by passing a written test.

Able seamen can complete a number of training and testing requirements, after at least 3 years of experience in the deck department, to get an endorsement as a third mate. Experience and testing requirements increase with the size and complexity of the ship.

Officers who graduate from a maritime academy receive an MMC with a third mate or third assistant engineer endorsement, depending on which department they are trained in.

To move up each step of the occupation ladder from third mate/third assistant engineer to second to first 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 must also complete a 12-week training course and pass an exam.

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.

More information on MMCs and endorsements is available from the U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center.

Work Experience

Instead of attending a maritime academy, captains and mates can attain their position after at least 3 to 4 years of experience as a member of a deck crew. This experience must be on a ship similar to the type they hope to serve on as an officer. They must also take several training courses and pass written and on-board exams. The difficulty of these requirements increases with the complexity and size of the vessel. Most officers who take this career path work on inland waterways, rather than on deep-sea ships.

Although there are no license requirements for motorboat operators, most employers prefer applicants who have several years of boating experience.

Important Qualities

Customer-service skills. Many motorboat operators interact with passengers and must ensure that 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. Crew members need good balance to maneuver through tight spaces and on wet or uneven surfaces.

Mechanical ability. 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 likely have to do some heavy lifting.

Visual ability. Mariners must pass a vision test to get an MMC.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition