A sailor’s life - great pay, benefits

A student at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship, masters knot tying - an ancient skill still needed on ships.


Help Wanted: 

• Starting pay about $41,000 and, after first upgrade (usually within a year) about $65,000.

• Eight months work: Four months on the job/two months off;

• Full medical, optical and dental benefits with no employee contribution;

• While on the job, all meals and room provided;

• Retirement pension paid fully by employer;

• Training provided with free tuition, room and board;

• A job, and regular advancements, guaranteed after training.

If these are the job benefits, one has to wonder why is it so hard to fill all the open positions within the maritime industry.

Bart Rogers, assistant vice president of the Seafarers International Union’s Paul Hall Center, believes the applicant hesitation all comes down to three little words: “Must leave home.”

“Half my life has been telling people what a wonderful opportunity this is,” Rogers says. “I have more jobs than I do people.”

But those people must be interested, ane perhaps even excited by, a job that’s always on the move. “You have to leave home,” Rogers says. “You can’t really move cargo without a ship.”

Coming up through the hawsepipe, as it’s called in the maritime industry when someone starts from the ground up in their maritime career, has never had more perks than today.

Those wishing to pursue an unlicensed apprentice program (aka the hawsepiper program) could enter into a union run program, such as through the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots or at the Seafarers International Union’s (SIU) vocational training at the Seafarers Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point, Maryland. 

In the SIU program, the school does not charge tuition and provides room and board for accepted students, though they are responsible for buying their uniforms and for the cost of a physical exam, drug and benzene tests, and the required U.S. Merchant Mariner’s Credential, a Transportation Workers Identification Credential and a current passport – putting the cost of the program at about $1,500. Lest you forget that the work will be physically demanding, the initial evaluation also accesses an applicant’s physical abilities from ladder climbing to load lifting (at least 40 pounds) and the ability to “crouch, kneel, crawl, and stand on your feet for extended periods.”

Training for a deck or engine department position follows five phases at the school and takes a little more than a year: 15 weeks in the classroom in general shipboard and safety training; 90 days on a ship; seven weeks back at school for training in a specific department of your choice; 120 days on a ship in that department as entry-level crew; and final completion of department-specific training.

In the steward department (mostly cooks), the program also takes about a year.

“This opportunity presents other opportunities – without debt – like no other,” Rogers says.

While many of the school’s students may be not long out of high school, others are in their 40s looking to start a new career, or out of college looking to pay of debts more quickly.

“I have a bigger influx of college graduates into my program,” Rogers says. Because workers do not pay for food or lodging while on the ship, they can save more of their wages, he points out. He’s known of workers able to save up to $100,000 in just five years.

“It literally costs you nothing to go to work, save money and come home – four months on, two months off,” he says.

That maritime jobs are ripe for the taking is no secret. All of the major fleets on the Great Lakes have put a priority on recruiting. Industry representatives like the Chamber of Marine Commerce in Ottawa, Ontario, and the Lake Carriers’ Association, feature online links to view job postings or help navigate the first steps toward becoming a merchant marine.

For example, in the United States, the law requires everyone on a U.S.-flagged commercial vessel to have a Merchant Mariner’s Credential (MMC) and Transportation Workers Identification Credential (TWIC) Card from the U.S. Coast Guard.

There are three basic areas of a ship needing unlicensed workers, described on the Lake Carriers’ Association website. These departments also have licensed positions.

The deck department mainly is concerned with “maintenance of areas and equipment, docking and undocking, handling lines, operating machinery and lifesaving equipment and standing watch in the wheelhouse, provided watchkeeping exams are completed.”

The engine department offers many positions, depending on ratings a worker has achieved through work experience or via training. 

In the engine room, these include oiler, mechanical assistant, junior engineer, fireman, deck engine mechanic, engineman, pumpman, electrician, machinist, conveyorman, and refrigerator engineer. In the United States, but not Canada, there is an entry level position in the engine room called a wiper. “A wiper typically does general maintenance and cleaning work and assists engineers in their tasks,” according to the LCA website.

The third area for unlicensed workers is the steward department, mainly concerned with food preparation.

Rogers says this area particularly needs workers, and a chief cook can make $8,000 to 10,000 a month with full benefits.

In terms of the current maritime workforce, Bart says racial and ethnic diversity is the norm.

“This is the biggest melting pot of people you’ll find anywhere,” he says of the maritime industry.

Unfortunately, that melting pot now is heavily weighted toward men. 

Rogers estimates only 10 percent of the U.S. merchant marine workforce includes women.

“Women don’t gravitate to us,” Rogers says. That might be because of the long times away from home, which can make starting a family with children difficult.

The Chamber of Marine Commerce notes the same issues in the Canadian and international maritime workforce. 

It issued stories for the International Day of the Seafarer in June that focused on women working on the ships and pointed out that only 2 percent of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers are women.

This year, the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization chose “I am on Board with Gender Equality” as the theme of the seafarer day.

In one of the chamber’s stories, 4th Engineer Cassandra Richie talked about being the only woman on the Algoma Conveyor and encouraged other women to follow that career path. “I would say just go for it,” she says. “People that I’ve worked with have been so supportive and encouraging. I know that other women could do it as well.”

Richie’s job entails monitoring the operation of the engine rooms while on watch, plus maintaining the pumps in the engine room, deck cranes and other equipment, cabin and galley equipment, the marine sanitation device and incinerator. 

She says those visiting her work place are much impressed.

“Everything is so big. The engine room is four stories below the waterline, people are always amazed when they see it. I just love this job.  It’s not just a job, it’s a way of life. You work, you sleep, you live, you make friends.”

For Richie, the lack of women in the maritime workforce might be a matter of perception as much as of expected performance. Seeing women in those roles will help.

“It’s not really talked about that much. You don’t see women captains in Hollywood films or other cultural references – marine shipping has been depicted as a male industry. But that’s starting to change. I was just reading the other day about the first Canadian woman to become a captain of a major cruise ship operator. I think the more women are exposed to other women working in this industry, the more they will see the opportunity for themselves.”

For herself, Richie told the chamber that she takes full advantage of the four to five months off work she has every year.

“I do a lot of travelling. This winter I was in Las Vegas, then Africa where I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and then I spent several weeks visiting friends in Australia. Last year, my boyfriend and I went to Peru to see Machu Picchu.”

One hurdle to recruiting men or women into the profession, Rogers admits, is first getting them to think about the ships as a job. Often people don’t even realize how critical those freighters crossing the oceans and Great Lakes are to their everyday lives.

“They think this stuff shows up in the stores by airplane,” he says, adding. “People generally don’t see the maritime field as a viable career choice” or may confuse the merchant marine with military service. 

They also likely don’t realize the range of jobs available. Besides the workers on the freighters, such as deckhands and cooks, the Seafarers International Union also recruits for a cruise ship service, including on-board nurses.

“The lack of knowledge that people have about maritime opportunities,” Rogers says, is another of the challenges.

The other unusual workplace reality for maritime unions like the SIU, is that they actually encourage their trainees and their union members who want to advance through the hawsepipe to become officers, which means they ultimately may leave the union.

“We encourage the hawsepiping,” Rogers says. “We preach hawsepipers.”