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Ship Engineers

At a Glance

  • Run propulsion engines, boilers, generators, pumps, and other machinery
  • Supervise and train others
  • Often work alone
  • Work a variety of hours and shifts
  • Are often away from home
  • Most complete a formal training program
  • Need a license

Career summary

Ship engineers operate engines and other equipment on many types of ships.

#No alternate titles

Ship engineers operate and maintain propulsion engines. They also run machinery such as:

A typical deep-sea merchant ship has four engineering officers. These include a chief engineer and a first, second, and third assistant engineer. The size and service of the ship determine the number of the crew for a voyage. Small vessels may have only one engineer or none.

Ship engineers regulate the engines to control the speed of the ship. They keep records of what they do in engineering logs. They note changes in the ship's speed and direction.

Assistant engineers stand periodic watches. They oversee the safe operation of the engines and machinery. They test machinery and equipment to make sure everything is running properly.

Ship engineers inspect and maintain the engines and other equipment. They order spare parts and oil as well as maintain inventories. They clean and repair machinery using hand or power tools. They may direct qualified members of the engine department (QMEDs) to repair or replace defective parts. QMEDs work in the engine spaces below the decks, under the direction of the ship's engineering officers. They may operate pumps and valves.

Engineers often participate in safety drills to practice what to do in an emergency.

Related careers

This career is part of the Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics cluster of careers.

Related careers include:

Military careers

Job duties

Task list

The following list of tasks is specific to ship engineers.

Common work activities

Ship engineers perform the following tasks. These tasks are common to many careers.

Work requirements

Working conditions

In a typical work setting, ship engineers:

Interpersonal relationships

Physical work conditions

Work performance


Physical demands

Ship engineers frequently:

It is important for ship engineers to be able to:

It is not as important, but still necessary, for ship engineers to be able to:

Skills and abilities

Ship engineers need to:


Reason and problem solve

Manage oneself, people, time, and things

Work with people

Work with things

Perceive and visualize

Education and training

Educational programs

The programs of study listed below will help you prepare for the occupation or career cluster you are exploring.

Programs of study directly related to this occupation

Other programs of study to consider


To work as a ship engineer, you typically need to:

Education after high school

Training programs for ship engineers are approved and monitored by the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security. All ship engineers must be licensed by this agency.

You can prepare for this occupation by attending the US Merchant Marine Academy or one of the six state academies. Three academies are located on the East Coast, in Maine, Massachusetts, and New York. The other three are located in Michigan, Texas, and California.

These academies offer a four-year training program that leads to a bachelor's degree. The training at the academies prepares you for the licensing exam. Courses cover topics such as fire fighting, marine engineering, electric circuits, and safety. You also study propulsion, marine refrigeration and air conditioning, and electrical power. Marine engineering programs typically include a training cruise component. After graduating, you may pursue a license as a third assistant engineer.

Work experience

Ship engineers typically have several years of work experience. You can prepare by gaining experience as an ordinary seaman. Local unions provide training. As you gain experience and ratings, you move up the ranks.

On-the-job training

Because of the fast changing demands of technology, you may receive additional training on the job. Employers may provide training or pay for college course work so you can update your technical skills or expand your administrative skills.

Military training

Some branches of the military train people to be ship engineers. You need a bachelor's degree to enter this military occupation. Training lasts three to 12 months, depending on your specialty. Additional training occurs on the job.

Helpful high school courses

You should take a general high school curriculum that meets the state's graduation requirements. You will be required to take both math and science classes to graduate.

Helpful electives to take in high school that prepare you for this career include:

The courses listed above are meant to help you create your high school plan. If you have not already done so, talk to a school counselor or parent about the courses you are considering taking.

You should also check with a teacher or counselor to see if work-based learning opportunities are available in your school and community. These might include field trips, job shadowing, internships, and actual work experience. The goal of these activities is to help you connect your school experiences with real-life work.

Join some groups, try some hobbies, or volunteer with an organization that interests you. By participating in activities you can have fun, make new friends, and learn about yourself. Maybe one of them will help direct you to a future career. Here are examples of activities and groups that may be available in your high school or community.

Things to know

Employers prefer to hire applicants who have technical skills, experience, and an engineering officer's license.

Costs to workers

Costs include all-weather clothing and license fees. Many workers join a union and pay an initiation fee and quarterly dues.


Ship engineers must be licensed by the US Coast Guard. There are different requirements depending on the position and type of craft. To qualify for an engineering officer's license, applicants usually must:

The required number of hours on watercraft depends on the type of license applied for. Those who want to work on ocean vessels must put in more hours than those for lake or river vessels. In addition, more hours are required for work on large boats than on small boats.

Those who have at least three years of sea experience can be licensed if they pass the written exam. It is difficult to pass the exam without training or independent study.

For more information about licensing, contact:

United States Coast Guard
National Maritime Center
Merchant Mariner Licensing & Documentation (external link)

100 Forbes Drive
Martinsburg, WV 25404

#no local phone # on website so removed.  3/30/16 lh. Checked licensing 1/30/17 cj. removed testing ctr info 3/26/18 lh. Need to dig to find licensing info but generally appears to be the same, 3/13/19 cj.

Job listings

Listed below are links to job categories from the National Labor Exchange that relate to this career. Once you get a list of jobs, you can view information about individual jobs and find out how to apply. If your job search finds too many openings, or if you wish to search for jobs outside of Washington, you will need to refine your search.

To get a listing of current jobs from the WorkSource system, go to the WorkSource website (external link).


Ship engineers (SOC 53-5031)

Pay Period
Washington Hourly $23.94 $28.41 $40.07 $51.07 $62.60
Monthly $4,149 $4,923 $6,944 $8,850 $10,849
Yearly $49,800 $59,090 $83,340 $106,220 $130,200
    Bremerton-Silverdale Hourly $24.20 $26.85 $41.54 $49.30 $64.90
Monthly $4,194 $4,653 $7,199 $8,544 $11,247
Yearly $50,349 $55,838 $86,410 $102,540 $135,003
    Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Hourly $25.01 $29.52 $41.55 $52.99 $64.90
Monthly $4,334 $5,116 $7,201 $9,183 $11,247
Yearly $52,032 $61,405 $86,416 $110,221 $135,007
    Vancouver Hourly $13.99 $27.53 $35.85 $46.02 $75.39
Monthly $2,424 $4,771 $6,213 $7,975 $13,065
Yearly $29,103 $57,265 $74,554 $95,716 $156,807
United States Hourly $19.39 $24.78 $34.20 $44.65 $59.46
Monthly $3,360 $4,294 $5,927 $7,738 $10,304
Yearly $40,330 $51,540 $71,130 $92,870 $123,670

Wages vary widely based on the engineer's rank and experience. Wages also vary by destination. Wages are higher for trips across the ocean than for other waters. However, workers may wait months between jobs, which reduces their yearly income.

Many engineers who work full time on American ships receive benefits. These benefits may include health insurance and sick leave. Some employers also provide retirement plans.

Employment and outlook

Washington outlook

The table below provides information about the number of workers in this career in various regions. It also provides information about the expected growth rate and future job openings.

Ship Engineers (SOC 53-5031)

Location Current employment Growth over 10 years Annual openings
Washington 1,088 -0.9% 16.1% 124
    Clallam, Jefferson, and Kitsap Counties 33 6.1% 11.9% 4
    Clark, Cowlitz, and Wahkiakum Counties 21 9.5% 15.2% 3
    Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, and Thurston Counties 10 0.0% 14.1% 1
    King County 1,016 -1.1% 19.6% 115
United States 9,000 -3.3% 5.2% 1,100

National employment

Major employers:

National outlook

Growth in this occupation is declining. Changes in the demand for bulk commodities, such as petroleum products, iron ore, and grains, influences the demand for water transportation workers. When demand slows, so does the need for workers. 

Job openings occur as people retire or leave the occupation for other reasons.

Other resources

Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific (external link)
1711 West Nickerson Street, Suite D
Seattle, WA 98119
International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots (external link)
700 Maritime Boulevard, Suite B
Linthicum Heights, MD 21090
Military SeaLift Command (external link)
CIVMAR Support Center
6353 Center Drive, Building 8, Suite 202
Norfolk, VA 23502
Profiles in Ocean Careers (external link)
Sailors' Union of the Pacific (external link)
4005 20th Ave. West, Ste 115
Seattle, WA 98199
Seafarers International Union (external link)
Transportation Institute (external link)
5201 Auth Way
Camp Springs, MD 20746


Career cluster

Career path

O*Net (external link) occupation

O*Net job zone (external link)

DOT occupation

Holland occupational cluster