Whether you’re just breaking into the commercial maritime industry, an experienced sailor looking to take that next big step to advance your career, or even a long-haul seasoned veteran at the top, looking for a change to improve salary, quality of life or gain new experience in a particular operation, I believe I have some helpful tips and insight as to the general marine workforce trends and demands both currently, and into the future.
My hope is that I can shed some insight to various options that could help mariners reach their full potential while getting the most satisfaction they can out their chosen career in the maritime trade.
It is no secret that while the world’s global shipping sector is a huge landscape, the maritime industry is in fact quite small. Your reputation will follow you: guard it as if your life depends on it. Your attitude, interpersonal skills, and detailed work history can be uncovered in a few keystrokes in this high-speed information age we currently reside in. I would go as far to say that employers are weighing this metric quite heavily in the recruiting process, right behind License and Credentials, Experience, and professional references.
The bottom line is, I advise anyone to always remain professional, levelheaded, and don’t “burn any bridges” no matter how daunting the situation at hand becomes. This is mainly geared toward the green horns (inexperienced people) I encounter. Most mariners who are years into their career have already abided by this unspoken rule, hence why they have been employed long term and been able to maintain, advance, or move on to other sectors and companies. But for some people, especially those fresh out of school, a job on a vessel is their first experience into the workforce and they can lose sight of the big picture and don’t quantify the ramifications that can follow an incident they might be involved in.
In short, proper etiquette on the high seas is important, and in some cases different from the normal shore-based societal norm.
Now, let’s move on to credentialing. Obviously, this is what makes you employable. Much has changed over the past 20 years in relation to credentialing, and I imagine it will always continue to evolve. STCW, TWIC, MED Certs, Subchapter-M, etc. So, what can mariners do to help themselves?
Well firstly, staying informed is key. Contact the USCG NMC (National Maritime Center) via phone or email with questions. Many of the accredited USCG-approved schools can also be helpful in not only educating on the requirements for licensing, but also in providing an expedited path and overview of what you will need to accomplish to get where you want to be.
Explain your individual situation, what you are trying to achieve and listen carefully. Apply for exactly what you are wishing to have endorsed on your MMC (merchant mariner credential). If you don’t qualify, they will send you written instructions as to why, and what you will need to complete in order to qualify. This can be a huge help and quite a relief at the same time. Once you have a clear directive, especially from the regulating body, it makes reaching that goal much easier.
I have seen so many mariners afraid to apply for a rating or license they might qualify for, simply in fear of rejection. As if the rejection is a permanent ruling of some sort. In return, the mariner gives up on that path, becoming eternally discouraged. Use that rejection letter as a check off list, complete the tasks and reapply. You’ll be glad you did.
The application process can be an overwhelming experience, but it is the only way to increase scope and forge ahead. Don’t let it detour you from obtaining your desired position. Another important piece of advice to consider, is to treat all your credentials and required documents like gold. That little red book is the foundation of your livelihood and career. Without valid documents, your options to work offshore on a commercial vessel are very limited these days.
Check expiration dates frequently on TWIC, MMC, MED CERT (STCW / NATIONAL). Start the renewal process for all the previously listed items as early as practically possible as to give yourself a window if you happen to encounter any hang ups in the process or additional documentation is required to be submitted to the evaluator.
I have never seen so many mariners as I have in 2020-2021 stuck on the beach due to expired credentials, waiting for issuance. Sadly many of whom, if would have started the application process just a few weeks sooner, would have not been out of work, losing wages for months.
Demand for qualified mariners is higher than I have personally seen at any point in my career. The pandemic, an aging workforce and a host of other issues have made finding crew difficult. However, this can offer a huge advantage for some if you’re just starting out especially.
One of the many questions I get asked is, “how do I apply,” or “where do I go” to get hired for these “shipping jobs.” Depending on what type of vessel, schedule, nature of work and location you wish to engage in, applying online through various company websites, and or registering with various maritime union halls for work opportunity, are amongst the most common and effective routes to gain solid employment that offer competitive wages and benefits.
As of late, engineers have been the toughest billets to fill for quite some time. If you are a mariner who is on the fence about which department to pursue, maybe this can help in your decision-making process. QMED (Qualified Member of the Engineering Department), all the way through Chief Engineer is highly sought after currently, and I foresee that trend continuing until there is a deep pool of qualified labor in reserve. But in the end, choose the department that suits your personal desires, skills and interest best.
In closing, much of what I just shared is a very basic and broad overview of just a few various topics. I hope to divulge each month into a deeper and more detailed account of the commercial maritime industry as it relates to its workforce and personnel development. Trends, tips, tricks of the trade, state of current affairs and how it relates to the everyday working U.S. merchant mariner are what I’ll be elaborating on, and I hope at the end of the day, all readers, especially those new to the industry will be able to pull some real world value from this column.
Capt. Michael Anderson Jr.
Capt. Michael Anderson Jr. currently serves as the Regional Director of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, Hawai’i Region. He has worked in the commercial towing industry most of his career both domestically and abroad, most recently sailing as a captain on harbor tugs performing ship assist duties. He also holds both Deck and Engine license/ratings. He resides in Honolulu, Hawaii with his wife Julia.