Wanted: Ship Engineers

An instructor introduces prospective marine engineers to the workings of a diesel engine.
An instructor introduces prospective marine engineers to the workings of a diesel engine.
An instructor introduces prospective marine
engineers to the workings of a diesel engine.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, marine engineers “supervise and coordinate activities of crew engaged in operating and maintaining engines, boilers, deck machinery, and electrical, sanitary, and refrigeration equipment aboard ship.” 

The government agency estimates that in 2022 there were more than 8,600 individuals so employed in the U.S. with a mean annual wage of just over $100,000.

However, as impressive as those employment and salary numbers are, “There is a huge need for qualified marine engineers, according to Craig Rising, a spokesperson for New York-headquartered McAllister Towing, which operates a fleet of more than 75 tugboats, crew boats, and barges in 17 locations along the U.S. East Coast from Portland, Me. to San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

Rich Evans, McAllister’s corporate recruiter, agrees. Candidates possessing the skills needed to serve as a marine engineer can be challenging to find, he said. 

“Industry-wide engineering shortages have continued for the last two years and wage disparities between companies also complicate challenges with finding qualified candidates,”  

Some of the situation revolves around the so-called ‘age wave’ phenomenon hitting many professions, namely the aging of the large ‘Baby Boomer ‘generation, with a growing number of those with professional licenses retiring or within striking distance of retirement, he notes.

Those observations are echoed by Eduardo Escobedo, senior port engineer at McAllister in New York. “After the pandemic, finding experienced, senior prospects has been difficult because all maritime companies have been holding on to the top employees making sure that they do not lose them,” he observed.  

As a result, McAllister has instituted several incentive programs such as sign -on bonuses, additional travel pay, and a reference bonus, in an all-out effort to attract and keep talented people, Escobedo said. 

Another factor is that it is often challenging to retain mariners at the lower licensed levels, who might aspire to become licensed marine engineers, or leave the field, according to Kathy J. Metcalf, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Chamber of Shipping of America.

The 27-corporate member organization represents U.S. based companies that own, operate or charter oceangoing tank, container, dry bulk vessels, roll-on/roll-off or special purpose vessels engaged in both the domestic and international trades, and companies that maintain a commercial interest in the operation of such oceangoing vessels.

“They [lower level licensed engineers] stop sailing before they ever elevate to the higher levels,” she explains – a situation choking off the pipeline of experienced, qualified professional engineers.

The complexity of today’s propulsion systems demands that marine engineers are highly trained and qualified in their craft.
The complexity of today’s propulsion systems demands that marine engineers are highly trained and qualified in their craft.

What is the ‘right stuff’ ?
Another vexing issue is the chronic difficult in today’s environment to find the right person with the right skills, capabilities, or training to fill open positions in the engine room – a reality that further increases the strain on employers to fill depleted ranks. 

The question then is: Just what is the ‘right stuff’? 

‘Our engineers should possess a combination of technical expertise, problem-solving abilities, safety consciousness,’ relevant certifications and licenses, as well as being able to get along with all types of people from different parts of the world,” says McAllister’s Escobedo. 

“Depending if it’s a harbor tug or an offshore tug, we look for additional experience that will be relevant to a specific vessel or job,” he said, adding that, “marine engineers undergo specialized training tailored to their individual backgrounds and skill levels.”

At McAllister, he said, “Our engineers receive comprehensive instruction through training programs like those offered by Caterpiller, Electro-Motive Diesel, and Schottel. 

“The courses cover a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from fundamental engine principles to advanced techniques such as complete engine/electronic overhauls and repair.

McAllister’s approach, he said, “ensures that engineers receive the necessary education and hands-on experience to excel in their roles.” 

So, an ideal candidate has the commensurate engineering experience and a valid U.S. Coast Guard license. 

A designated Duty Engineer’s DDE 4000, and a Third, Second, First, or Chiefs (Unlimited) ‘ticket’ are all “desired engineering licenses,” according to the company’s employment requirements.

Those licenses can be acquired in, basically, two ways, according to Metcalf.  

The first is completion of the curriculum at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, or one of the one of the nation’s state-run maritime colleges. 

Upon graduation and after successfully sitting for the USCG’s 3rd Assistant Engineer license exam, diplomas and licenses which qualify individuals to sail are issued, Metcalf explains. 

The second, she said, is coming up “through the hawsepipe” where the individual starts at the lowest engine room rating, sails for one year at that rating which allows them to sit for the next rating and so on.  

Once the individual has a certificate to sail at the highest unlicensed engine room rating after one year, they can sit for their 3rd Assistant Engineer license exam and, if successful, receive a 3rd Assistant Engineer license that allows him to sail at that level, she continued.

And where do employers find job candidates with these badly-needed attributes?  

“Generally, shipping companies looking for onboard marine engineers participate in career day events at all the maritime schools and that is where most of their new engineers are hired,” but, obviously, she adds, “the basic minimum is that they successfully pass their 3rd Assistant Engineer license exam and receive the license, which is required for them to sail at that level.”

Marine technology students learning the basics of engine maintenance.
Marine technology students learning the basics of engine maintenance.

USCG requirements outlined
Whatever path a marine engineer takes, the proper endorsements need to be secured before one can advance. 

A detailed description of requirements comes from Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer 2 Melissa Leake in the Office of Public Affairs at USCG Headquarters in Washington D.C.  

According to Leake, the Code of Federal Regulations contains the professional requirements for Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) officer endorsements.

The requirements address age, experience, character, medical, citizenship, service, training and competence requirements, and include the completion of a drug test. 

However the requirements for an engineering officer endorsement include documentation regarding the propulsion mode and the horsepower rating of the plant aboard the vessel where applicants obtained their qualifying service, as well as the vessel’s tonnage and trade locale. 

“When an applicant provides all the required information for an officer endorsement, they will be approved to complete the examination for that particular endorsement,” said Leake.  

In total, there are 17 different National Engineer Officer Endorsements, 15 of which require an applicant to successfully complete an examination consisting of multiple modules of 70 questions each with a passing score of at least 70 percent, said Leake. 

Ultimately, “such endorsements are issued as Chief Engineer, Assistant Engineer, and Designated Duty Engineer specific to vessel propulsion power, tonnage, and trade.”