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Shipbuilding Industry Job Descriptions, Careers in the Shipbuilding Industry, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

The shipbuilding industry builds different kinds of ships for transporting goods and people and for use in the U.S. armed forces. It builds tankers, container ships, icebreakers, submarines, barges, and tugboats. It also constructs aircraft carriers, yachts, and many other kinds of ships and boats. Besides building ships, shipbuilders outfit ships and repair them. There are about twenty-four major shipyards in the United States. Most of the larger yards are located along the East, West, and Gulf coasts and on the Great Lakes. Many of the smaller shipyards that construct and repair barges, tugboats, and towboats are located on inland waterways. As of 2004 there were 144,000 workers employed in shipbuilding and repairing.

Ships are complex structures. They are the largest self-sufficient and mobile structures that are built. Many kinds of workers are employed in the shipbuilding industry. Professional workers include many kinds of engineers, designers, and technicians. Nautical architects provide the design for a ship's hull. They draw up plans for a safe ship that will move easily and economically through the water. They also plan space for cargo, living quarters, and machinery. A related group of workers, marine engineers, concentrates on designing the machinery that will run a ship. Drafters prepare detailed drawings that give exact measurements and specifications for all the ship's parts.

Once the plans have been drawn up, they must be translated into the actual parts of the ship. In some smaller shipyards, loft workers make life-sized patterns of each part of the ship to be built. They work in a huge room known as a loft. In most large shipyards, a more modern method called optical marking is used instead of lofting. In optical marking, small-scale drawings of the ship are photographed. The negatives are then projected onto steel plates in a life-sized pattern. Special automatic equipment is used to cut and burn the metal into the required shape and size. Most metal parts of a ship are made in the various shops at the shipyard. Welders join the metal parts into sections that are ready to be used in the hull of the ship.

Construction supervisors oversee much of the work involved in assembling a ship. Most workers involved in putting the ship together are skilled craft workers. The hull is assembled on a ramp, known as the ways, which is built by shipwrights, or ships' carpenters. The ways is a platform that slopes down to the edge of the water. The keel, or backbone, of the ship is laid on the ways. Crane

Workers in the shipbuilding industry not only build ships but also outfit them and repair them. In fact, most skilled craft workers in the industry are specialists in their particular trade. (© Kevin Fleming/Corbis.)

operators and riggers lift huge plates and sections into place to form the hull, which is built up and out from the keel of the ship. The sections are then fastened together temporarily. Shipfitters then check to see that each section has been put in its place correctly.

Shipfitters are one of the largest groups of workers in the shipbuilding industry. They also make patterns or molds for parts right on board the ship. Welders and other metalworkers do the final fastening of all the parts. Welding is important in shipbuilding because most ships are joined together by welding rather than by riveting. Seams and joints are made watertight by caulkers. In addition, tool and die makers, patternmakers, coremakers, pipe fitters, and boilermakers are among the many skilled workers in the shipbuilding industry.

When the structure of a ship is completed, the ship is ready to be launched. Its supports are released, and it slides down the ways into the water. The ship is then moored at an outfitting pier, where it is finished. Some large shipyards have their own shops that make the heavy machinery needed to propel and steer the ship and to provide it with internal power. In most cases, this machinery is acquired from other companies and is installed by outside machinists. These skilled workers install propelling machinery, steering gear, boilers, and other machinery. They use measuring instruments to ensure that the parts fit together correctly.

Carpenters, electricians, electronics technicians, painters, and sheet metal workers help to outfit the ship. They build kitchens, bunks, and closets and install lights, heating systems, radar equipment, and many other items. Once the ship is outfitted, it is ready to sail.

Education and Training Requirements

The education and training needed in the shipbuilding industry depends on the kind of job you want. However, a high school education and a minimum of one year's experience as an apprentice or helper are necessary for a career in skilled shipbuilding trades. Most skilled jobs require a minimum of four years' experience as an apprentice. Apprenticeship programs combine classroom instruction with on-the-job training. Most workers in the shipbuilding industry belong to unions. Both unions and employers cooperate in running apprenticeship programs.

For a professional career as a naval architect or marine engineer, interested candidates should enroll in one of the special colleges that offer a bachelor's degree in such fields. After graduation, many naval architects and marine engineers get a master's degree in their field or in business administration.

Getting the Job

The best way to get a job as a shipbuilder is to apply directly to shipyards. Local unions can give you information about getting into an apprenticeship program. Sometimes employers place want ads in newspapers or list openings with the state employment office. If you study naval architecture or marine engineering, your college can give you advice about getting a job. You may need to apply through a civil service office for a government job in shipbuilding.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Most skilled craft workers in the shipbuilding industry are specialists in their particular trade. They usually advance within their trade and get regular pay raises as they gain seniority. With enough experience, they can advance to a job as supervisor of other workers. Professional workers in the shipbuilding industry can also advance with experience. They can become the head of a project or move into an executive position in a shipbuilding company.

The job outlook in the shipbuilding industry is dependent on the level of funding for new ships commissioned by the federal government. Naval construction is projected to increase through 2014, even though jobs in the sector are expected to decline. The repair segment of the industry is anticipated to provide a stable source of employment. As the outlook improves, there should be an increased need for specialized workers, especially naval architects and marine engineers, to meet the demands for creative innovations in ship design for shipping and defense needs.

Working Conditions

Working conditions vary with the job. Professional and technical workers spend much of their time in offices. Most other workers spend their time in shipyards. Shipyard work is often noisy and dirty. Much of the work is done outdoors in all kinds of weather. Shipbuilders may have to climb high when constructing or repairing ships. There is some danger in this kind of work, but there are safety rules that decrease the chance of accidents. Shipbuilders need good health and physical strength. They usually work with heavy machinery. They need to be accurate in following blueprints and other specifications. The safety and seaworthiness of each ship depends on the skills of welders, shipfitters, and other craft workers. The basic workweek is thirty-five to forty hours, but overtime is often necessary when deadlines must be met.

Where to Go for More Information

American Society of Naval Engineers
1452 Duke St.
Alexandria, VA 22314-3458
(703) 836-6727

International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Blacksmiths, Forgers, and Helpers
753 State Ave., Ste. 570
Kansas City, KS 66101
(913) 371-2640

Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers
601 Pavonia Ave.
Jersey City, NJ 07306
(800) 798-2188

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings vary widely depending on the kind of work done. Those who work in dangerous, cramped, wet, or oily places often receive a higher rate, as do workers with special skills such as tool and die makers and crane operators. Salaries of professional workers generally reflect the level of experience they have within their respective field. Benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production