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Sailor Job Description, Career as a Sailor, Salary, Employment

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

Education and Training None

Salary Median—$14 per hour

Employment Outlook Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Sailors work on freighters, tankers, and passenger ships and are responsible for repairing, stowing, and preparing most deck equipment, such as cargo-handling gear. During docking or departing, sailors handle ships' mooring lines. At sea, they stand watch and steer the ship following instructions from the officer on watch. Sailors must be qualified to take charge of lifeboat crews and be familiar with fire safety and fire-fighting regulations. Many also have trades, such as welding or carpentry, that they use to help maintain the ships. Experienced sailors are usually called able seamen on oceangoing vessels or deck-hands on boats that navigate inland waters.

Sailors with less experience, also known as ordinary seamen, perform routine maintenance work. They scrub deck areas and clean crew quarters, coil and splice lines and cables, and operate winches. Ordinary seamen may also take over able seamen's steering and lookout duties.

Education and Training Requirements

Employers have no specific educational requirements. However, certification as able seamen requires the ability to handle all gear and equipment, knowledge of all parts of ships, and the ability to tie common knots. Ordinary seamen learn and practice these skills for one year before they can apply for advancement to able seamen.

Although most sailors learn through on-the-job training, previous sea experience, such as service in the U.S. Coast Guard or the U.S. Navy, can be helpful. Many schools offer training for employment in the merchant marine. Federal and state marine academies are highly selective and are designed to train future officers. More appropriate for ordinary seamen are the schools run by labor unions; however, these schools accept only a limited number of young people without sea experience. The training they provide is not necessary to begin careers as able or ordinary seamen.

Getting the Job

In addition to health certificates, sailors must have government certificates known as merchant mariner's documents or seamen's papers. The certificates are obtained by furnishing the Coast Guard with proof of U.S. citizenship, three passport photographs, and either recommendations from recognized maritime training schools or written job commitments from shipping companies or unions. Most sailors get their first jobs by registering at union hiring halls, which are located in major ports.

Seamen's papers do not guarantee jobs, however. After registering at hiring halls, sailors must be present when job openings become available. The jobs go to the most highly qualified sailors with the greatest seniority.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

After at least one year as ordinary seamen, sailors may apply for limited endorsement as able seamen. When they pass the appropriate Coast Guard examinations, sailors who are nineteen years of age or older can receive full endorsement. With endorsement and after years of experience, able seamen can advance to positions as boatswains, who are in charge of deck crews. To become boatswains, able seamen must also show the ability to supervise other seamen.

Employment for sailors is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. Although the number of U.S. ships is expected to increase slightly, newer ships are highly automated and require fewer sailors. Job openings may occur when experienced seamen retire or leave the field. Competition is likely to be stiff, with many experienced sailors vying for few job openings.

Working Conditions

While at sea, most sailors stand watch for four hours and then have eight hours off, seven days per week. Some sailors are day workers at sea, which means that they work eight hours per day, Monday through Friday. While in port, all sailors have forty-hour workweeks.

Despite safety regulations, sailors' work is hazardous. They are exposed to all kinds of weather and risk falls, fire, collisions, and sinkings.

Accommodations on ships are often cramped, and older ships offer little privacy. Mess halls provide opportunities for recreation. Sailors are usually away from home for long periods.

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings vary, depending on the type of vessel and experience. In 2004 the median wage for all sailors working on typical freighters was $14 per hour. Captains, pilots, and mates earned a median wage of $24.20 per hour. Experienced captains earned more than $35 per hour. Overtime and other premium wages usually equal fifty percent of base weekly wages. Sailors' duties are often seasonal; they often go for long periods without work and pay.

Where to Go for More Information

American Maritime Officers Union
2 W. Dixie Hwy.
Dania Beach, FL 33004
(800) 362-0513

Seafarers International Union of North America
5201 Auth Way
Camp Springs, MD 20746-4275
(301) 899-0675

Benefits include room and board, comprehensive medical care, and hospitalization insurance. Sailors usually receive five to fifteen vacation days for every thirty days of employment. Pensions are available through unions.

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