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Merchant Marine Steward and Cook Job Description, Career as a Merchant Marine Steward and Cook, Salary, Employment

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

Education and Training Varies—see profile

Salary Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Stewards and cooks see to the daily needs of passengers and crew aboard ship. They prepare and serve meals and maintain living quarters. All freighters, tankers, and passenger ships employ stewards.

Chief stewards supervise the preparation of food. They are also responsible for the maintenance of ships' living quarters and mess halls, keeping careful records of the use of food, linens, and furniture. On passenger ships chief stewards are in charge of the comfort of the passengers.

Chief cooks supervise the other kitchen employees. They plan menus in cooperation with chief stewards, issue supplies, and butcher and cut meat. They often cook the most demanding meals on the menu, and delegate other responsibilities to second cooks and bakers. In addition, they supervise the cleaning and maintenance of kitchens.

Second cooks support chief cooks in the preparation of food and maintenance of kitchen safety and cleanliness. Third cooks generally assist their superiors. Bakers are in charge of making desserts. Utility hands carry supplies, prepare vegetables, and wash and scour utensils. Mess attendants set tables, serve food, clean tables, and wash dishes. They also maintain the living quarters aboard ship.

Education and Training Requirements

The job has no formal educational requirements, although workers must have seaman's papers, which are issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. To receive these papers, workers must either participate in training programs or have promises of jobs from companies or unions. However, both companies and unions now promise jobs only in exceptional cases.

Several different kinds of schools provide training. Both the Seafarers International Union and the National Maritime Union sponsor schools for qualified candidates. The New York City school system offers maritime training at the Food and Maritime Trade High School. Some states have their own maritime academies. Workers are also trained at the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Besides classroom training, any experience in the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Navy is useful, as is experience as a cook.

Getting the Job

Job seekers must first obtain seaman's papers from the Coast Guard and health certificates from the U.S. Public Health Service. Because very few companies or unions promise jobs, most new workers get their first jobs by registering at union or government hiring halls. The government hiring halls are run by the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command. These halls are located in major ports throughout the country.

Job openings go first to registered workers who have the most seniority and who have been out of work the longest. To get jobs workers must be present at the hiring halls when the openings occur.

Because seaman's papers do not guarantee continuing employment, all workers go to hiring halls between jobs. The waiting period may be only one week for those with seniority; new workers usually have to wait much longer.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Workers advance only on the recommendation of chief stewards to ship captains. New workers generally start as mess attendants or utility hands. With strong recommendations, mess attendants or utility hands can go on to such jobs as third cook, cook/baker, chief cook, and finally chief steward. The U.S. Coast Guard issues documents for each rank. The only requirement is age: third cooks must be at least nineteen years old; chief cooks and chief stewards must be at least twenty-one years old.

Job prospects are unfavorable. Most new ships are built to replace older ships, and the new vessels require fewer workers. Openings occur as workers retire or leave the field. However, there will be stiff competition for those jobs. Most openings will be filled by experienced workers who are unemployed.

Working Conditions

Living quarters on ships are clean and adequate. Like all merchant marine workers, cooks and stewards are away from home for long periods. Work aboard ships can be hazardous because of the constant risk of fire, falls, collisions, and sinking. Workers may be exposed to harsh weather while at sea.

The monthly pay of stewards and cooks is based on a forty-hour workweek. However, overtime work and other variations in hours occur regularly. Workers receive extra pay for this work.

Earnings and Benefits

Because of federal laws and the efforts of a strong union, employees of the U.S. merchant marine are among the highest-paid seamen in the world. In 2004 the median wage of chief stewards was $14.86 per hour; of chief cooks, $4,618 per month, including overtime pay; and of mess attendants and utility hands, $3,199 per month, including overtime. Over-time work increases most salaries by fifty percent. However, because employees of the merchant marine must often wait between jobs, their yearly income tends to be lower than the monthly figures would indicate.

Where to Go for More Information

Maritime Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
400 Seventh St. SW
Washington, DC 20509
(800) 996-2723

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

Benefits include room and board, medical care, hospitalization insurance, pensions, and five to fifteen hours of paid vacation for each thirty days of employment.

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