Future of Deck Officers 2019 and Beyond

Hi Everyone,

I will be an incoming Fall 2019 at SUNY Maritime for the INTERNATIONAL TRANSPORTATION MANAGEMENT Masters Program w/ Third Mate unlimited license.

My dream would be to sail seas for at least 10 ten years (Full saving mode to invest in real estate) while rising through the ranks ultimately to find a onshore job and settle down.

With talks of automation looming around the corner, I feel like my dream is at risk. Realistically, how many years would I be able to sail before my job becomes obsolete? What are my choices onshore when it happens?

Those who have been sailing for years, how have the current technological advances in the industry changed your job outlook?

I am genuinely concerned… So please, constructive responses only.

Thank you in advance.

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Is automated shipping coming in the future? Likely yes.

Will it take over all sectors of the maritime industry in the next 10 years? Doubtful.

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Speaking from a worldwide point of view; automation is already here and growing in scope, but mainly to help mariners, not replace them. Autonomous or unmanned oceangoing ships are still some distance away and not likely to affect job prospect for mariners for several decades:

PS> For US mariners on US flag ships there are a lot of other reasons to worry. A shrinking fleet the main reason.


Deck officers have been in an over supply condition for decades especially in the US…you are a fool to even consider spending money and time to become one. The only future is in engineering but what do I know after suffering 40years of watching the US industry shrink into almost nothingness and academies in this country continue cranking out 3rd mates at a never declining pace.


Actually, I think the number of engineering grads has increased and the number of deck grads has decreased significantly at the academies. I wish someone would write an article with all the figures.

Training to be an American deep sea deck officer today is like training to be a buggy whip maker. The number of US flag ships in foreign trade is heading toward zero.

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Water Transportation Workers

Job Outlook

Overall employment of water transportation workers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Initiatives to expand the use of water transportation and federal laws and subsidies to ensure that there always will be a fleet of merchant ships with U.S. flags for national defense should increase the need for these workers.

When I got my license a lot of people told me there were very few jobs out there. But how many do you need? Just one.


I was just saying the same thing to someone else a week or so ago. I don’t see how the industry is going to keep up with the untenable rates at which academies are pumping out fresh, new, licensed mariners. There have been more mariners than jobs for years but it’s worse now than it’s ever been. Between all the academies and a few hawse-pipers there’s probably around 1000-2000 new licensed officers (deck and engine combined) every year. How is that even remotely practical?


it isn’t in any way but at least newly licensed engineers with an engineering degree can pursue opportunities that deck officers with non technical degrees can’t. Simply put, the vast majority of shoreside jobs in the maritime industry are only open to engineers. Class societies don’t hire deck officers. Just about every superintendent’s position within a ship operating company is open only to those who have sailed as an engineer. Need I go on?


It isn’t really that bad. MARAD is supposed to track numbers of graduates and licensing rates for those graduates, but in true MARAD fashion, the last data they have posted is from 2012.

CALIFORNIA 164 107 57 83 12 9 40 7 13 107 0 5 83 4 5 7 0 8
MAINE 182 125 57 92 20 7 40 12 11 96 29 12 92 7 5 2 6 15
MICHIGAN 21 21 0 20 0 0 1 0 0 21 0 3 20 0 0 1 0 0
MASS 252 122 130 44 8 9 80 9 102 122 0 12 44 8 6 3 5 56
TEXAS 276 55 221 53 0 2 6 10 205 55 0 2 46 0 1 0 0 8
SUNY 266 144 122 70 22 29 22 11 112 136 8 4 68 6 15 9 3 43
TOTAL 1161 574 587 362 62 56 189 49 443 537 37 38 353 25 32 22 14 130

This shows that only 574 graduate with licenses. Then you have to add in the graduating class of USMMA, which was 187 in 2018 (100% with licenses). So, ~761 new licenses each year from the academies (both deck and engineering). The data also shows that of the state academies, only 362 took afloat jobs.

This still doesn’t bode well for our merchant marine given the lack of deepwater US flagged ships, but if they are willing, there is certainly room on domestic vessels for those new officers.

Jones Act supporters should keep in mind that the only way to build up more ships flying the US flag will be to amend the act to allow foreign-built ships. There is no possibility of operators expanding their fleets given the premium that US-built ships cost.

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Deep sea is hurting, no question, but…there are other segments that need people. It is probably overkill to spend the money and time at an academy (and not terribly relevant on the deck side) if you want to learn to run western rivers on a towboat. Also, the Lakes, while not what they were, are doing well. There is a shortage of mates with pilotage now and it seems the near term will see the trend continue.

Duluth and Clevelend are hardly “exotic” in the traditional sense but you won’t have time to run up the street much, anyhow. You can get 180-160 days/year and still be north of 100k if you are willing to work. The catch is getting your pilotage endorsement if you come from outside the Lakes.

Anyhow…there are other segments besides deep sea but there are no guarantees regardless of where you sail. Ask any of us who experienced the crash of oil in '15-'16…hop off a pony when it gets tired and toss your saddle on the next one that ambles by, it is the only way to keep working in this business. (My $0.02, for what it is worth)


How do guys coming from outside get Lakes pilotage?

With only 60 foreign trade ships over 1600grt, and about 60 Jones Act ships (not counting OSVs), totaling about 120 ships, over 700 new academy grads per year is a helluva lot.

If you figure that 120 ships each have 4 jobs for 3rd mates, that’s only 480 jobs.

No breakdown given between deck and engine grads. I hear it’s about 25% deck and 75% engineers at some schools.

The Jones Act does not prevent the buying or building of foreign ships and flagging them US for the deep sea trade bMany US flag vessels are foreign built.

The Jones Act merely prevents the carrying of US domestic cargo between US ports on ships that were foreign built. Every ship owner in the Jones Act trade is on a level playing field. New ships are frequently built and added to the Jones Act fleet (mostly to replace older ships). In the Jones Act trade ships must also compete with tugs and barges, rail, and trucks.

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a) Ship with a company that hires “open waters” mates and get your river trips under instruction (you’ll generally be solo on the open lake other than the Straits or SE Shoal)
b) Sail as an AB and get your trips as a watchstanding AB

You need 12 round trips on each river, I believe 1/2 at night, and 12 Lake trips before you can write each body.

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Soon graduating as a deck officer from a maritime school will be ridiculed as the equivalent of the liberal basket weaving majors and liberal arts majors. Engineers aren’t far behind, They are running out of jobs that pay a decent salary. Wages have digressed, severely

Also consider that it takes 2-3 calendar years to obtain the sea service to go to 2nd Mate. So increase that number of graduates by at least two times to get a better picture of the surplus.


I have had little trouble finding work ashore, even maritime/offshore related employ. It is good to be an engineer. . …


Maybe try your luck in the booming Offshore Wind Farm industry in the Asia Pacific?:

574 grads with license of those 424 with maritime jobs either afloat or ashore. Doesn’t break down Eng or Deck but that compares favorably with other fields.

Quick google search says 40% of grads overall not working in a job the required a degree.

I don’t know how you are defining “many.” In my view, there aren’t “many” ocean-going commercial U.S. flag ships left (foreign or US built). I believe the number was 81 that are internationally sailing. So there isn’t much hope that the Jones Act will ever revive the deepsea fleet. But if we fixed it, the Jones Act might be able to help bring back coastal shipping opportunities and fleets.

According to MARAD, U.S.-built ships cost six to eight times more to build than the equivalent cargo capacity provided by rail and barge equipment. The comparatively high cost is related to the absence of foreign competition in shipbuilding and the lack of economies of scale at U.S. shipyards.

Started at SUNY Maritime in 1986 and ever since then, I’ve been warned of the demise of the U.S. merchant marine. That having been said, I have worked in many different parts of the U.S. maritime industry and haven’t been without work. Words of advice -

  1. Diversify. The more certifications and licenses you have, the more jobs you can get. Once you stop learning and progressing, you’re going to be left behind.

  2. Always have a Plan B. What you are doing today is Plan A, but what if that job goes away? What if U.S. flag deep-sea shipping does finally disappear? I’ve had my job evaporate almost overnight twice - and I always knew what the next plan was going to be. Stress free? Heck, no, but there was a direction in which to move.

  3. If you want to work, you’ll find work. It might not be the newest ship or best paying contract, but you’ll be gaining experience.

  4. Consider what a job will get you besides the paycheck. Does it give you an additional certification or training? Are there opportunities for networking, which will help you down the road? Is it allowing you to become familiar with a different geographic area, type of cargo or vessel?

Getting out of school with a master’s degree will give you a leg up if/when you decide to move ashore. While we are relatively U.S.-centric, keep in mind that there’s a big world out there. There are Mass maritime grads working at the Nautical Institute in London. The port captain in Lae, Papua New Guinea used to be a Domer. Don’t limit yourself.

Good luck!