Questions from a 3rd engineer student

Hello there, I’ve found some useful content pertaining to what being a 3rd engineer is like through my local MEBA branch, but I still had a few questions if you guys don’t mind? Just graduated high school and I’m heading out to CMA next month!

  1. (to mariners in general) How do you manage housing?

I plan to work deep sea as that’s where I hear the moneys at, and the way I’ve been told, you work on shifts ranging from 2 weeks on/off to 6 months on/off. Do you make a special effort to live in low/no income tax states since you don’t spend much time there anyways, is it normal to rent your house out during your shift away? Also, how do you in your own way, exploit the fact you don’t have to even consider a job market in thinking where to live? I’m hoping to live in a scenic rural community.

  1. (to engineers) What do you consider the best union to join?

CMA students I’ve talked to seem to prefer MEBA and the branch agent I met in LA was an awesome guy as well.

  1. (to cma alumni) Do you have any pieces of wisdom you wish you knew when starting out at CMA?

I know very little about the marine engineering field but I heard there were some sort of extra licenses or accreditation that could prove useful out in the working world? Does a high GPA count for much after graduating? What about Vallejo? I heard Vallejo is really ghetto and there’s not much to do but on the bright side it would serve as less of a distraction against general studying and homework.

  1. (to mariners in general) Why are there such large discrepancies on salary data?

Most people I’ve talked to say that 3rd mates or 3rd engineers can make 100k after graduating, but the CMA figures I believe show an average salary in the mid 70k range. Is this due to people going for lower wage non-union jobs? Why would they go for them when they can make more?

Thank you so much

When I sailed, I first used my folks house for a base, but largely to have a place to collect my mail. Later, I moved thousands of miles away. Had an apartment and didn’t pay state income tax as my paycheck was from another state. Was home for a few days every three weeks or so, and was able to keep up with the bills at first. I changed companies and had longer times at sea. I was lucky in that I had a very good FWB that I trusted (and still do to this day) implicitly. I set up a joint account and she kept the bills paid and stopped by the apartment enough to keep it clean. Not a recommended relationship generally, but it worked for us because we were not really emotionally involved with each other. After getting caught for not paying any state income tax, I moved further east to an income tax free state. Most of our voyages were coastwise domestic, so I was able to keep track of my bills, plus our routing, for the most part, put us in port where I lived about once a month or so. It also made a difference that the company I worked for (now long gone) paid to fly us to and from our home to wherever crew change took place. I didn’t buy a house until I came ashore (after being married for a year, but that is another story - and not to the aforementioned FWB).

Keep your options open. Of course shipping is different now from what it was when I sailed. One thing for sure, since you are just getting into an Academy, the industry will most likely be different from what it is now. I was a MEBA member, SIU member and also worked non-union. Not really the best plan, but hell, I had a lot of fun and sailed on a very wide variety of vessels.

I am NOT a CMA alumni, although I am a native Californian. I can say that any of the academies will offer a good education in marine engineering if you pay attention. I also knew absolutely nothing about marine engineering when I got out of high school, but certainly felt pretty capable by the time I got on my first ship a year later as a cadet. Eyes and ears open and mouth shut is probably the best advise I ever got and could ever give. Not that I always took it, mind you. As far as different licenses, etc., you will certainly be told your options at school. What is available now will probably change, too. As far as Vallejo being a ghetto. . .well, there are these things called cars that can get you out of there. Again, while we all want to party our asses off at school, keeping ones nose in a book every once and awhile isn’t bad. Not like I took that advice when I was at school with the distractions of Long Island and NYC nearby. . .

Different companies, different vessels, routes, duties, etc. My first berth out of school, via the MEBA was on an SL-7, at the time one of the highest paying vessel for engineers (based on horsepower and displacement, if I recall). Even as a 3AE, I made a ton of money. Things changed in 81 and companies were going bankrupt left and right, and jobs were disappearing. I made the mistake of being young, foolish and pissed away the money I made (still do, a bit). I wasn’t disciplined enough to wait out the lull in shipping, so moved to ocean tugs, which did not pay as well, but were steady work. Even then, it got to the point because of OT and pay structures, I was often the highest paid person on the vessel, and at the tender age of 24. . . . $60K+ a year wasn’t bad for a single man in the early 80s. I have made some career missteps in the 35+ years that I have been out of school, but overall, I don’t know that I would have had a more satisfying career if I had gone with Plan B out of high school and become a civil engineer. I can pretty much guarantee that you will have the adventure of a lifetime in the maritime business. I know I have. Sometimes THAT is more important than money, although the jingle doesn’t hurt. . . .


Cmakin being the sweetheart of a guy that he is gave you a very detailed and sincere answer.

That’s great you are thinking ahead like you are, however I personally would pull them back a bit and just worry about getting thru school and getting your license.

The job market probably will change in the next four years. Right now it’s not too hot. In general, engineers can usually find work even in slow times, and there could be shoreside and non maritime opportunities.

As much as you wouldn’t like to hear it, it may be kinda tough to break six figures these days. I commend academy folk coming out of school with an unlimited assistant license but it is almost akin to entry level in some respects, and often you won’t get the entitlement you would expect.

70k may be a more realistic number than you would think…but by the time you get your license the gulf may be booming again and you could get on a drill ship making 800 a day. Who knows?

Highest pay isn’t always going to be the bottom line. This is something I can personally tell you I could not understand when I was in my 20s. Retirement, stability, advancement and benefits need to be factored into the big picture. Also, lifestyle choice. Usually the jobs where you are home every day are going to pay less. Being away pays more. Having a schedule with good crew changes could cost you. Working in harsh climates in remote areas could pay more. A guy that’s married with 5 kids and is worried about his wife banging sancho and spending all his money might not want to make 20 k more a year to finance that…so he will work local for less. Get the picture?


This is a very easy problem to solve, and I’ve mentioned this before.

It has to be true that 50% of the jobs pay below average. Everyone working for below average pay should quit and get a job with above average pay. Then everybody would have above average pay.


And we can all sail in the Lake Wobegon Navy, where all the mariners are above average.

Re being away from home:
This will change a LOT as you get older and things change. Between boat and airplane deliveries I used to almost never be home.
I don’t do so much of either one now because I have a wife and kid. Being home is valuable to me now and it was not before.