The Merchant Navy is the collective name for the UK's commercial shipping industry. However, it is actually composed of individual companies who are responsible for their own recruitment and training.

Merchant Navy officers are employed on the many types of vessels that make up the UK commercial shipping industry. These include:

  • ferries and cruise ships;
  • cargo container ships;
  • oil, gas and chemical tankers and other bulk cargo carriers;
  • specialised supply, support and rescue vessels - including support for the offshore oil and gas industry.

Merchant Navy officers are primarily leaders and managers.

However, as well as managing staff, senior officers are still expected to perform practical tasks with their colleagues.

Responsibilities

Officers usually work in either the deck or engineering department. Exact duties will depend on your rank and the size of the vessel. The larger the ship, the more managerial your role is likely to be.

A deck/navigation officer's typical work activities include:

  • navigating the vessel using a range of satellite and radar systems and equipment;
  • checking weather and navigation reports and taking appropriate action;
  • coordinating the safe loading, storage and unloading of cargo;
  • managing the care and safety of passengers (if working on a ferry/cruise ship);
  • supervising the operation and maintenance of deck machinery, e.g. winches and cranes;
  • managing ship communication systems;
  • monitoring and maintaining safety, firefighting and life-saving equipment;
  • overseeing the ship to ensure that the highest levels of health and safety are maintained;
  • maintaining legal and operational records, e.g. the ship's log;
  • keeping up to date with developments in maritime legal, commercial and political matters.

An engineering officer's typical work activities include:

  • directing others in the operation and maintenance of the mechanical and electrical equipment on board;
  • managing power, fuelling and distribution systems;
  • repairing and upgrading systems and equipment, e.g. air compressors, pumps and sewage plants;
  • implementing regular equipment inspections and maintenance programmes;
  • keeping up to date with developments in the marine engineering field.

The role of electro technical officer (ETO) is fairly new and may be merged with the engineering officer's job. It typically includes:

  • monitoring and maintaining all the electronic and electrical equipment onboard, focussing on the ship's safety and efficiency.

The activities of all officers include:

  • undertaking essential administration, including budgets, accounts and records of stock, cargo and passengers;
  • managing the work of ratings and providing training and support for officer trainees.

Salary

  • Starting salaries upon qualification for junior officers are in the region of £25,000 to £28,000.
  • Training salaries for cadets are fall between £8,000 and £16,000 with all tuition and on-board food and accommodation included. Shore-based accommodation costs are deducted.
  • Progression up to the rank of captain or chief engineer can lead to salaries ranging from £36,000 to £80,000+, depending upon the type and size of ship. Salaries on foreign-going ships (i.e. at least 183 days per year out of the UK) may be tax free.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Work is based at sea, on board ships that operate year-round. Shifts are usually four hours 'on' watch/duty and eight hours 'off'. Although extensive travel is part of the job, opportunities to go onshore can be limited due to ship-board responsibilities and rapid turnaround times in port.

What to expect

  • Qualification as a Merchant Navy officer can lead to opportunities throughout the marine industry.
  • Onboard living conditions are usually of a high standard, with good leisure and other facilities. Due to such close living and working conditions, being able to work well within a team is important.
  • Weather conditions may make working uncomfortable, for instance the heat of the Persian Gulf in summer or the North Atlantic in a winter gale.
  • A high proportion of female officers are working in the Merchant Navy at all levels.
  • The long periods of time spent away at sea can have a major impact on family life, hobbies and interests. However, most companies provide a generous holiday allowance on a one-for-one basis, for example two-months' paid leave after a two-month voyage. Tour lengths vary from company to company.
  • Merchant Navy officers are subject to the Merchant Shipping Act. The Act sets strict limits on blood-alcohol levels and drugs are forbidden. Random testing for alcohol or drug abuse is common.

Qualifications

The Merchant Navy recruits graduates as officer trainees (either deck/navigation officer, engineering officer or eletro technical officer (ETO)), offering training and development leading to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) Certificate of Competency (CoC), including Officer of the Watch (OOW) Certificate of Competency. All training includes a residential course at a nautical college or university, interspersed by periods spent at sea.

Graduate entry onto an engineering officer programme will provide exemptions from some aspects of the training scheme (which may accelerate the route to qualification as an engineering officer) with a mechanical engineering degree.

Opportunities may be available on cruise ships and passenger ferries for graduates in catering, hospitality, business, performance or entertainment, and cruise companies should be contacted directly.

A number of shipping companies sponsor candidates on a four-year BSC (Hons) degree in merchant ship operations/nautical science or a BEng (Hons) in marine engineering applications/mechanical and marine engineering.

Alternatively, you could be sponsored for a three-and-a-half year foundation degree (FdSc) course in marine operations/nautical science/marine engineering/marine electrical systems. The foundation degree (Professional Diploma in Scotland) can lead to an honours degree. Entry into officer training may be possible with an HNC/HND in nautical science/marine engineering.

The training is fully paid for by the sponsoring company and includes a training salary. For entry requirements, a list of colleges/universities running the programmes and a list of employers offering sponsorship, see Careers at Sea.

Experience and qualifications gained within the fishing industry or the Royal Navy may be recognised or accredited towards MCA requirements. Candidates are assessed on an individual basis and should make their own application for exemptions from the academic and practical aspects of officer training.

Skills

If you have the above experience you are likely to stand out, and will need to show evidence of the following:

  • decision-making skills;
  • the ability to remain calm in difficult situations;
  • teamworking skills and the ability to lead, motivate and inspire confidence in others;
  • written and verbal communication skills;
  • mathematical ability;
  • knowledge of mechanical and electrical systems (for engineer officer roles);
  • an interest in technology;
  • resourcefulness, adaptability and flexibility;
  • confidence, enthusiasm and self-reliance.

All applicants for Merchant Navy officer training must be in good health, pass a pre-employment medical examination, and have a good standard of eyesight.

Work experience

Although pre-entry experience is not essential, evidence of team work, for example through involvement in activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, Sea Cadets, boating/sailing (sometimes offered through university clubs and societies) and other youth activity membership, will strengthen your application.

Employers

At sea, Merchant Navy officers are employed in an engineering or navigation capacity, on a range of sea-going vessels. These include the following major types:

oil, gas and chemical tankers and other bulk cargo carriers;

  • cargo container ships;
  • ferries and cruise ships;
  • offshore support vessels, designed for specialised roles.

Ashore, they may work in a management, administrative or operational role across a variety of business and commerce. Employers include:

  • shipping companies;
  • marine insurance companies;
  • maritime regulatory authorities;
  • maritime training and recruitment companies;
  • port operations, including pilotage.

Merchant Navy officers can also gain similar work with overseas-based shipping companies.

Look for job vacancies at:

Contact shipping companies directly for details of their sponsorship schemes and vacancies. Most companies take on a specific number of cadets for specific roles every year. The companies vary widely in their size and nature, offering different types of working environments.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

During the initial officer training programme, a Merchant Navy officer is required to gain a MCA Certificate of Competency (CoC) as an Officer of the Watch (OOW).

Additional skills and experience will be gained while on the job, under the supervision of more senior officers.

The Merchant Navy provides clear training routes to enable progression from the junior level OOW to more senior levels. The next MCA level of competency is recognised through the award of the chief mate or second engineer certificate. The highest level of competency is master's or chief engineer's certificate.

Progression to each rank within the Merchant Navy also allows individuals to gain nationally-recognised academic or vocational qualifications, in addition to the MCA certificates of competency.

Colleges, universities and specialist training organisations provide training courses for serving Merchant Navy officers in areas such as safety legislation. Sponsorship may be available through shipping companies or through maritime training organisations.

The Marine Society also offers a range of courses enabling you to continue your education while working. For example, they provide a distance learning route, which enables you to top up your HND or foundation degree into a Bachelors degree, or for more senior officers with a Class 1 Certificate of Competency, to top up to a Masters degree.

Membership of a relevant professional body, for example the IMarEST or The Nautical Institute, is useful in terms of training, networking and continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities. Some sponsoring companies will provide student membership of these bodies.

Career prospects

Qualification as a Merchant Navy officer can lead to opportunities throughout the entire UK Merchant Navy fleet. The marine sector is growing and there are strong prospects for work. The majority of those undertaking officer training programmes are employed on completion of the course. There are also opportunities to work for shipping companies based overseas.

The Merchant Navy provides a range of career paths, with opportunities at sea and onshore. As a qualified deck or engineering officer, and with further training and experience, you can gain the qualifications required to become the master (captain) or chief engineer. It generally takes an additional six years to achieve these qualifications.

Career development will often depend on the employing shipping company and the kinds of vessels it operates.

Membership of a relevant professional body can aid career development, for more information see the:

  • Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST);
  • The Nautical Institute.

Engineering officers may choose to follow the route to chartership with ImarEST. Obtaining chartered status demonstrates that you have a good level of experience and professionalism, as well as a commitment to the profession.

While some Merchant Navy officers remain at sea for their entire careers, others gain posts within the marine industry onshore. Many companies manage their own ships and control all aspects of ship operations. Opportunities therefore exist in management roles in a variety of operations, e.g. fleet, logistics coordination and training, marine, engineering and general.

It is possible for those with experience to move into the wider marine industry, where there is a demand for their qualifications and expertise. Opportunities include:

  • surveying ships (to check seaworthiness);
  • managing ports/harbours;
  • working in maritime law or marine insurance;
  • working for maritime regulatory authorities;
  • lecturing or research in higher education institutions.