If you want to travel the world, have good problem-solving skills and enjoy a challenge, consider a career as a Merchant Navy officer

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

As a Merchant Navy officer, you'll be 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.

Officers usually work in either the deck or engineering department and your role will primarily be as a leader and manager, although you'll still be expected to perform practical tasks with your colleagues. The larger the ship, the more managerial your role is likely to be.

Responsibilities

As a navigation/deck officer, you'll need to:

  • navigate the vessel using a range of satellite and radar systems and equipment
  • check weather and navigation reports and take appropriate action
  • coordinate the safe loading, storage and unloading of cargo
  • manage the care and safety of passengers (if you're working on a ferry/cruise ship)
  • supervise the operation and maintenance of deck machinery, e.g. winches and cranes
  • manage ship communication systems
  • monitor and maintain safety, firefighting and life-saving equipment
  • oversee the ship to ensure that the highest levels of health and safety are maintained
  • maintain legal and operational records such as the ship's log
  • keep up to date with developments in maritime legal, commercial and political matters.

As an engineering officer, you'll need to:

  • operate and maintain the mechanical and electrical equipment on board
  • manage power generation and distribution systems, as well as refrigeration plant, ventilation and pumping systems
  • monitor, repair and upgrade systems and equipment, e.g. air compressors, pumps and sewage plants
  • implement regular equipment inspections and maintenance programmes
  • keep 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 on some vessels. However, you'll typically need to maintain the electronic and electrical equipment on board, making the ship's safety and efficiency your priority.

All officers will need to undertake essential administration, including budgets, accounts and records of stock, cargo and passengers, as well as manage the work of ratings and provide training and support for officer trainees.

Exact duties will depend on your rank and the size of the vessel.

Salary

  • Training salaries for officer cadets fall between £8,000 and £16,000 with all tuition and on-board food and accommodation included. Shore-based accommodation costs are deducted.
  • Starting salaries upon qualification for junior officers are in the region of £25,000 to £28,000.
  • Progression up to the rank of captain or chief engineer can lead to salaries ranging from £36,000 to in excess of £80,000, depending upon the type and size of ship. Salaries on foreign-going ships (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 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

  • On-board living conditions are usually of a high standard, with good leisure and other facilities. Due to such close living and working conditions, you'll need to work well within a team.
  • Weather conditions may make working uncomfortable, for instance the heat of the Persian Gulf in summer or the North Atlantic in a winter gale.
  • The long periods of time spent away at sea can have a major impact on your 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.
  • Qualification as a Merchant Navy officer can lead to opportunities throughout the marine industry.
  • 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

To work as a Merchant Navy officer, you'll need to complete a nautical studies foundation degree (professional diploma in Scotland), HNC/HND or honours degree from a maritime college or university. Courses last between three and four years and the content depends on whether you decide to follow the navigation (deck), engineering or electro-technical officer training.

On completing your course, you'll receive the Officer of the Watch Certificate of Competency from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). This allows you to work on board any merchant ship anywhere in the world.

To get a place on an HNC/HND, you'll usually need a minimum of four GCSEs/Scottish Standard Grades, including English, maths and science. For a place on a foundation degree/professional diploma or honours degree, you'll also need A-levels or Scottish Highers.

To get a place on an honours degree course (nautical science, navigation and maritime science or mechanical and marine engineering), you'll need to apply through UCAS. If you've got a degree in mechanical engineering, you may be eligible for some exemptions of the engineering officer training. Contact the MCA with details of your qualifications.

You'll also need a maritime sponsoring company to cover your training course fees and living costs. The three types of company offering training are:

  • shipping management companies
  • training management companies
  • charitable organisations.

See Careers at Sea for a list of course providers and sponsoring companies.

Before starting your training, you'll need to pass a medical examination, which includes physical fitness and eyesight tests.

All training includes a mix of study and time at sea. Voyages last between two and three months and you'll typically spend a year at sea for deck officer training or eight to nine months as part of the engineer officer training.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • 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.

Work experience

There are various organisations that offer opportunities to get involved in sailing activities prior to applying for training, such as:

Involvement in activities such as The Duke of Edinburgh Award will help you develop excellent team working skills and 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, you 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.

There are also opportunities to get 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 every year. The companies vary widely in their size and nature, offering different types of working environments.

Specialist recruitment agencies such as Clyde Marine Recruitment also handle vacancies.

Professional development

You'll gain further skills and experience 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 Officer of the Watch certificate 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 also allows you 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 in areas such as personal safety, safety legislation and personal survival techniques. The Marine Society also offers a range of qualifications, from GCSEs to Masters, enabling you to continue your education while working.

Membership of a relevant professional body, for example IMarEST (The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology) or The Nautical Institute, is useful for training, networking and continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities.

Career prospects

Qualification as a Merchant Navy officer can lead to opportunities throughout the entire UK Merchant Navy fleet. 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.

With further experience and training, navigation (deck) officers can progress to senior navigation officer level. At this point you'll be responsible for a small team of staff, including junior officers and ratings. You could then progress further to master (captain).

Similarly, engineering officers can rise to the position of senior engineering officer, leading a team of engineering staff both at sea an in port, before progressing to the role of chief engineer.

While some Merchant Navy officers remain at sea for their entire careers, others move into onshore marine posts. Many companies manage their own ships and control all aspects of ship operations, so you'll find management opportunities in areas such as fleet, logistics coordination and training, marine, engineering and general operation.

You could also move into the wider marine industry, where 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.