Merchant Navy Engineering Officer

The Job and What's Involved

Merchant Navy engineering officers maintain and operate the mechanical and electrical equipment on board Merchant Navy ships.

The Merchant Navy is made up of a large number of civilian ships, operated by individual shipping companies. They include ferries and cruise liners, cargo ships, ships that support the offshore exploration industry (for example, by towing rigs or laying pipelines), fuel tankers and mining vessels that remove sand and gravel from the sea bed.

Engineering officers work with:

- the ship's engines
- pumps and fuel systems
- control equipment
- lifts and cranes
- refrigeration and ventilation systems
- sewage treatment and purifiers
- computer-controlled engine management systems

Their duties include:

  • Diagnosing faults.
  • Managing, monitoring, maintaining and adjusting equipment.
  • Dismantling, repairing and reassembling equipment to put it back into operation.
  • Supervising the work of officers and ratings under their command.

Some engineering officers specialise in maintaining and repairing navigation, communication and computer systems and are known as systems engineering or electro-technical officers.

Engineering officers are responsible to a chief engineer, who is in overall charge of the ship's engineering and technical systems.

Engineering officers work shifts, known as watches, to provide cover 24 hours a day. Working patterns vary according to the type of ship, but may be four hours on followed by eight hours off, six hours on and six hours off or twelve hours on and twelve hours off.

After a voyage, officers usually receive a substantial period of leave. For example after a four-month voyage, they may be entitled to a two-month holiday.

Most of the working day is spent in the engine control room, although engineering officers also carry out some work in the engine room, which may be noisy and hot. Sometimes they have to work in uncomfortable conditions, such as confined spaces or refrigerated areas.

Space on board ship is limited and officers may have to work and live in close proximity to colleagues for weeks or months at a time. There are usually good leisure facilities on board for off-duty hours.

Destinations and the amount of time spent away from home depend on the type of vessel and its movements.

Qualified junior officers may earn between £25,000 and £27,000 a year.
Experienced officers may earn from £26,000 to over £50,000, depending on their rank.

Chief engineers may earn up to around £60,000 a year.

Employers pay for food and accommodation while employees are at sea and cover travel costs to and from the ship.

Trainee officers may have their college or university tuition fees paid in full and receive a salary or training allowance of between £7,000 and £15,000, as well as accommodation and meals at college and on board ship.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Ships carry more than 90 per cent of world trade and this is forecast to increase substantially by 2015.

Engineering officers are employed by major UK shipping companies. Around 20 shipping and training companies in the UK recruit between 350 and 400 trainees a year. There is no central recruiting agency, so applicants need to approach individual shipping companies and training organisations directly to find a sponsored training opportunity. See the Careers at Sea website for a list of companies offering sponsorship.

Education and Training

All entrants have to be sponsored by a shipping company or training organisation. Entry requirements vary between employers and depend on the training route.

  • The BTEC Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/HND) route normally requires four or five GCSE's (A*-C) including English, maths and either physics, dual science or combined science and one other subject.
  • The foundation degree route typically requires a total of at least 120 UCAS points at A level, plus GCSE's (A*-C) in English and maths and either physics, dual science or combined science and one other subject. The foundation degree is the most common training route.
  • The degree course route generally requires at least two A levels, usually including maths or physics or equivalent qualifications.

The Diploma in engineering may be a starting point for this career.

Entrants must be at least 16 years old, in good health and have normal colour vision. They must also pass a Merchant Navy medical examination.

Some applicants already have a degree, usually science based but not necessarily so.

Applicants with relevant experience or qualifications may be exempt from some part of the training and qualify as an engineering officer more quickly. They include Royal Navy officers and those with seafaring experience gained from, for example, the fishing industry. Merchant Navy ratings may take a conversion course to train as engineering officers.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Entrants follow a planned training programme that varies according to the employer and level of entry. Training consists of periods at sea alternating with onshore study at marine college or university. Trainees start onshore, learning essential skills such as shipboard familiarisation, first aid, firefighting, personal survival and safety. They then work alongside experienced officers at sea.

The length of training depends on the route taken.

  • BTEC qualifications in marine engineering or mechanical engineering usually take two and a half years (HNC) or three years (HND).
  • Trainees working for a foundation degree in marine engineering usually take three years.
  • Degrees (usually in marine engineering) take four years on average.
  • Graduate entrants with a relevant degree, such as mechanical engineering, undergo seagoing experience and training and can usually qualify as an engineering officer within a year.

All trainees work towards the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's (MCA's) certificates of competency for engineering officers of the watch.

Engineering officers can register with the Engineering Council (ECUK) as a professional engineer - either Incorporated Engineer (IEng) or Chartered Engineer (CEng). For professional registration, candidates should be members of an institution such as the Institute of Marine Engineering Science and Technology or the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A Merchant Navy engineering officer should be:

  • Good at solving problems.
  • Practical and resourceful.
  • Good at maths, physics and technology.
  • Decisive, with leadership skills.
  • A good communicator.
  • Good at teamwork.
  • Calm in emergencies.
  • Sociable and able to get on with a wide variety of people.
  • Able to cope with being away from friends and family for months at a time.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion is based on length of service, merit and continued skills development, which usually means taking further professional seafaring certificates of competency. Skilled, experienced officers can rise through the ranks from third engineer to second engineer and then chief engineer.

After a career at sea, ex-officers may move into jobs that use their technical or leadership skills, possibly in a ship management, surveying or classification role.

Get Further Information

Institute of Marine Engineering
Science & Technology (IMarEST)
Tel: 020 7382 2600

Institution of Mechanical Engineers
Tel: 020 7222 7899

The Marine Society & Sea Cadets
Tel: 020 7654 7000

Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB)
Tel: 020 7417 2800 or 0800 085 0973

The Royal Institution of Naval Architects (RINA)
Tel: 020 7235 4622

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