Entry, training, and educational requirements for most water transportation occupations are established and regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. All officers and operators of commercially operated vessels must be licensed by the Coast Guard, which offers various kinds of licenses, depending on the position and type of vessel.
There are two ways to qualify for a deck or engineering officerís license: applicants either must accumulate sea time and meet regulatory requirements, or must graduate from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or one of the six State maritime academies. In both cases, applicants must pass a written examination. Federal regulations also require that an applicant pass a physical examination, a drug screening, and a National Driver Register Check before being considered. Persons without formal training can be licensed if they pass the written exam and possess sea service appropriate to the license for which they are applying. However, it is difficult to pass the examination without substantial formal schooling or independent study. Also, because seamen may work 6 or fewer months a year, it can take 5 to 8 years to accumulate the necessary experience. The academies offer a 4-year academic program leading to a bachelor-of-science degree, a license (issued only by the Coast Guard) as a third mate (deck officer) or third assistant engineer (engineering officer), and, if the person is qualified, a commission as ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or Coast Guard Reserve. With experience and additional training, third officers may qualify for higher rank.
Sailors and unlicensed engineers working on U.S. flagged deep-sea and Great Lakes vessels must hold a Coast Guard-issued document. In addition, they must hold certification when working aboard liquid-carrying vessels. Able seamen also must hold government-issued certification. For employment in the merchant marine as an unlicensed seaman, a merchant marinerís document issued by the Coast Guard is needed. Most of the jobs must be filled by U.S. citizens; however, a small percentage of applicants for merchant mariner documents do not need to be U.S. citizens, but must at least be aliens legally admitted into the United States and holding a green card. A medical certificate of excellent health attesting to vision, color perception, and general physical condition is required for higher level deckhands and unlicensed engineers. While no experience or formal schooling is required, training at a union-operated school is the best source. Beginners are classified as ordinary seamen and may be assigned to any of the three unlicensed departments: Deck, engine, or steward. With experience at sea and perhaps union-sponsored training, an ordinary seaman can pass the able-seaman exam and move up with 3 years of service.
No special training or experience is needed to become a seaman or deckhand on vessels operating in harbors or on rivers or other waterways. Newly hired workers generally are given a short introductory course and then learn skills on the job. After sufficient experience, they are eligible to take a Coast Guard exam to qualify as a mate, pilot, or captain. Substantial knowledge gained through experience, courses taught at approved schools, and independent study is needed to pass the exam.
Harbor pilot training usually consists of an extended apprenticeship with a towing company or a pilotsí association. Entrants may be able seamen or licensed officers.