Roles for engineers in the marine industry

View all blog posts under All Engineering | View all blog posts under Articles

As a centerpiece of the world economy, the marine industry’s influence is felt in shipping, trade, recreation, and defense. Marine engineers are the people who keep it afloat – both literally and figuratively. Every country and person on earth is affected by the prevailing trends in this vast sector.

The civilian and military marine industries at a glance

How extensive is the marine industry? It affects everything from recreational boating to global military expenditures:

Impact on shipping

According to the International Maritime Organization – a regulatory arm of the United Nations – 90 percent of worldwide trade is conducted via sea, due to the high cost-effectiveness and reliability of maritime transport. Plus, between 1970 and 2010, the total number of tons loaded for seaborne trade more than tripled, to over 8 billion tons as countries such as China, the U.S., Germany, and Japan pursued pro-trade policies.

Importance for imports and exports

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimated that in 2011, 53 percent of the value of all American imports, as well as 38 percent of exports, was delivered by maritime vessels. Oil, minerals, nuclear equipment, and vehicles are among the commodities most reliant on marine transit. Water transportation directly contributed $36 billion and 64,000 jobs to the U.S. economy in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Extent of recreational boating

The National Marine Manufacturers Association has estimated that recreational boats alone account for $83 billion in direct and induced spending. Outboard engine sales jumped 7 percent between 2015 and 2016. The numbers of ferries and registered recreational boats have also steadily increased since the 1990s, albeit with some sensitivity to economic recessions.

Rising role in defense spending

Naval buildups have become an important defense topic in recent years. For example, between fiscal years 2013 and 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense spent at least $16 billion each year on shipbuilding, a cost which covered the development of submarines, destroyers cruisers, landing crafts, and many other vessel classes.

Career Prospects are Bright for Marine Engineers

All of these recent industry trends and statistics are good news for marine engineers:

  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that there were 8,300 such professionals in the country as of 2014, but that their ranks would increase to 9,000 by 2024.
  • That increase would represent a 9 percent change – faster than the average for all professions.
  • The key drivers of this surge are expected to include a worldwide push toward more environmentally-friendly ships, along with growing demand for transportation for energy products such as liquefied natural gas that have become increasingly prominent.
  • Moreover, marine engineers have excellent opportunity to earn relatively high salaries and advance their careers: The median salary in 2015 was $93,110, much higher than the $56,000 median household income identified by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis for 2014.

Accordingly, a degree in marine engineering opens up many possible career paths in the marine industry. Most marine engineers get their starts with just a bachelor’s degree, although master’s and doctoral degrees are also useful for increasing compensation and visibility. PayScale puts the upper bound of the marine engineer salary range at more than $130,000 annually.

Marine Engineers: Surveying Possible Real-World Roles and Responsibilities

Marine engineers perform essential tasks in the design and upkeep of all seaborne vessels. Their common responsibilities typically include:

  1. Vessel design
    This is the most basic competency for marine engineers. They should be competent planners of the various systems, components, and processes that are integral to marine vessels. Relevant areas of specialization might include steering, refrigeration, propulsion, and electrical infrastructures.
  2. Scientific and mathematical knowledge
    Effective marine engineering requires fluency in a variety of subject matters, especially in mathematics and physics. Fluid mechanics, hydrostatics, hydrodynamics, marine materials, dynamics (as part of applied mathematics), and energy systems are all central areas in the field and as a result are covered extensively in undergraduate and graduate programs.
  3. Social and political awareness
    Since the reach of their industry is so extensive, marine engineers need considerable social and political acumen to succeed. Degree-granting programs usually offer background in relevant issues, such as applicable regulations and legislation along with the complex current economics of shipbuilding. Engineering management training is also a standard feature of preliminary marine engineering education.

These skills provide a backbone for technical and operational expertise in marine engineering. Armed with these capabilities, marine engineers are prepared to take on many possible roles across the civilian and military economies. A few possibilities include:

Coast Guard or similar military sector work

Marine engineering programs may prepare students to receive the appropriate Coast Guard licensure that they need to begin work in active service. The defense agencies of countries such as the U.S. are leading consumers of surface ships, submarines, and transport vessels. As such, they always need engineers to help with proper ship design and maintenance.

Commercial naval architecture

Naval architecture has significant overlap with marine engineering in terms of the essential educational grounding and broad commitment to vessel oversight. However, naval architects are more narrowly focused on design, especially on the particulars of ships’ hulls. As with marine engineers, there are many expected openings for naval architects into the 2020s due to the increase in maritime transportation for globally traded commodities.

Marine engineering students studying propulsion and vessel design.

Mechanical and electrical engineering opportunities

Training and education for marine engineers are similar to that for mechanical and electrical engineers. Accordingly, having it opens up additional opportunities in those fields. With backgrounds in mechanics, dynamics, and mathematics, would-be marine engineers usually have the knowledge and technical skills to excel in the mechanical and electrical realms.

Over the long term, the importance of shipping and trade to the global economy, combined with the close relationship between maritime transportation and energy supplies, should sustain demand for marine engineers. Additional education and certification are also likely to substantially boost the career prospects of workers across the marine industry.