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Advice to new mariners: embrace job variety, training, networking

Jul 31, 2014 10:46 AM

This time each year thousands of newly credentialed mariners enter our profession. If you are one of them, I welcome you to our industry and commend you on your choice of occupation. As you look for that elusive first job, you may have your heart set on getting a certain position, working for a particular company, or in a specific location. I remember when I graduated from California Maritime Academy (CMA). I wanted to get a third mate position on a tanker or a containership. Unfortunately, sea-going jobs were scarce that year. After sending out 100 resumes and getting back just two responses, I wasn’t able to land the job I wanted. When the bills started mounting and my rent came due, it was time to get realistic. I could wait for years until shipping improved enough for the position I wanted to come up, or go out and get another job for the experience and start making money.

Whether you have just graduated from a four-year academy, a one- or two-year public or private program, or are starting out on your way up the hawsepipe, I’d like to offer a bit of advice from my experience. Don’t worry if you initially aren’t hired by the company you want or on the ship or boat you desire. A person new to going to sea has to be flexible to get his or her career started, including being willing to accept lower-paying jobs or going to less sought-after ports/working areas. The good news is that any sea time will go a long way toward increasing the odds of getting the job you really want — whether it’s trip work, a relief/temporary position, or even sailing below your credential. You will still be learning and making money, plus the human resources (HR) person doing the hiring for your dream job will be far more likely to show an interest if you have already gained some solid onboard experience elsewhere.

After graduating from CMA, and unable to land a tanker or containership job, I began applying to different companies in various sectors of the maritime industry. Lady Luck smiled on me when I found an ordinary seaman’s position at a large West Coast towing company, working on a freight-carrying landing craft. After joining the vessel, I heard that some in the crew were interested to see how an academy graduate was going to handle cleaning heads, sweeping and swabbing, and taking care of the trash on board. Working doubly hard to show that there was no ego problem doing those duties, I kept a good attitude and focused on my work. It paid off, the skipper gave me a great report. On his recommendation, a few months later I was promoted to able seaman, and then to a mate position on an oceangoing tugboat later that same year.

So, when you finish that first job, start “building your resume” by offering to work extra shifts or on different vessels in the company fleet. The experience you gain will be of great benefit. When finances and time permit, take classes to advance your career, and remember that it is never too early to begin starting the next upgrade of your credentials. Your resume should accurately reflect your current situation, so go to a professional and have them add your first (or latest) job, plus any additional qualifications and new references. When applying for a position with your “dream” company, send your updated resume at least every three months, along with a call or e-mail to make sure the HR person got the info — and knows that you are still focused on getting a job on their vessels.

Once, as a third mate, I attended an advanced firefighting class at Texas A&M University in College Station. After talking with Morgan, a chief mate from the same company during lunch one day, we exchanged info to keep in contact. I wrote mine on a scrap piece of paper, and he gave me a business card with his title and contact info on it. Impressed with how professional it looked, when I got home I followed his example and invested in some business cards. To look professional and help make the most of your networking opportunities, I suggest having a set of mariner business cards printed up, listing your contact info and qualifications.

You can meet many of the “movers and shakers” in the maritime industry, including those who do the hiring, by taking the time to do some networking when you are ashore. Attend industry trade shows, school alumni activities and local Propeller Club meetings as often as you can. As a cadet at CMA, I was a student member of the Propeller Club. Each month one of the senior class members was chosen to attend the regular meeting of the Port of San Francisco Chapter with the faculty advisor. The month I went there were local executives and union officials in attendance, and one of them helped me get that first job.

All of us can be proud of our choice of profession. Not only is the work we do vital to our country’s and the world’s economy, the maritime industry’s global nature offers freedoms most people can only imagine. We have the opportunity to sail on thousands of vessels, each one different and with a specific purpose. Not bound by the daily commute, we get long periods of vacation, coupled with the freedom to live anywhere we choose during our time off. I have sailed with an engineer who owned and operated a working farm in Indiana, a cook who lived in the Philippines and a tanker captain who followed the sun in his big pickup and travel trailer while on vacation. Whatever your goals, and whatever you want out of life, with patience and hard work the maritime industry can be a great way to make your dreams come true.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

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Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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