When times get tough, it's time to polish your resume

Jul 15, 2010 12:00 AM

The last month or so before graduating from Cal Maritime, whenever I'd start to work on my resume, I would always decide that my time was better spent studying instead. So, after passing my third mate's test, with graduation a week away, I finally began writing it.

Sitting in the school library reading a book on making resumes, I had only a vague idea of what aspects of my education and experience an employer would want to see. Should my grade point average be included? What about my Eagle Scout award? Would an employer care about my working three jobs to help put myself through school? In the end, I followed a basic format found in the book, focusing on my commercial vessel experience, training ship cruises, licenses and certificates and a few extracurricular activities. Typing and retyping until it looked good, I made and sent out 100 copies by graduation — and was pleased to get two replies. 1983 was a bad year for shipping jobs.

Times are tough for shipping jobs again, and soon cadets from the academies, trade school training programs and maritime apprenticeships will find themselves pounding the pavement looking for work. Recently I was speaking to the students at Seattle Maritime Academy, an excellent community college program where the graduates earn an able seaman (AB) special/rating forming part of a navigational watch (RFPNW), or a qualified member of the engine department (QMED)/rating forming part of an engineering watch (RFPEW) endorsement.

After my talk on the current job market, one of the deck students came up to me and asked, "What can I do to help my chances of finding a job in this economy?" I replied, "Well, for starters, a good resume is essential."

From my years of maritime experience, I think an effective resume should include current contact information, professional qualifications and work/training background. A few references also need to be listed, preferably people in the maritime industry, with their title (captain, chief, instructor, etc.) and phone numbers included. Finally, only the truth has a place on any resume.

Along with a resume, someone looking for work needs to have his or her professional documents in order. To enhance the chances of getting a job in the merchant marine, obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card, a valid passport, a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC), and a basic safety training class certificate. Having these four documents will go a long way toward helping a job applicant find work as an ordinary seaman, wiper or in the galley on commercial vessels. After obtaining your basic documents and writing your resume, you should note that most personnel managers find it easier to have electronic copies sent by e-mail. That way they can be printed out at will and forwarded quickly to decision-makers in the company such as the captain or chief on the vessel.

Holding an AB ticket doesn't necessarily mean that you have a RFPNW endorsement, nor does a designated duty engineer (DDE) license also guarantee that you qualify as an officer in charge of an engineering watch (OICEW). Make sure you know all of the seagoing positions for which your credential qualifies you, and in this economy, avoid pigeonholing yourself. Be willing to ship out during the holidays or summer vacation, and consider accepting any opening — even one below your qualifications. A tight job market is not the time to be picky.

When you start contacting employers, use every means possible, including phone, e-mail and personal visits. Be ready to go on short notice. Sometimes a job comes up when a crewmember on board has to get off the vessel quickly — make sure that you are easy to reach and have your seabag packed. You'd be surprised how many employers will work down the list of qualified applicants, and whoever answers the call and says yes first gets the job. In fact, that's how it happened for me.

I searched for work after graduation for weeks, seemingly without any prospects to sail on my third mate license. Then one day quite unexpectedly my efforts paid off. It was a "pierhead jump" for a four-day ordinary seaman's position on a landing craft carrying military cargo. Sure, I would have loved a third mate's job, but an ordinary seaman's slot was a lot better than starving on the beach waiting for it to appear. When the call came, I was in San Francisco at 1200, with the vessel scheduled to depart Long Beach (300 miles to the south) at 1800. Borrowing plane and cab fare from a buddy, who's now a San Francisco Bar Pilot, I caught the next flight to Los Angeles Airport and arrived at the dock with one minute to spare. That ordinary seaman's job got my foot in the door and began my professional seagoing career.

I recently talked with an experienced, out-of-work 1,600-ton master who is using his credit card to pay his mortgage. An unlimited AB I worked with got downsized recently and has moved into his sister's house with his wife and kids. Times are tough. If you have a job, even if it isn't the "perfect" one for you, I'd think twice about leaving. If you are out of work and looking for a job, don't despair. I truly believe that with persistent effort and well-honed job search skills, your luck can change.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'.

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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