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Merchant Navy Engineering Officer

As an engineer officer, you’ll operate and maintain all the mechanical and electrical equipment throughout the ship.

You’ll be responsible for power generation and distribution systems and for other equipment such as lifts, refrigeration plant and pumping and ventilation systems. Via a bank of high-tech instrumentation, you’ll monitor mechanical, electrical, hydraulic and control equipment, and have charge of computercontrolled engine management systems.

You’ll overhaul and maintain equipment throughout the ship, where your engineering problem-solving skills will be your greatest asset. At sea, if equipment goes wrong you can’t just pull in to the nearest garage! It will be up to you to diagnose the fault, get the equipment dismantled, repaired and reassembled and back into operation. 

As a senior engineer officer, you’ll lead a team of professional engineering personnel and supervise their work at sea and in port. 

What qualities will you need? 

You’ll need to be practical, resourceful and have a real interest in mechanical, electrical and electronic systems. Like deck officers, you’ll be decisive, calm and able to inspire confidence in others. Good written and verbal communication skills are required. Beyond this you’ll need to be prepared to learn about new technology and adapt your skills to its use.

Your job would be graded according to your experience and qualifications, with each grade having slightly different responsibilities:

  • Chief Engineer – overall authority for planning engineering tasks and allocating staff
  • Second Engineer – supervising the day-to-day duties of staff and engine crew
  • Third Engineer – assisting the second officer and looking after electrical systems and machinery
  • Junior/Fourth Engineer – carrying out general machinery maintenance. This is often the first posting for an officer trainee.

Whatever your engineering grade, your duties would include:

  • running scheduled maintenance checks on machinery and systems
  • responding to equipment failure alerts and repairing faults
  • maintaining fuel levels and stocks of spare parts
  • updating record management systems
  • mentoring and supporting trainees.

In the Merchant Navy, you could work on passenger ferries, cruise liners, container ships, bulk carriers, tankers, and salvage and supply vessels. In the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (civilian-crewed ships that support the Royal Navy), you could have responsibility for weapons maintenance.


You would work shifts, known as ‘watches’, which would vary according to the size of the ship. On a large vessel, you might work four hours on duty followed by eight hours off.

The amount of time you would spend at sea could last from a few days or weeks to several months. Your shore leave between voyages would also vary in length. You would spend most of your shift in the engine control room and the engine room. You may also have to work in uncomfortable conditions, like confined spaces in the vessel's hull or refrigerated areas.

If you are with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, you may be required to work in conflict zones.


Sponsored trainee salaries are usually around £8,000 a year. Newly qualified engineering officers earn around £25,000 a year. Experienced officers earn from £26,000 to £50,000. Chief engineering officers can earn between £32,000 and £65,000.

The employer will pay for food and accommodation at sea, and some travel costs when ashore.

Figures are intended as a guideline only.

Entry requirements

You could take one of the following training routes to become a merchant navy engineering officer. Your starting point would depend on your current level of qualifications:

  • HNC/HND route
  • Foundation Degree route
  • Undergraduate route
  • Graduate route

Whatever route you take, you must be at least 18 years old to start training. You would also have to arrange sponsorship from a shipping company, who would provide you with work experience placements at sea. You would be expected to pass a medical, including an eyesight test, before being accepted on to a training course.

HNC/HND route
You would complete a 3 year training programme that leads to a HNC/HND. To be eligible, you would need at least four GCSEs (grades A-C) including maths, science and English, or equivalent qualifications.

Foundation Degree route
On this training programme you would work towards a foundation degree. Entry requirements are GCSE English, Maths, Physics/Combined Science and one other subject, plus 2 A levels.

Undergraduate Route
To take this route, you would need to study for an approved degree in either marine engineering, nautical science or marine operations. 

Graduate Route
To be eligible for this route, you would need a science-based degree. As a graduate entrant, you could expect an accelerated training programme.

See the websites for the Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB), Marine Society, A Career at Sea and the International Shipping Federation (ISF) for details of sponsoring shipping companies, course entry requirements and training colleges.

Training and development

Your training as an officer cadet would combine shore-based college work and practical seafaring experience.

Training can take three to four years, depending on which course you choose, and would cover engineering skills, such as:

  • hydraulics
  • instrumentation and control
  • electrical systems
  • diesel propulsion and turbines
  • onboard health and safety like first aid, fire-fighting and personal sea survival.

If you follow the HNC/HND route, you would also complete the NVQ in Marine Vessel Operations up to Level 3.

At the end of your training, you would have to pass an exam for a Certificate of Competency (known as an Officer Of the Watch (OOW) certificate). This is issued by the Coastguard and Maritime Agency. When you want to apply for promotion to the next engineering grade, you must gain the OOW certificate for that rank.

During your time at sea, you would have the opportunity to develop your career. A number of organisations offer courses for professional development, many by distance learning, including the option to top up an HND or foundation degree to a full degree. 

It is also possible to reach the highest status on board of Master (Captain) after working your way up to Chief Engineer.

Skills and knowledge

  • practical skills in mechanical, electrical and electronic engineering
  • excellent maths, science, technology and IT skills
  • the ability to communicate clearly with staff at all levels
  • the ability to prioritise workloads and plan effectively
  • the confidence to make decisions
  • good teamworking skills
  • a willingness to work away from home, often for lengthy periods.


You could find work with UK and overseas shipping companies. You could also use your technical and managerial skills to move to shore-based jobs in areas such as shipping and port operations, maritime law and insurance, shipbroking or other engineering industries.

Your options for promotion to higher grades would be based on your length of service, your work record and having the relevant OOW certificates.


  • Date published: 28th November 2015