Oregon’s Maritime Occupations

Oregon’s Maritime Occupations

by Brenda Turner

January 4, 2017

Located on the Pacific Ocean with the massive Columbia River outlining much of its Northern border, Oregon sits in a prime location for maritime trade activities. Huge amounts of cargo move in, out, and around Oregon over the water. The state depends on workers in water transportation occupations to operate and maintain ships, tugboats, dredges, and other waterborne crafts. From freight transportation to cargo handling at ports and harbors, Oregon’s maritime trade employment is an important component of the state’s economy.

Using the somewhat rigid Standard Occupational Classification system titles, occupations highly related to maritime trade and located primarily on ships, barges, and tugs include sailors and marine oilers (commonly known as deckhands); captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels (also known as mates, deck officers, or barge hands); and ship engineers (deck engineers). These occupations are projected to grow more slowly than the statewide growth rate from 2014 to 2024. Job seekers should take note that employers will be looking to fill job openings created by workers who leave these jobs. In fact, approximately two out of three openings projected from 2014 to 2024 will be due to the need to replace workers who leave the occupations. These include those who quit or are terminated, relocate to other positions, or leave their jobs due to retirement or death. Those who leave their occupation create "replacement openings." Growth openings plus replacement openings equal total openings.

Deckhands work under the supervision of the ship's officers and perform a wide variety of duties. For example, when ships are docking or departing, they handle the lines that connect the ship to the dock. While underway, they watch for other ships or objects in the ship's path. When the ship is traveling through shallow water, they measure the water depth to make sure the ship does not run aground. Deckhands also maintain the ship's logs, which are records of information such as weather conditions and the distance traveled.

Pilots direct large water vessels through bodies of water. They know how different levels of water and changes in the weather affect navigating each particular waterway. They often consult maps, charts, weather reports, and computerized equipment to help them make decisions. They make decisions about the speed of the vessel based on its weight, the current, the weather, and the tide. They also monitor lighthouses, buoys, and other markers.

Ship engineers regulate the engines to control the speed of the ship. They keep records of what they do, such as noting changes in the ship's speed and direction. They also inspect and maintain the engines and other equipment.

Longshoremen are individuals working on docks loading and unloading ships. This occupation is significant in maritime trade; however, it is difficult to track in the Oregon Employment Department’s occupational data structure. Longshoremen may be included in employment data for crane operators, material movers, laborers, or fork lift operators depending on their primary job duties. Therefore, occupational employment data and projections specifically for longshoremen are not available.

Other occupations such as general office clerks, transportation managers, and millwrights work in the maritime industry but are also found across many other parts of the state’s economy.

Working Conditions

Water transportation workers’ schedules vary based upon the occupation, the type of water vessels they are working with, and length of voyage if on board a vessel. While on the water, crews can be on duty for half of the day, seven days a week. Some can spend extended periods at sea and the length of time between voyages varies depending on job availability and personal preference. Workers in harbors generally have year-round work. This makes jobs in harbors sought after because, unlike other maritime trade workers, these workers can return home every day.
People holding water transportation jobs work in all kinds of weather. Working in damp and cold conditions often is inevitable. Safety is key for these occupations. Not only do workers risk injury from falling overboard, but many work with machinery, heavy loads, and dangerous cargo. Today’s safety features and techniques help keep workers safe from these hazards.


Coast Guard licensing requirements vary by occupational specialty, type of vessel, and by body of water. The requirements increase as the skill level of the occupational specialty and the size of the vessel increases.

Entry-level seamen or deckhands on vessels operating in harbors or on rivers or other waterways do not need a license. All others working on larger, ocean-going vessels do need a license. To get the basic entry-level license, a worker must pass a drug screening, take a medical exam, and be a U.S. citizen.

Pilots are in a highly regulated occupation. The Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots regulates the requirements for selection, training, and education, and sets the salary of the licensees. According to the Board, in Oregon, only individuals who have experience and can demonstrate knowledge of currents, tides, soundings, bearings, and distances of shoals, rocks, bars, points of landings, lights, and fog signals can direct a large vessel on certain waters. Pilots are appointed by the Board from a list of candidates ranked according to the procedures in the Board’s rules. The highest scoring candidate is selected when it is determined there is a need for a new pilot. 


While wages are lower for sailors than for mates and engineers, sailors’ on-board experience is important for advancing into those higher paying positions. While on the water, employers provide food and housing in addition to wages.

Median annual earnings of sailors and marine oilers were $56,784 in 2016. The middle 50 percent earned between $43,306 and $69,950. The top 10 percent earned more than $76,898. Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels wages range from $43,930 for the 10th percentile with median annual earnings at $75,546 in 2016. Annual earnings of ship engineers vary widely with the 10th percentile around $25,000, but the top 10 percent earn quite a bit more – at least $132,704 per year in 2016.


There is just one school offering postsecondary programs of study for individuals seeking formal education in water transportation occupations. Clatsop Community College’s maritime science department offers an associate of applied science in vessel operations and a one-year certificate program in seamanship. These programs teach the requisite knowledge, skills, work habits, and attitude to perform work on a vessel as an entry-level deckhand. They also provide a foundation for workers to advance in their careers.


Without individuals to guide and operate ships, barges, and tugs, and without workers to load and unload vessels, Oregon would not have a water transportation industry. While these jobs are not among the most common in the state, they are key to the state’s ability to move products over waterways.