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Merchant Marine Radio Officer

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Nature of the Work

Radio officers work aboard cargo vessels and passenger ships. They use radio, Morse code, and other electronic and satellite communication devices to contact the shore headquarters and other ships. Radio officers receive and record time signals, weather reports, and other information important to the smooth operation of the vessel. Radio officers maintain the ship's radio equipment. They may also maintain depth recording equipment and electronic navigation equipment.

Education and Training

To work as a radio officer, a candidate must obtain either a first or second class radiotelegraph operator's license from the Federal Communications Commission. To get such a license, the applicant must pass a written examination covering sea communication regulations, radio and telephone operating practices, message traffic routing, and radio navigational aids. Whereas there may be as many as six radio officers on a passenger ship, cargo ships carry only one. To work as the sole radio operator aboard a cargo ship, a candidate must have 6 months of radio experience at sea.



The best preparation for a career as a radio officer is attending a maritime academy. Without formal training the licensing examination may be difficult to pass. Marine academies include the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and state academies in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Texas. Congressional nomination is the only way to enter the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or U.S. Naval Academy. Admission to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is on a competitive basis. To qualify, an applicant must be between 17 and 22 years, single, a high school graduate, an American citizen, and in good physical condition. Those interested in attending any of the other non-federal marine academies or training schools should contact those schools directly.

Another way to gain sea experience is to attend a training program sponsored by one of the unions. These training programs, however, only accept a limited number of people without sea experience.

Getting the Job

After graduating from a marine academy or an established training school, a candidate may take the U.S. Coast Guard licensing exam. Once certified, a radio officer can register at union hiring halls.

Employment Outlook

A career radio officer is a member of a very specialized profession. Radio officers have few chances for promotion. Some become the head radio officer of the several officers aboard their ship.

The employment outlook for radio officers is expected to be poor. The growth of the national fleet is expected to slow due in large part to foreign competition. The number of graduates of marine academies should slightly exceed the number of jobs available. Offshore oil and mineral exploration will supply the most promising job prospects for marine officers. In addition, some job openings should occur each year to replace career radio officers who retire or leave their positions for other reasons.

Working Conditions

At sea radio officers work as watch standers in the radio room. Watch standers work two 4 hour shifts during each 24 hour period. There is an 8 hour break between work shifts. Some radio officers work a steady 8 hour day, Monday through Friday.

Clean and adequate accommodations are provided on board ship. Radio officers' work requires long periods away from home. Although they get to travel, they rarely spend much time at any port.

Earnings and Benefits

Currently, the average annual base pay for radio officers is $24,000 to $26,000. Overtime and other bonus wages total an additional 50 percent of the basic wage. Earnings vary ac cording to rank, type of ship, and location.

Room and board, medical care, and hospitalization insurance are provided. The number of vacation days ranges from 18 to 30 for every 30 days of work. Radio officers receive generous pensions through their unions. For officers forced to retire prematurely because of disabilities, partial pensions are available.
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