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Marine Engineering

Is marine engineering right for you?

By Eric Luchman

It's a well known fact that water covers two-thirds of the earth. So it is not surprising that for centuries humans have used the earth's mighty oceans and waterways to accomplish unparalleled tasks. From great sea battles in ancient Greece to the discovery of new lands, humans have always utilized the power of the seven seas. And today the earth's oceans and waterways are used to harness power, take Caribbean cruises, and mine for oil.

For engineering students who don't mind getting their feet wet, the diverse field of marine engineering offers many career opportunities in one of the most growing and sustaining job markets. Don't like water? Fear not; marine engineering offers a sea of opportunity for landlubbers.

Working Waterways

Since most of the work in marine engineering is done on the coasts and at sea, the sector is foreign to most of the general public, however, the field has always served a crucial function. "The maritime industry is responsible for the transport of goods and people via the water," says Michael S. Bruno, director of the Center for Maritime Systems at the Steven's Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. "[Marine engineers] are responsible for the design and construction of ships, the construction of ports and waterfront cargo facilities, and the operation of ships and support vessels."


Not only do marine engineers design the ships, but they also determine how they operate. "Marine engineers are responsible for selecting ships' machinery, which may include diesel engines, steam turbines, gas turbines or nuclear reactors," says Dr. Bahadir Inozu, chairman and professor at the University of New Orleans ' School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. Inozu says that marine engineers are also responsible for the design of mechanical, electrical, fluid and control systems throughout the vessel. Bruno feels that students interested in ship design, building and maintenance will see more opportunities in the future as new challenges arise.

"The primary trend affecting all aspects of the industry is the gradual move to larger and larger container ships," says Bruno. "This trend presents technical challenges to the ship designers and builders. It also creates environmental challenges to those engineers and managers seeking to ensure safe and environmentally sound navigation within our waterways."

Engineers can not only design and maintain the largest moving vessels on earth, they can help find one of the ocean's greatest resources-- oil. Dr. James McDonald, chair of Marine Engineering at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy , says many opportunities are available for students who want to spend time on the open seas.

McDonald adds that students could help in the design and maintenance of rigs, such as exploratory and jack-ups. Offshore drilling is getting more and more challenging as companies are seeking oil in deeper waters. In the future, marine engineers will be dealing with more complicated structures that will create more complex problems to solve.

Pluses and... More Pluses

Those interested in pursuing a career in marine engineering must weigh the advantages and disadvantages carefully. The major advantage of becoming a marine engineer is that students entering careers in marine engineering have nearly 100% placement rates because the demand for them is always so great, says Daniel Jones, dean of student services at Maine Maritime Academy . And for those who are particular about where they want to reside, a seaside job can give you this option: "You can live anywhere you want in the United States since most companies will fly you to your job site," says Jones. However, your company won't do this every day of the week because marine engineers are likely on board a ship or oil rig for several months at a time. Jones also notes the flexibility of the career. He says, "In a down cycle [in marine engineering], engineers are able to move to other parts of the industry."

Maybe as a kid you were seasick one too many times, and the idea of spending three months on the Pacific makes you a little queasy. If you're not too keen on the idea of being at sea for months, don't fret; marine engineering needs plenty of talented engineers on shore, too. One area that is currently seeing growth by leaps and bounds is port security. Before the attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States had no terrorist security, only programs that monitored safety and smuggling, according to John LaRue, executive director of the Port of Corpus Christi . But now the government is pumping millions of dollars into this sector. LaRue says that the Port of Corpus Christi is using the funds it has received to develop ship tracking devices and information systems to monitor what is coming into the port. Though the private sector does receive the funds first, public entities are staying competitive and offering good salaries to those qualified for the positions as well.

Another factor increasing the number of marine engineering positions are the latest developments in moving natural gas from ports to the pipeline. This technology is already implemented overseas and is now developing here in the U.S. It presents an excellent opportunity for future graduates looking to work portside in the states. "Liquid natural gas plants, or LNGs, are structures that will soon be built and will transfer natural gas into liquid form once ships arrive at their ports," says LaRue. The liquid gas will be shipped in trucks and then re-gasified when put into the pipeline.

"These plants are being constructed because by 2006, power plants will be switching to natural gas and the current method of transporting natural gas is not economical," LaRue adds. "Natural gas is very bulky, but liquefying gas makes it compact, convenient and economical to transport over long distances. Students with marine engineering, as well as other engineering backgrounds, will be needed to develop and run these plants."

Getting Your Feet Wet

Unlike the information technology sector and other industries that seem to fluctuate radically when it comes to job placement, maritime not only guarantees a higher placement rate, the starting salaries aren't too shabby either; they generally range from $50,000 to $75,000. "Because of the specialized nature of the work, I would expect starting salaries in the maritime industry to be at the upper end of the range for each degree type," says Bruno.

Students who are interested in a maritime career may want to take some introductory courses prior to graduation. "Most maritime industry employers would prefer to see some understanding of the marine environment," says Bruno.

However, entry-level employees will likely receive training once they start their job. "You have to remember that this is a highly specialized and highly complex industry," he adds. "[This industry] spans oceans and national borders, and it deals with the risks associated with the ocean and the weather. For that reason, most entry-level engineers, analysts and managers will receive post-graduate training either on the job or via graduate school, followed by a very exciting and challenging career."

Future engineers interested in what type of work they may be doing in the future can take a look at Dr. Inozu's students at the University of New Orleans . Students and researchers there are actively pursuing projects that soon may be implemented on vessels. The Hydro-elastic design of surface-piercing propellers is a project dealing with partially submerged high-speed propellers that have critical strength requirements caused by cyclic loading and blade vibration. High-speed vessels will use this system. Another project being pursued is predicting the slamming pressure of sea waves from under-deck impact. Currently there is an inability to predict the slamming of high-speed catamarans causing a limitation in reliable design.

"Our graduates work on different aspects of the largest moving structures in the world," says Inozu. "They work on stability calculations, hull forms, dynamics, structural analysis and engine room arrangements, to name a few."

The career opportunities available to future marine engineers are exciting; students may work on projects that have a global impact from mobile oilrigs in deep waters to keeping the shore side safe through port security. And the added benefit of a good starting salary and secure job market should make any engineering student think about a career in marine engineering.

Eric Luchman is a free-lance writer based in North Carolina .

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