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Marine Cargo Specialists

Significant Points
  • Cargo and freight agents need no more than a high school diploma and learn their duties informally on the job.
  • Much faster than average employment growth is expected.
  • Job prospects are expected to be good.
Nature of the Work

Cargo and freight agents help transportation companies manage incoming and outgoing shipments in airline, train, or trucking terminals or on shipping docks. Agents expedite shipments by determining a route, preparing all necessary documents, and arranging for the pickup of freight or cargo and its delivery to loading platforms. They may also keep records of the cargo, including its amount, type, weight, dimensions, destination, and time of shipment. They also keep a tally of missing items and record the condition of damaged items.

Cargo and freight agents arrange cargo according to destination. They also determine any shipping rates and other applicable charges. For imported or exported freight, they verify that the proper customs paperwork is in order. Cargo and freight agents often track shipments electronically, using bar codes, and answer customers' questions about the status of their shipments.

Work environment. Cargo and freight agents work in a wide variety of environments. Some work in warehouses, stockrooms, or shipping and receiving rooms that may not be temperature controlled. Others may spend time in cold storage rooms or outside on loading platforms, where they are exposed to the weather.

Most jobs for cargo and freight agents involve frequent standing, bending, walking, and stretching. Some lifting and carrying of small items may be involved. Although automated devices have lessened the physical demands of this occupation, not every employer has these devices. The work still can be strenuous, even though mechanical material-handling equipment is used to move heavy items.

The typical workweek is Monday through Friday. However, evening and weekend hours are common in jobs involving large shipments.

Marine Cargo Assistant, GS-2161-05


Incumbents of positions at this level perform elementary work in the preparation of cargo stowage plans, in observing the loading and discharge of cargo, and related tasks. The work is performed in accordance with specific guides and procedures under close supervisory guidance and control. All work is reviewed for technical accuracy and completeness.

The following are typical examples of work at the GS-5 level:

1. During the loading process, observes that cargo is being loaded in accordance with approved preliminary stowage plan. Annotates plan to indicate authorized cargo substitutions and prepares rough final plan. Observes any unusual occurrences during the loading and calls them to the attention of the supervisor.

2. Prepares final cargo stowage plans and hatch lists showing space occupied by each block of cargo in the hold and on the deck of the vessel, port of discharge, cargo marking, type of cargo, number of pieces, weight and measurement, and whether heavy lifts can be handled by ship's gear for discharge. Prepares specific segments of preliminary loading plans when cargo characteristics and vessel space have been designated by supervisor.

Marine Cargo Specialist, GS-2161-07


This level includes positions responsible for independently preparing less complex preliminary stowage plans for supervisor's approval (e.g., relatively homogeneous, damage resistant cargo destined for one port when vessel space is generally adequate), for preparing more complex preliminary stowage plans under close supervision and review (e.g., mixed cargo susceptible of damage and contamination, destined for several ports when vessel space is unsuitable in some respects or its use is very restricted by weight and trim considerations); for participating in surveillance over the proper, safe, and efficient loading, unloading and stowage operations on vessels by working as assistant to a supervisor technically qualified in marine cargo planning and loading, or for performing a combination of the duties described above. This is the first level at which incumbents are given assignments covering the full range of cargo stowage planning and loading activities, subject to relatively close supervision on tasks of average difficulty. Major decisions with respect to changes in preliminary plans and substitutions of cargo in loading are subject to review before being put into effect.

The following are typical examples of work at the GS-7 level:

1. Working under technical supervision, independently prepares or approves uncomplicated preliminary plans and presents completed work to supervisor for approval; subsequently makes revisions to incorporate supervisor's suggestions as necessary. Also makes revisions to incorporate subsequent changes in cargo, vessel space, etc., and again presents plan to supervisor for review. On more complex plans, receives technical assistance from the supervisor and incorporates the supervisor's suggestions and ideas. Prior to vessel arrival, assists the supervisor in such activities as determining the number of ships gangs, carpenters, welders, and heavy lift derricks that will be necessary for an operation, and placing orders for them at daily operational meetings. Upon arrival of the vessel, ascertains that Terminal Safety and Port Maritime Safety Code policies are complied with. May assist in planning, scheduling, coordinating and directing the movement of cargo to and from assigned pier and stowage area in order to maintain an even flow of cargo and keep pier free of congestion.

2. Serves as an assistant to an employee technically qualified in marine cargo planning and loading, in planning and directing or overseeing the loading and stowage of many types of cargo in various combinations of shipments on MSTS, commercial, and MSTS controlled vessels. During the loading process, discusses with supervisor the need for major alteration of preliminary stowage plans to provide for changes in cargo, special priority shipments, rearrangement of cargo, etc., and obtains authorization for necessary changes in stowage. Sees that cargo is properly blocked, braced and lashed and that cargo is placed so that damage may be prevented and noncompatible commodities are not mixed together. Is required to be familiar with Coast Guard regulations pertaining to stowage of dangerous items and the need to load cargo in such a manner as to maintain vessel stability, draft, and trim. Investigates stevedore detentions, extra labor and ship account items.

Marine Cargo Specialist, GS-2161-09


Positions at this level involve responsible independent performance of cargo planning and loading assignments of substantial complexity. Such assignments will typically include, individually or in limited combinations, any of the types of problems which may occur in cargo planning or loading, but they do not typically include situations in which many or all of these problems occur in combination in individual planning or loading assignments. In other words, assignments will regularly include problems created by dangerous or "special handling" cargoes, by limited or unsuitable vessel space, or by many discharge ports, but will not ordinarily require balancing of problems of all three types when no one consideration is paramount. Ingenuity and resourcefulness are applied in achieving maximum utilization of vessel space, arranging for substitute cargo, accommodating to changes in vessel itinerary, facilitating loading and unloading operations and providing solutions to problems. Assignments are performed independently with results reviewed for overall adequacy. Loading operations typically require unreviewed on-the-spot decisions in order to avoid interruption of work. Positions in this class may or may not involve limited supervision as a "team leader" over lower grade employees. Such supervision does not affect the grade level of the work described.

The following are typical examples of work at the GS-9 level:

1. Working under the general supervision of an employee technically qualified in marine cargo planning and loading who provides brief oral instructions and advice and is consulted on departures from established operating practice, studies booking information which indicates the number of tons of cargo scheduled to be lifted in an MSTS ship and the selected ship's characteristics relative to stowage space, location, cargo handling facilities, weight and cube measurement of cargo, deterioration and hazard characteristics, order of points of discharge and unloading facilities at ports of call, and types of cargoes involved. Considers such other factors as point of local loading, stevedores available, types of loading equipment at terminals to be used in conjunction with ship's winches, booms, etc. Based on foregoing considerations, develops or reviews preliminary stowage plans which reflect how and where cargo is to be stowed, indicating number of hold, level, etc. Develops a trim scale which is used in conjunction with these plans to arrive at a satisfactory "drag" when ship is loaded.

2. Is assigned to oversee and coordinate the loading and stowage of all types of cargo in accordance with approved cargo stowage plans. Prior to commencement of loading operation, inspects vessel space allocated by MSTS to determine if it is suitable and in condition to receive cargo. Determines and arranges for the required labor crews and equipment by contacting responsible office and indicating requirements. Plans and orders the delivery of cargo to piers or shipside to maintain a continuous flow of cargo to the ship. Observes loading operation to insure adherence to approved cargo stowage plans and terminal cargo loading and stowage regulations and procedures. During loading, confers with stevedore foreman on methods of handling cargo, rearrangement of cargo, changes in original plans due to changes in shipment priorities, problems of protection of cargo, etc. Secures concurrence of ship's representative on all changes in previously approved plans, and prepares final cargo stowage plan. Investigates all stevedore detentions and extra labor on piers and ship. Prepares vessel loading report. Is authorized to sign timekeeping reports approving detention, extra labor, deadtime, and similar items, and to certify for payment bills rendered by the stevedore. Makes a final inspection upon completion of loading operation to insure that all cargo is properly stowed, blocked, and braced, and secures signature of ship's representative.

3. At a terminal or port, is responsible for the preparation, planning, loading, and stowage of all types of cargo. This includes the preparation of preliminary stowage plans for Military Sea Transport Service approval or stowage plans when appropriate. Deals with the Military Sea Transport Service and other agencies to arrange cargo movements. Performs the work described in Paragraph 2 above. Positions of this type are located in a supply or a transportation organization and are subject to very general supervision.

Marine Cargo Specialist, GS-2161-11


At this level, a Marine Cargo Specialist is responsible for planning and/or loading operations which present a concentration of difficult problems. The incumbents of positions at this level are considered expert in their field and work under general direction without technical supervision. The demand for best available solutions to the varying complex problems characteristic of operations at this level makes decisions dependent upon a high degree of resourcefulness, ingenuity, and sound judgment.

By contrast to assignments described at GS-9 which include a variety of individual planning and loading problems within the range of conventional solution, the pattern of operation at the GS-11 level is characterized by the presence of combinations of considerations beyond the usual range because they require balancing of many conflicting considerations and because the degree of effectiveness that can be realized in prompt, efficient, economical cargo movement is critically dependent upon the level of knowledge and judgment which the responsible Marine Cargo Specialist can bring to bear on his decisions.

The following are typical examples of work at the GS-11 level:

1. At a port where there are a number of unusually complex cargo planning and loading operations, incumbent is regularly given the most difficult assignments. These involve responsibility for cargo planning and/or loading operations which normally present a combination of difficult problems in maximum utilization of vessel space and movement of cargo. The total responsibility of managing the operation is characterized by the complexity of the plans developed and/or applied in the normal work situation, the variety of items that present special loading and stowage problems, the wide variation in vessel structures which necessitate on-the-spot stowage plan adjustments, the inadequacy of ship's gear and facilities to the cargo to be moved, the handling of priority cargo and a high volume of traffic, and other conditions which serve to complicate normal cargo planning and stowage.

2. As a marine cargo specialist at a terminal, incumbent is responsible for assigning vessel space when such assignment involves continuing responsibility for planning and coordinating space allocations for the movement of many different shipments from different sources by means of a number of ships operating on varying schedules. Such space assignment involves reconciling a wide range of problems arising from the diverse nature of the shipments, from the varying space and facilities of the ships, from the schedules which the shippers want to meet, from the varying schedules of the ships, and from the number of stop-off points involved. Incumbent receives shipper's cargo lists and allocates space on each ship to be loaded or discharged. Takes into consideration the depth of the waters to be traversed, the vessel's permissible loads and stresses and most economical steaming draft, the effect of stability and trim of the distribution of the cargo in the various sections of the ship as changes occur at the various ports, the facilities of the vessel for proper stowage of the cargoes involved, and the special construction, facilities and limitations of the particular terminal concerned. Approves or disapproves shipper's prestowage plans, and makes decisions on cargo substitutions to meet loading schedules, considering the ship's condition not only at the port but also as successive cargoes are subsequently loaded and discharged.

Individual Occupational Requirements


Undergraduate and Graduate Education: Major study -- accounting, business administration, business or commercial law, commerce, economics, engineering, finance, industrial management, statistics, traffic management, transportation, motor mechanics, or other fields related to the position.



General Experience (for GS-5 positions): Experience related to waterfront cargo handling or cargo layout and planning operations. This experience must have provided a knowledge of cargo loading aboard ships and a familiarity with marine terminal activities.

Other: Graduation from a Deck Officer course given by a State or Federal Maritime School or possession of a Coast Guard license as Third Officer or higher may be substituted for the experience requirements at the GS-5 level.

Specialized Experience (for positions above GS-5): Experience gained in (1) preparing preliminary cargo stowage plans, and/or (2) overseeing loading, stowage, and discharge operations to make certain that they conform to preliminary plans, or authorizing necessary changes and preparing final plans. This experience must have involved vessels of at least 5,000 dead-weight tons. It must also clearly show a comprehensive knowledge of marine rules and regulations and the ability to plan, direct, organize, and coordinate cargo handling activities; to interpret and apply policies; to investigate operations and practices and resolve problems; and to establish and maintain effective work relationships. Experience in layout planning, ship-loading, and cargo handling may have been gained during such seagoing and marine terminal assignments as service in the U.S. Navy as a cargo officer, similar service in the Merchant Marines, or employment by commercial steamship lines.


Job Outlook

Employment is expected to grow much faster than average; job prospects are expected to be good.

Employment change. Employment of cargo and freight agents is expected to increase by 24 percent during the 2008-18 decade, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. As the overall economy continues to grow, more agents will be needed to handle the growing number of shipments resulting from increases in cargo traffic. Additionally, as shipments require multiple modes of transportation to reach their final destinations, such as freight trucking and air, a greater number of agents will be needed to manage the process. The growing popularity of online shopping and same day delivery may also spur employment growth.

Job prospects. A combination of job growth and turnover are expected to result in good job prospects for cargo and freight agents. However, employment of cargo and freight agents is sensitive to the fluctuations of the economy, and workers may experience high levels of unemployment when the overall level of economic activity falls.


Median hourly wages of cargo and freight agents in May 2008 were $17.92. The middle 50 percent earned between $13.67 and $22.92. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.65, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $27.70. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of cargo and freight agents in May 2008 were:

Scheduled air transportation $18.39
Freight transportation arrangement 18.34
Couriers and express delivery services 18.08
General freight trucking 17.99
Support activities for air transportation 11.48

These workers usually receive the same benefits as most other workers. If uniforms are required, employers generally provide them or offer an allowance to purchase them.

Sources of Additional Information

Information about the freight and cargo industry, including training opportunities, is available from:

  • Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA). 1625 Prince Street, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314. Internet:

Information on obtaining Cargo Specialist positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
OPM's Position Classification Standards for White Collar Work

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