The Beginner's Guide
to Underwater Welding Careers
If you’re reading this, you may have heard about underwater welding, but don’t know exactly what the profession entails. Or, you may have considered underwater welding as a possible career for some time, and want to know what your next step is.
Whatever your level of familiarity with this exciting line of work may be, this guide is for you. We’ll talk about the industry outlook for commercial divers looking for careers in underwater welding, what skills you’ll need to get there, and the amazingly diverse types of jobs you can take on once you’re qualified.
Let’s get one thing out of the way —
“underwater welder” isn’t a job title.
A common misconception is that “underwater welder” will be your position if you take on a commercial diving career that involves welding. In fact, underwater welding is a skill set, not a job title. The official name for a professional who performs underwater welding is a “commercial diver,” in much the same way that a boilermaker or well driller may need to be skilled in welding, without calling themselves “boiler welders” or “well welders.”
In fact, underwater welding is just one important part of a job that requires you to have several diverse skill sets, including first-aid and safety training, hyperbaric chamber operations, and dynamic problem-solving.
So what do commercial divers — AKA “underwater welders” — actually do?
If you’ve ever driven over a bridge to cross a river, fueled up at a gas station, received power from a hydroelectric plant, or even filled a glass with tap water, you can thank a commercial diver. Each day, divers suit up, jump in the water, and perform highly technical skilled labor to inspect, maintain, and repair the infrastructure that holds business and society together.
That’s a high-level overview of the work underwater welders perform, but the specific type of work you perform as a commercial diver depends on whether you’re an inland or an offshore diver. Let’s take a look at these two basic categories of underwater welding and how they compare.
What is offshore underwater welding?
The offshore underwater welding industry predominantly revolves around oil rigs and petroleum pipelines, as well as wind turbines and other energy infrastructure situated in oceans. Commercial divers are responsible for making sure this critical infrastructure is safe, secure, and operating properly.
Without underwater welding expertise, we would see far more oil spills, rig explosions, and other crises that endanger not only the environment, but the health and safety of the people who live and work in places like the Gulf of Mexico. While you may recall the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, disasters of that magnitude are extremely rare in the United States thanks to the inspections commercial divers perform on our oil systems in the Gulf.
Oil spills and explosions have historically been more frequent outside the US, in areas like the North Sea, but a renewed international focus on safe energy extraction has resulted in stricter inspection requirements around the world. This means that commercial divers with underwater welding expertise are needed in every country with offshore oil equipment.
This focus will also be felt domestically as we continue to talk about our growing need for safer infrastructure, driving demand for more commercial divers stateside. Offshore demand is especially strong during periods of extreme weather. In the United States, commercial divers must inspect oil rigs after every hurricane, on top of the required annual inspection and maintenance.
How Offshore Commercial Divers Respond to Hurricanes
1. 28 days before the storm makes impact,
commercial divers receive notice and plan their response.
2. All hands on deck!
Commercial divers ship out to where the oil rigs and pipelines will be affected to shut them down.
3. After the hurricane passes,
the oil rigs enter an inspection phase before they can open back up for production. Commercial divers inspect the damage, determine which rigs and equipment need repair or replacement, and perform the necessary repairs. The repair phase can last two to three years if the damage is extensive.
Before Hurricane Katrina, there were 3,000 oil rigs, on average, operating in the Gulf of Mexico. After Hurricane Katrina, 1,500 rigs — 50% of those hit — needed repair or replacement.
What is inland underwater welding?
Inland commercial divers complete diverse domestic projects spanning the marine construction, civil engineering, and communications industries. While offshore commercial divers do important work keeping the energy industry operating safely, the efforts of inland divers keep life and business running smoothly for everyday citizens. Here’s how inland underwater welding helps hold our infrastructure together.
Inland vs. Offshore Commercial Diving: Which Is Right for Me?
Inland Commercial Diving
Work Schedule: More consistent, predictable work year-round
Location: Eastern seaboard, west coast, Great Lakes — wherever marine infrastructure like dams, bridges, and water treatment facilities exist
Demand: Steady demand for work due to regular inspection schedules for public infrastructure
Offshore Commercial Diving
Work Schedule: Fluctuates more, based on seasons and need
Location: Fewer choices of where to live and work, often situated around the Gulf Coast or wherever offshore energy infrastructure is located
Demand: More dependent on industry, seasonal, weather, and environmental factors
Why is underwater welding such an exciting career opportunity?
Plenty of people are satisfied working indoors, behind a desk — and there’s nothing wrong with that — but maybe that isn’t you. Maybe you’re looking for adventure, a job that involves travel and the great outdoors, a career that allows you to answer the question “What do you do for a living?” with something fun and unexpected.
Here are just a few of the aspects of underwater welding careers our graduates at Divers Academy International find appealing:
- The chance to work with a team of tight-knit, motivated professionals
- The pride of helping repair and maintain something valuable to society, from bridges to hydroelectric infrastructure
- The opportunity to work with your hands and be physically active on the job
- The unique problem-solving situations divers find themselves in each day require fast-thinking and serious technical know-how
- A love of the water and diving itself
What Commercial Divers Say About Their Jobs
"Best decision I ever made. I now have an awesome job, traveling all across the states, doing what I love!"
- Blake L.
Divers Academy International Graduate
If you can relate to these passions, a career in commercial diving and underwater welding might be a great fit — and you could stand to make a handsome wage.
How much does underwater welding pay?
While commercial diving careers pay well in general, wages vary depending on where and how you perform your work. For example, the annual mean salary for a commercial diver in the Philadelphia metro area was $91,840 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be making that right out of the gate, or that $91,840 is an upper limit. Many divers who perform underwater welding make well above or below that mean.
So what kind of wage will you draw with a career in underwater welding?
That depends on three factors:
- Your geographic location
- The size and type of company you work for
- Your personal performance and skill level
Let’s take a look at each factor and how it impacts your earning potential.
How Location Affects Your Underwater Welding Wage
As with any job, where you work helps determine what you make. For example, you might assume that performing underwater welding on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico would be your most lucrative option. Given the high value of oil, why wouldn’t you?
It might come as a surprise, then, that inland commercial divers in areas like the New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles Harbors working on civil engineering, marine construction, and communications projects often make more money than underwater welding professionals in the Gulf of Mexico or Florida. While a diver in NJ makes an average annual income of $91k, a diver in the Gulf of Mexico makes an average $48-51k, according to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Prevailing Wages for Commercial Divers
If you work for a government contractor like a State Department of Transportation, you will likely be paid according to prevailing wage, an hourly wage and benefits established by government and regulatory agencies.
For example, divers working government contracts in Morris County, NJ are paid $56.34/hr in wages and the equivalent of $44.37 in fringe benefits. Those divers are also entitled to additional pay based on the depth and penetration of their dive, ranging from $0.25 to $2.50 per foot depending on the type of dive.
How Company Size and Type Affect Your Underwater Welding Wage
Most companies that employ commercial divers are contractors for larger private corporations (for example, energy and communications companies) or public, government, and military entities (for example, state departments of transportation). The size of these firms helps determine how many contracts they have in play at a given point in time, and the budget for the organizations they serve helps determine how many contracts are available to begin with.
Smaller contracting firms with fewer simultaneous contracts hire fewer commercial divers and tend to pay lower wages, on average, than larger companies with established relationships with the organizations they serve. Those larger companies can also provide greater stability to individual divers, as those firms have more work in their pipelines.
When looking at potential commercial diving employers, ask yourself: is this a smaller, more regional company? A midsize national firm? Or a large international organization? While it’s not the only factor, and mileage may vary, this can help you get a sense of how many contracts they manage and how well they pay.
How Performance and Skill Affect Your Underwater Welding Wage
One of the most empowering aspects of a career in commercial diving is that you get out what you put in. This is a performance-driven industry. If you’re hardworking, skilled, mechanically inclined, safety-conscious, a team player, and able to solve problems quickly and effectively, your pay raises will reflect that.
Time is money in this industry. If the contracting firm that hires you delivers quality work in less time than the next firm, your employer will win more contracts. If your employer wins more contracts, you get more paying work — especially if your boss knows that you’re capable of getting the job done right, and fast.
You’re the Master of Your Commercial Diving Destiny
This is especially good news for divers just starting out. In the commercial diving industry, performance trumps seniority. If a new diver completes a task in 45 minutes, while a more experienced diver does the same work in an hour and a half, the new diver has essentially added an extra 45 minutes of profit to the employer’s checkbook.
It’s not unheard of for a skilled underwater welder to graduate from commercial diving school, get hired, and then become a supervisor in less than a year. The power to grow and succeed as a commercial diver is in your hands.
Is underwater welding dangerous to your health?
Let’s address the elephant in the room: some people are hesitant to pursue a career in commercial diving because they’ve heard that it’s dangerous work. It’s important to maintain a healthy respect for the risks of underwater welding, but that shouldn’t keep you from pursuing a job you love. What it should do is reinforce the importance of following the evidence-based, data-driven safety precautions the industry has in place to protect divers.
Those precautions make phenomena like decompression sickness (“the bends”), electric shock, and drowning exceptionally rare. As a matter of fact, you’re more likely to be seriously injured as a farmer, fisher, or truck driver than you are as a commercial diver.
As we tell students at Divers Academy International, “always plan your dive and dive your plan.” Scientists have studied the impacts of decompression and nitrogen toxicity in divers, and developed dive tables to indicate how long a diver can safely stay submerged at each level of depth. Divers also use hyperbaric chambers to treat the effects of nitrogen toxicity and help tissue recover from a deep dive. Between planning and proper use of decompression equipment, actual instances of divers getting “the bends” are few and far between.
No research has shown that underwater welding causes any long-term health consequences. In fact, commercial divers must clear a physical each year to prove they’re fit to dive. How long do commercial divers live? Just as long as anyone else — and those lives are filled with travel, adventure, and fulfilling work!
Start your underwater welding journey at commercial diving school
Commercial diving is an ideal career choice for those who want to make a difference every time they go to work, take control of their own success, master a variety of technical skills, and dive into a new adventure each day — all while making great money.
To get started, you’ll need to enroll in a commercial diving school that offers the hands-on training, mentorship, and career pipeline you need to find success in underwater welding. Full-time students enrolled in commercial diving school can complete their ANSI/ACDE Commercial Diving Certification, along with other professional and safety certifications, in only six months.
Why choose Divers Academy International?
For more than forty years, Divers Academy International has led the way in commercial diving and underwater welding education. Our nationally accredited program takes 25 weeks of full-time study to complete, after which you’ll have the industry-recognized certifications employers are looking for (including the much-in-demand Nitrox Mixed Gas Diving and DCBC International certifications.)
Located near the Port of Philadelphia — a hub of high-paying inland diving work — our career placement specialists and relationships with more than 100 companies worldwide provide students an on-ramp to get their careers started right out of the gate.
What Our Students Have to Say
“Great experience. Gave me the tools to excel in the inland diving. I actually ended up becoming a supervisor for a local nuclear plant and all their dive operations. Would suggest DIA to anyone interested in the field!”
- Brockton S.
Divers Academy International Graduate