Pressure building to fill demand for underwater welders

Underwater welding is one of the specialty skills that puts commercial divers in high demand for construction work along the Gulf Coast and at other locations.

Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Ivan in 2004, much of the task of subsea hurricane cleanup and rebuilding falls onto the shoulders of commercial divers. Twenty-four hours a day, at depths ranging from a few feet up to 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, divers are inspecting, welding, cutting metal, and assisting with installations of new and repaired equipment.

Right now there’s a worldwide shortage of commercial divers, due in large part to massive cleanup and reconstruction efforts taking place in the Gulf of Mexico after the recent hurricanes and the race for higher production.

Before the hurricanes, about 1,000 divers were working in the Gulf of Mexico. Now the figure is closer to 1,500. Even with the additions, however, competition for new divers remains fierce. Since last year, dive companies say they have been trying to reel in more fresh dive school graduates, ex-military and even retired divers. They say they are offering everything from signing bonuses to tuition-reimbursement plans.

Dive companies say average pay has risen about 25 percent since 2005. In their first year out of school, divers can make up to $1,800 a week when on the job. Experienced divers, meanwhile, can earn $1,000 a day and up to $200,000 in annual pay.

But it’s not easy work. Assignments can keep divers away from home for weeks or months at a time. There are stringent physical requirements and long apprenticeship programs before landing the most coveted diving jobs. And then there’s the challenge of living in a pressurized tank at the end of your shift, where the main form of entertainment is television. It takes a special person to live in these conditions.



Ira S Wolfe