If you're like a lot of divers, you sometimes
think about throwing in the proverbial towel and
trading your desk job for one that's a little
less mundane, and a little more exciting. Those
few days or weeks you spend diving are the
highlight of your year, and you find yourself
asking, why not? Why not try to turn my
avocation into a vocation? Why not get a little
deeper into diving? Why not become a commercial
diver? If you've ever found yourself uttering
those words beneath your breath, then you may
want to consider a career that will take you
beneath the seas.
The Essence of Commercial Diving
Commercial diving is a term that covers a
remarkably broad spectrum of activities.
"Commercial diving is industrial construction
that takes place underwater," says Allen Garber,
chief administrative officer for the Commercial
Diving Academy in Jacksonville, Florida. It
involves a variety of trades and skills, all of
which are complicated by the hostile environment
in which they are performed. Jobs like welding
are tough, but even tougher when performed in
the inky, cold blackness 400 feet below the
As Tamara Brown, president of Divers Academy
International in Atlantic City, New Jersey,
says, "While most people associate commercial
diving with the offshore oil industry, there is
also a lot of inland commercial diving. This
includes support for everything from nuclear
power plants to bridge inspection and repair to
building and repairing wastewater treatment
facilities." Regardless of what kind of
commercial diving it is, it requires a skill set
far afield from recreational diving, and quite
unlike anything else at all. A commercial diver
must be equally capable of performing a
multitude of different tasks, and in much more
demanding situations than other tradesmen.
Requirements and Prerequisites
At the outset, the requirements for becoming a
commercial diver are not overly difficult to
meet. "The basic requirements include a high
school diploma or equivalency. Applicants must
also pass a diving physical," says Bob Browning
of The Ocean Corporation in Houston.
Beyond the basic requirements are good swimming
skills, and a strong desire to take on a
difficult challenge. "A strong mechanical
inclination is another important trait for
anybody who wants to be a commercial diver,"
Garber says. "A potential candidate ought to at
least know what a crescent wrench is and how to
Age can also be an important factor when
considering a career in commercial diving.
"After age 45, divers are usually restricted
from deep diving for physiological reasons,"
says Browning, "so most companies prefer to hire
commercial divers who are younger. We find that
people in the range of 18 to 35 years old are
the most desired by prospective employers. We
will train people older than 35, but only with a
Despite the desire for younger divers, the
commercial diving industry isn't devoid of
opportunities for those who have reached middle
age and beyond. "We had one student who
completed our program at age 59," Garber says.
"It was just something he always wanted to do.
And as it turned out, he found work in the
inland and coastal sector of commercial diving."
Most people also see commercial diving as a
"man's world," but Judy Lough of Santa Barbara
City College in Santa Barbara, California, says
about 3 percent to 6 percent of its students are
females. "They do really well and have no more
difficulty finding a job as a commercial diver
than do the guys," Lough says. John Paul
Johnston, executive director of the Divers
Institute of Technology in Seattle, agrees. "We
have about 10 percent women attending our
school, and they do a fantastic job. I think
it's a great career for women to consider." The
bottom line really is the desire to achieve and
willingness to work hard.
Training Programs and Certification
There are broad variations in the format and
content of commercial diver training programs. A
program that provides the basic entry-level
commercial diver certification will cost around
$8,000, and take roughly two months to complete.
However, many schools provide a more extensive
training curriculum that costs the student
between $15,000 and $20,000, and will take four
to twelve months to complete, depending on the
schedule and format of the program. In addition,
there are schools that offer commercial diver
training and certification as part of an
accredited two-year college degree program.
Despite their differences, a common thread in
the fabric of commercial diver training is
commercial diver certification. To be eligible
to work as a commercial diver, one must hold the
proper certification. The Association of Diving
Contractors International (ADCI), founded in
1968, is a nonprofit organization that was
formed to establish industrywide standards for
commercial diving in the United States. Although
ADCI has no regulatory jurisdiction, it has more
than 500 member companies representing business,
educational and medical communities from 41
nations around the world, and is considered the
industry watchdog for safe commercial diving.
Among its various functions, the ADCI sets
standards for various levels of commercial diver
certification, as well as for ROV pilots and
technicians. The basic ACD Commercial Diver
certification is Entry Level Tender/Diver. To
earn more advanced certifications, a diver must
log experience in the field (called "field
days") and underwater (referred to as "working
dives"). Divers are required to receive
on-the-job training to be eligible for more
advanced commercial diver certification unless
they received the required formal training
through an accredited commercial diving school,
military dive school, or the equivalent.
The Association of Commercial Diving Educators (ACDE)
through an American National Standards Institute
(ANSI) American national standard prescribes the
educational content of commercial diver training
programs. Referred to as ANSI-1988, the standard
dictates the minimum training requirements and
general curriculum that must be met for
accreditation by the ACDE. The ACDE prescribes a
broad curriculum for commercial diver
certification, which exceeds the basic ADCI
requirements for its Entry Level Tender/Diver,
but includes the training requirements for the
advanced commercial diver certifications such as
Mixed Gas Diving. The minimum requirements
prescribed by ACDE/ANSI-1988 tally up to 625
hours of training. Students who complete an ACDE-accredited
program are eligible for an ACDE/ANSI-1988
Commercial Diver Certification.
While ACDI and ACDE certifications are accepted
by U.S. commercial diving companies, even those
who work overseas, additional certification is
generally required for those seeking foreign
employment as a commercial diver. Commercial
divers generally must be certified in the
country where they are employed. For example,
divers employed in Canada would require
certification from the Diver Certification Board
of Canada (DCBC); those employed in Australia
would fall under the jurisdiction of the
Australian Diver Accreditation Scheme (ADAS);
and those in the UK require certification by the
Health and Safety Executive (HSE). As Johnston
says, the International Marine Contractor
Association (IMCA) commercial diver
certification is now recognized throughout most
of the rest of the world.
The content of a typical commercial diver
training program includes a variety of subjects.
The ANSI-prescribed curriculum includes such
diverse topics as diving physics; decompression
tables and procedures; anatomy and physiology;
diving diseases; treatment of diving injuries;
first aid and CPR; seamanship and rigging;
lightweight diving equipment and procedures;
operations planning; dive logs, records, and
Standards for Commercial Diving; maintenance of
diver's umbilical, underwater tools; drawings,
blueprints and report writing; welding and
cutting; mixed-gas diving; marine engines and
compressors; and industrial and offshore safety.
For those who desire a more broad educational
experience, degree programs in commercial diving
technology are also available. The College of
Oceaneering, a division of the National
Polytechnic College of Engineering and
Oceaneering, along with its non-degree program,
offers an associate's of science degree in
marine technology. Students can specialize in
underwater wet welding (WeldTech), advanced dive
medicine (MedTech), underwater nondestructive
testing (SpecTech), or homeland security
management. Laura Feher of the College of
Oceaneering says, "Having at least an
associate's degree can be vital for those who
want to move up into a supervisory or management
position with a commercial diving company. Many
of our graduates will continue with our online
programs to improve their resumes and become
more competitive in the workplace."
Santa Barbara City College in Santa Barbara,
California, offers an associate's in science
degree in marine diving technologies (MDT).
Beyond its ACDE/ANSI-1988 accredited program,
available electives include such diverse topics
as emergency medical technician (EMT) training,
biological oceanography, ROV sonar operation,
electronics, and underwater crime scene
investigation. "As an educational institution,
we do encourage our students to complete their
associate's degree before entering the
workforce," Lough says. "Often after four to six
years of working as a commercial diver, they
want to return to school to complete a
bachelor's degree and take advantage of other
opportunities. It's easier if they already have
their associate's degree out of the way."
Whether or not you consider a degree program,
one often important factor is that a commercial
diving school be federally accredited. This
allows a qualified student to receive a
financial aid package consisting of federal
loans and grants - usually adequate to cover the
cost of the training program.
While not typically necessary, a background in
recreational diving is a plus when it comes to
commercial diver training. As a recreational
diver, familiarity with the underwater
environment, and at least a cursory
understanding of the physics and physiology
involved with putting a human body underwater
can give a recreational diver a bit of an edge,
at least in the initial stage of training.
"Even a dive instructor might find that his
background and knowledge is a help only for the
first few days," Tamara Brown says. "After that,
he might find himself struggling to keep his
head above water along with everyone else."
A few commercial diving programs, such as the
Minnesota Commercial Diving Training Center,
require its students to be certified as a sport
diver before admission. As owner and president,
Bill Matthies says that requiring students to be
scuba-qualified helps keep the school's training
program affordable and efficient. Its eight-week
program is the shortest in the industry, but to
achieve that goal the school also limits classes
to a dozen students. "We have class 10 hours a
day, six days a week," says Matthies, "and we
break our students up into two pods of six
people, so that every student gets to do every
job, including diving and tending, every day. We
also train in a variety of open-water
environments so our students get lots of
experience. In addition to our 13-foot training
pool, we dive in the Mississippi River where
it's 'fast and dirty,' and in nearby iron mines
that offer depths to more than 500 feet [152
Commercial diving school is decidedly tough.
Browning says that only about 72 percent of
those who begin Ocean Corp's program will
finish. "Some of the tougher parts of the
academic program are the decompression tables,
physiology, and nondestructive testing. But more
of our students drop out for personal or 'life
issues' than because of academic problems."
Job Prospects and Pay
Much of the current demand for commercial diving
in the United States is a consequence of
Hurricane Katrina. "There are roughly 4,000 oil
rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and about 3,000 of
them need repair due to Katrina," Brown says.
"In fact, about half of those rigs are just gone
- swept away. It's going to take at least
another five to eight years to complete the
task." Another area of high demand is the surge
of inspection and repair of bridges, dams and
other structures due to recent floods.
For those willing to take on the demands of
commercial diving, the rewards are generous.
Starting annual pay for a commercial diver is in
the $40,000 to $60,000 range, including full
benefits. Once a diver gains experience and
proves himself, the pay can grow to $100,000 to
$150,000 a year. "Most of our graduates start
out with jobs in the Gulf of Mexico, where they
start out making around $1,800 per week,"
Browning says. He also says that there is more
to look at than just the base pay and benefits,
with lots of incentives being offered. A
commercial diver can earn a variety of
incentives and bonuses, including a hat bonus,
safety bonus, and recruiting bonus. Divers earn
"depth pay" or additional incentives ranging
from $1 to $4 per foot for working at depth.
Saturation diving earns even higher incentives.
Despite the fact that the demand for commercial
divers is high, Brown stresses the importance of
getting solid training. "Right now there's a
boom in commercial diving, and everybody is
getting hired, but that won't last forever.
Commercial diving is historically a cyclical
business, and anybody who enters it should be
prepared for the slow times. As part of Divers
Academy International's 30-week training
program, divers learn a lot of skills that
translate to topside jobs, including
nondestructive testing, welding, hazardous
material handling, and rigging."
An eye toward the future should include
consideration of nondiving work in the industry.
If a diver suffers an injury or develops a
medical condition that precludes diving, having
topside skills are an ace up the sleeve.
Oftentimes, commercial divers entering their mid
40s or 50s will move on to other jobs where
their skills and knowledge can be applied.
The Fast Track
Considering the high earnings potential for
commercial diving, the price of becoming a
commercial diver is a bargain. Ocean Corp's
30-week commercial diver program is $16,000, and
federal financial aid is often available for
qualified students. "In addition," Browning
says, "Many companies who hire divers have
incentive programs to pay for all or part of a
diver's training when they sign a 25-month work
Compared with other career paths, commercial
diving is a fast track to high earnings.
Consider that six months of commercial diver
training at a cost of $20,000 can lead to a job
with starting pay in the $40,000 to $60,000
range, with earnings potential of more than
$100,000 per year. It's difficult to find other
forms of career training that cost so little yet
offer as high an earning potential and such a
high demand for graduates.
Although the financial reward is substantial,
the job is not an easy one. "Those divers earn
every penny they make," Garber says. "A lot of
guys who go into it thinking it's an easy way to
make a fast buck quickly learn otherwise."
The Realities of Commercial Diving
Despite what might sound like "easy money,"
commercial diving is hard physical work, and
there's not much in the way of sitting around on
coffee breaks. Don't expect to be packing your
lunchbox for a 9-to-5 day as a commercial diver,
either. A commercial diver in the Gulf might be
out at sea working for two to six weeks at a
time, which is tough on some individuals.
Ten-hour workdays are also common in the
Within the realm of commercial diving are two
broad categories that offer distinct advantages
for different lifestyles. First is the offshore
diving industry, which offers more international
travel. Offshore commercial divers are usually
away from home for longer periods of time, as
much as six weeks at a time with one week off in
between. Inland and coastal commercial diving
may be a better fit for those with families who
prefer not to be away for as long at a time.
Often, divers in this sector of commercial
diving will have more "normal" working hours and
shorter days, allowing them to spend more time
at home. However, even the inland and coastal
commercial diver may still travel for weeks at a
time to perform the work required by larger
If your current job lacks the excitement and
adventure you long for, and you don't mind hard
physical work, then commercial diving might
offer just the career path you're looking for.
With the right training, you can get in deep,
without getting in over your head.
Choosing a Commercial Diving School
Training to become a commercial diver is
available from a variety of schools across the
United States, and while they all certify
commercial divers, there are distinct
differences in their offerings. The challenge is
to decide which school offers the best package
for you. Here are some of the questions you may
want to consider when making that important
When can I start training, and how long will the
training program run?
What is the training environment and schedule
like, and how much hands-on experience will I
Beyond the ADC Commercial Diver Certification,
what additional certifications such as diver
medical technician, ROV pilot/technician,
nondestructive testing (NDT), and Hazardous
Worker (HAZWOPR) will I receive? Does the
training include everything required for all
advanced ADCI certifications?
How is the school accredited, and can I receive
credit for my commercial diver training toward a
Is financial aid available, and can I take
advantage of veteran's benefits?
What are the additional costs above the tuition,
such as books, equipment, and room and board?
Will I be prepared for career changes if and
when such needs arise?
Where are graduates getting jobs, and how will
the school help place me where I want to work?
What Commercial Divers Do...
Commercial divers perform a spectrum of work
activities that entail a variety of hard-won
skills. The following list from the College of
Oceaneering identifies some of the jobs that
commercial divers may perform. These jobs may be
performed in a variety of diving environments
Bridge inspection, construction and repair
Fabrication of equipment
Flotation devices maintenance
Hyperbaric chamber operations
Injection equipment installation
Life-support systems construction, operation,
repair and maintenance
Marine environmental control check
Medical and emergency care for diving illnesses
Operation of 1-atmosphere suits
Operation of remotely operated vehicles (ROV)
Operation of diving bells
Platform construction, inspection, maintenance
Rock drilling and blasting
Search and recovery
Sewage line installation and maintenance
Site surveys prior to installation
Surface geological appraisal
Trenching or underwater jetting
Underwater inspection, installation, repair and
Underwater photography and videography
Underwater welding and cutting
Water line installation, inspection, repair and
Wellhead repair and maintenance
Commercial Diving Schools
The following is a partial list of schools that
offer training to be a certified
commercial diver. Contact the schools directly
for more information on their requirements,
training programs, tuition and associated