The world of the commercial diver seems to be a very attractive one. Diving schools tell us about the opportunities for international travel, lots of excitement (and a little danger), and a salary to match. But how close is this to reality? Is the life of the commercial diver really so profitable? Can you work hard on an oil rig in the middle of nowhere for just six months a year and then spend the next six months at your leisure? It’s time to find out exactly that.
Most commercial offshore diving is related to the oil and gas industry. This work includes non-destructive testing (NDT) and inspection of underwater infrastructures, cables and pipework, as well as salvage and removal of debris. This list of career opportunities also – of course – includes underwater welding. In this article, I will concentrate on both regular commercial diving, but will go deep into the topic of offshore underwater welding as well.
How Much Do Commercial Divers Make?
An average commercial diving salary lies between $30 and $45 USD per hour, depending on your working location. Commercial divers make an attractive hourly rate due to the risks and niche skills involved. It can be a good job opportunity for an experienced welder.
The hourly rate or expected annual salary of an offshore underwater welder depends on a variety of factors which I will go into in more detail later on. Obviously, where you live is one of them, so I have researched offshore diving work throughout the world. Unfortunately, due to fluctuating gas and oil prices, commercial offshore welding salaries have been dropping during past years. There is also a difference between payments between local and imported work. Here are the average hourly, daily and annual rates of pay per country in US dollars meant as a general guide:
|Salary in USD ($)||Hourly pay||Daily pay||Yearly pay|
|Australasia||$39||$400 - 600||$75,000|
|Middle East||$42||$350 - 580||$70,000|
|North America||$40||$350 - 540||$74,000|
|Northern Europe||$45||$320 - 580||$76,000|
|South America||$30||$200 - 330||$59,000|
|West Africa||$38||$300 - 500||$65,000|
|Western Europe||$40||$400 - 600||$75,000|
These rates have been calculated using information gathered from commercial diving agencies, job posts and forums. There is a huge difference in salary depending on a wide range of factors which will be described in the next section of this article. For example, the annual salary is based on 200 days of work. One thing is for sure, the money you spend on your training will be earned back, making commercial offshore welding a worthwhile career choice as long as you understand its limitations.
How Much Do Offshore Underwater Welders Make?
A lot of factors influence how much offshore underwater welders can make. Roughly, you’ll make between $75k and as much as $200k USD. These factors influence the underwater welding paycheck you’ll be able to earn:
- Underwater welding experience;
- Your contract length;
- How much perks you’ll get with the job;
- The location difficulty;
- The type of welding job required.
Getting your foot in the door is the first, huge step you will have to make once earning your diving and welding credentials. Many welders choose to learn to dive in order to apply for better-paying jobs and more interesting careers. With welding experience, they have a better chance of finding work than those who have no experience whatsoever. Your choice of diving school or welding course don’t seem to have much of an influence on future work, but the type of qualification you achieve will.
Don’t stop at welding and diving courses. Go the extra mile and earn acknowledged certifications in first aid, offshore survival, helicopter underwater escape training (HUET), basic offshore safety induction and emergency training (BOSIET), and standards of training, certification and watchkeeping. Some of these are required, but even if not, they will increase your chances of getting your first jobs. Other newly qualified underwater welders first find work inshore, building up their initial experience while applying for offshore positions. When it comes to salary, experience is number one when it comes to earning the top wage. Experienced commercial offshore welders can earn more than $100,000 when working between 150 and 200 days a year.
Length of Contract
This brings us to the next factor – how many days you work. While many sites will tell you that you can earn over $150,000 working for just six months of the year, the reality is very different. Unless you have a lot of experience and also work in a supervisory role, you won’t achieve this sum. Those lucky enough to earn themselves full-time contracts with a lot of overtime generally earn around between $75,000 and $100,000 a year.
However, in comparison with seasonal or short-term work, these jobs are few and far between. It is estimated that 70% of offshore divers are self-employed. A lot of offshore work is seasonal, depending on a gentle sea and avoiding the worst of winter storms. Any underwater work has its own set of risks and contractors must follow rigid guidelines to keep their workers as safe as possible. This means your first jobs might be limited to days or weeks. Saturation divers might get paid at a very high rate (around $1800 per day), but regulations mean they can only work up to about 28 days at a time before taking a substantial break. If you are interested in deep sea work, have a look at this article.
When starting out, don’t expect much over 50 – 100 days of work in the first year or two. Inexperienced commercial divers can be a hazard risk and a reputable contractor will try to avoid using them. Many newly graduated divers in the US first work in one of the lowest paid regions – South America – to build up their experience and reputation. Many commercial divers admit their careers are part-time and either manage their own businesses when not offshore or mix offshore with inshore or even land-based work. While the money is in the offshore department, it can’t be relied upon for consistent work.
Financial Perks Due To Sacrifices
The life of an offshore worker can be a lonely one. You will need to make a lot of sacrifices you’ll have to be prepared for:
- Traveling halfway across the globe;
- Leaving family and friends behind for days, weeks or months at a time;
- Working long days in uncomfortable and dangerous conditions;
- Being stuck with a small group of people you might not be able to communicate with or even like;
- Working at various depths with all the extra regulations and dangers this brings with it;
I’m sure you’ll understand that very few commercial divers experience their work as a ‘glamourous’ career. Most agree, get your head down and the work done in order to earn as much as you can in a short period of time. It’s really about the money, despite the sacrifices.
Because this type of work is so different from any land-based career, there are many financial perks on offer exactly because of the downsides of the job. These range from free flights (no, not business class) to away from home allowances, accepted weld premiums (approved millimeters or centimeters of your welding work) and payments according to depth.
Where you work will also have a lot to do with how much you earn and how often you earn it. As already mentioned, the Gulf of Mexico is often chosen by inexperienced commercial offshore welders who realize the big money comes with time. Next on the list is Malaysia, also offering commercial work for lower rates than those expected in the more regulated US, Australia and Northern Europe.
North Sea work is regulated by the Offshore Diving Industry Agreement and divers are expected to receive a minimum wage of £580 per day (about $750). This makes the North Sea one of the most competitive areas when it comes to finding work. Fair Work Australia also publishes guidelines relating to how much a commercial diver should earn, but these are just that – guidelines. One possibility is Russia – with a huge coastline there are many opportunities for ship repairs, but the language is often a problem for English speaking welders.
While the US provides plenty of work for commercial inshore divers, offshore work tends to be more limited and work permits can be a problem for workers coming in from overseas. Scotland and the northern coastal areas of England are popular, well-paid destinations for more experienced commercial divers due to a huge expanse of offshore wind farms and pipelines. Offshore oil rigs also provide work for the already initiated.
Type of Work
There’s more than just one type of offshore welding. Some of them are better paid than others. When welding underwater one thing is sure – you need a reliable breathable air supply and protection from the pressure of hundreds to millions of cubic feet of water above your head. Offshore commercial diving uses the following techniques:
- SCUBA: Self-contained underwater breathing apparatus composed of an air cylinder and breathing apparatus for diving up to 40 meters. Obviously, you can only stay underwater for as long as your oxygen supply lasts (the deeper you go, the less time you have). Used more in inshore commercial diving (which is less lucrative than offshore unless you are guaranteed steady work).
- Surface Supplied Diving: Oxygen and air are supplied from above the water line to a diving helmet via a hose. This means you can stay in the water for much longer, according to decompression limits. Divers are also supplied with a ‘bailout’ cylinder should the hose (aka umbilical) supply become compromised.
- Closed Bell/Saturation: The ultimate in diver ‘cha-ching’, but also the most uncomfortable. Saturation diving means hyperbaric welding skills (under high external pressures). You will work for days at a time in the company of a small team of welders. For this, you require a great sense of patience (you can’t just pop up to the surface when you’ve had enough) and knowledge of both wet (underwater) and dry (hyperbaric) welding. Just 100 days of closed bell welding will bring in approximately $200,000. But you need to be top of your game and also prepared for very uncomfortable and potentially hazardous living conditions.
Is Commercial Offshore Diving The Right Career For Me?
Only you know the answer to that. Most commercial divers say the right personality is a priority. Many diving teams living in close quarters for weeks at a time place attitude above skill. If you consider yourself high-maintenance, maybe this isn’t the right career choice. But when you have the drive and confidence to just keep on applying and training and you are prepared to sacrifice your comfort for a wage which – let’s face it – isn’t huge compared to some digital entrepreneurs, then why not?
Just know that the sacrifices of the job are significant, but the rewards might balance them out quite well. Now you know how much this job could pay you, are you willing to temporarily give up a part of your life for it? If the answer is yes, you know exactly what to do, start applying for a job. Perhaps it might be best to keep up to speed with your skills in the meantime. For this, my recommended welding equipment overview might help you out.