A career as a commercial diver begins with commercial diving school, where students are taught to do nearly everything underwater. When a graduate hires on with a diving company, the graduate is a commercial diver, but until the diver has several years of experience the work may lack glamor or high wages. The industry works on an “on-call” basis, and divers do not work regular hours or on a set schedule.
Entry level commercial divers are called diver tenders. The entry level wage averages $18 an hour, or $216 a day for a 12-hour day as of 2012, according to industry sources. This wage is only paid when the diver is on a job or working in the dive company’s shop, preparing equipment for a job. This is comparable with wage and employment statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which states that the lowest 25 percent of commercial divers are paid an average hourly wage of $18.38.
A commercial diver will work with one or two of a company’s dive supervisors and several groups of divers over a period of several years. Throughout this period, the diver tender receives small pay increases while being evaluated by the dive supervisors. If the dive supervisors and other divers in the company find that the candidate is a good fit, the diver tender will “break out” — that is, will be accepted as a full diver, though an inexperienced one.
There is a paradox in being promoted from diver tender to inexperienced diver. The hourly rate rises, and the diver will receive “depth pay” — pay for each foot dived beyond a depth specified by the dive company — but this may not result in an overall raise in periodic pay. The “call outs” for an inexperienced diver will be less frequent than those of a senior diver tender, because of the lack of dive experience. It’s likely that after “breaking out,” the diver’s annual wages will actually drop, but then will rise to being higher than the diver tender pay as the diver gains experience in the field.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the average hourly wage for all commercial divers is $28.19, or $58,640 per year. The lowest 10 percent of earners make up to $15.15 an hour, or $31,510 a year. This is a significant contrast to the top-paid 10 percent of commercial divers, who earn $45.50 or more an hour, which translates to $94,630 or more a year.
The top 10 percent include the most experienced divers, with specialized skills such as saturation diving. Saturation divers work at extreme depths, nearing 1,200 feet, where the pressure is 35 times that of sea level. These saturation divers live, eat and sleep in shipboard chambers pressurized to the depth to which they will dive. They emerge only after extensive decompression that may last weeks beyond their diving activities.
Hazards and Outlook
Mike Brown, President of the Association of Diving Contractors International, cautions about the hazards of the industry. Brown says that in April, the “industry experienced two fatalities, one while inspecting a ship thruster” and the other while “taking water samples for a municipality.” Even so, Brown says that opportunities for divers are “dramatically increasing,” particularly in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.