Underwater welding: the allure of a niche job

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Underwater welding is not for everyone.

There are only about 3,000 people in the United States with the highest level of international certifications, and only two places to achieve it.

 

The oldest is the Divers Institute of Technology on North Lake Union, founded in 1968. The other is in Florida.

Instructor Jim Bernacki says, “It’s for thrill seekers looking for a skill that’s challenging.”

Former carpenter and now diving teacher Jake Dow says, “We’re slamming iron together, not just looking at fish all day long.”

Combining the challenges of diving with construction skills comes with rewards, including high pay and the allure of a niche job.

Few others will see the work the welders do on oil rigs or bridges, pipelines or piers, and deep sea salvage.

There’s hazardous-materials work in cooling ponds of nuclear- power plants. There’s maintenance, cleaning and inspection of municipal water tanks.

Dow says, “You should be fit and trim.” Fat stores nitrogen, the gas that usually causes the bends, the decompression sickness for divers ascending too quickly.

“We’re not risk takers, we’re risk managers.”

Of the education, says Dow, “you will not find this in books.” And it cannot be learned online.

The 7-month program costs $25,900, plus gear.

More than half of the 160 students are military veterans from around the country.

Students have roll call every weekday at 7 a.m. before a full day of class.

Brandon Hall and Andrew Skrumeda work their way into 140 pounds of diving gear.

They’re suiting up for a welding test in a tank and have up to 80 minutes to display their skills.

Student Christian Holien says, “What’s appealing is the freedom. It’s like being in space.”

 

As a visiting group of topside welders from Yakima passes by, the tour leader tells them, “This is the Harvard of diving schools.”

Students at the Divers Institute of Technology complete an underwater welding test as a part of their studies. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

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