Underwater welding might sound like a far-fetched career–it’s hard to imagine a welder plus all the necessary equipment and protective gear doing such a highly skilled task on or beneath the surface of the ocean. But in fact, underwater welding is an essential job in the creation and maintenance of underwater pipelines, offshore drilling rigs, docking facilities and more. And, it can be quite lucrative.
Read on to learn about the average underwater welder salary and the various factors that influence how much you can make in this exciting and unconventional profession.
Underwater welders do exactly what their job title suggests: weld underwater. They’re tasked with completing welds in whatever conditions the body of water might throw at them, which is why the job also comes with a lot of risk.
Underwater welders must contend not only with the water conditions, but with the pressure, visibility challenges, physical obstacles like rocks and other natural features, equipment, and even encounters with sea life. Underwater welders can be paid handsomely for their troubles, which we’ll talk more about in a moment.
Sometimes described as divers first, welders second, underwater welders are typically jack-of-all-trades types of professionals. They often specialize in a number of underwater skills, which might include things like construction or surveying in addition to welding.
By being able to tackle an array of complex and dangerous tasks in an underwater environment, a commercial diver can make themself highly useful to an organization and as a result, command substantial levels of pay.
Unlike the straightforward job title, the task of actually completing a sound weld underwater isn’t so simple. Instead of the gas welding rods used on land, underwater welders use electric arc welding rods that are specifically designed for welding in high-pressure environments. Underwater welding can take place in an enclosed dry and pressurized environment, which is known as hyperbaric welding, or in a true wet environment, which is known as wet welding.
Underwater welders work in the fields of energy, oil and gas, docking, shipping, mining, and construction. They may also make repairs to the submerged portion of ships; though these welds are completed at shallower depths than, say, working on an offshore rig, they save their respective organizations the cost and time of having to pull the vessel out of the water for repairs.
Some underwater welders are self-employed, which means they take home 100% of what they earn. However, they also bear the full responsibility not only for their workload, but the time-intensive task of finding and securing new projects and the uncertainty that can come with it, as well as all of the back office duties small businesses have to handle.
Some are employed by commercial diving companies, which are contracted by organizations in need of skilled workers for their projects. This type of employment can offer underwater welders a mix of job security and variety, since they get to work on many different projects but don’t have to deal with the business logistics of setting them up and collecting payment.
Finally, some are employed directly by the organizations that require their skills, like oil and gas companies, shipping operators or the U.S. military. Though these positions offer the least amount of flexibility, they come with greater stability and job security.
The average underwater welder salary is $53,500 a year. The upper 10% of earners bring in $100,000 a year or more, and it’s not unheard of for the top professionals in the field to bring in several times this figure.
To secure such a substantial income, the top earners in the profession rely on a mix of experience, specialized expertise and a strategic approach to the jobs they take on–and, of course, hard work. Underwater welders often work long, irregular hours and are away from their families for long stretches of time. If you’re up for the challenge and willing to put in the time and labor, you can make a lucrative living in this unique role.
The path to becoming an underwater welder begins with one of three scenarios: you’re a welder who wants to get trained as a diver, you’re a diver who wants to learn how to weld underwater, or you’re neither and need to get trained in both areas. Thankfully, the American Welding Society (AWS) has outlined clear instructions to help you no matter which scenario applies to you.
For the welding portion of your skills, you’ll want to begin by pursuing a credential like Certified Welder. Offered by the AWS, this credential requires no prerequisite courses; rather, it tests your knowledge of and skills in the procedures used in the structural steel, petroleum pipeline, sheet metal, and chemical refinery welding industries. This is a solid starting point for demonstrating your proficiency in basic welding techniques.
On the diving side, you’ll need to obtain your commercial diving certification. There are several organizations that offer this, including the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI), the Association of Commercial Diving Educators (ACDE) and numerous commercial dive schools. This certification can be completed in about seven months and will teach you the physics of diving, the use of commercial diving equipment, and how to safely respond to the many challenges you’ll face working in underwater environments.
To qualify for this certification, you’ll need a high school diploma or GED and strong swimming skills. It’s important to note that the commercial diving certification is entirely different from any sport diving certifications you may have already obtained, like NAUI or PADI.
While it’s not mandatory, having a prior background in welding will put you ahead of the game in starting your underwater welding career. Not only will you have the prerequisite knowledge to obtain your welder certification, but you might already hold additional certifications or endorsements that will put you in a higher earning bracket.
If you’re starting from scratch, expect to begin your career as a dive tender, sometimes called an apprentice diver. A dive tender acts as a right hand man or woman to a commercial diver, monitoring for things like air supply and proper equipment assembly, serving as a communications go-between from the diver to the surface team, and helping keep the underwater welder on track in their project instructions. Most entry-level commercial divers work as a dive tender for about two years before moving into primary diver roles.
There are several other factors that influence how much you can make as an underwater welder. Finding a job that offers the right mix of these factors can ensure not just a healthy salary, but a job you find professionally challenging and personally rewarding.
Depth and distance offshore. Generally speaking, the deeper and the further offshore you dive, the greater your potential earnings. In a niche area of the field known as saturation diving, for example, divers are submerged at extreme depths for so long that their body tissues come into equilibrium with the compressed gas they’re breathing. Living in close quarters and working long hours for the duration of their contract, such divers can earn as much as $1,400 per day on the job.
Location. Where you work and how far you’re willing to travel makes a big difference in how much you can make as an underwater welder. In the United States, the majority of commercial diving jobs are found on offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Internationally, Canada, the United Kingdom and Mexico are also top employers of underwater welders.
Overtime. With some underwater welding projects calling for 10 to 12 hour workdays, overtime can be an important factor in increasing the size of your paycheck. A commercial diver might spend four to six weeks out at sea working 60 to 80 hour weeks, then come home for seven to ten days off. Though you won’t be collecting the regular bi-weekly paycheck you would in a 9-to-5 job, with a little planning and a disciplined budget, you can stretch your earnings from a few months of work to last the whole year, if you so desire.
The money is a primary attraction that draws many people to the field of underwater welding, but there’s more to it than just the hefty paychecks. While it can take a few years to gather the necessary credentials and get your career rolling, you’ll experience a ‘tipping point’ of sorts where you begin to see the payoff from your efforts, and few things in your professional life are more rewarding.
In addition to being financially lucrative, underwater welding offers job variety, the chance to work with advanced technology, the challenge of performing well under pressure, and the opportunity to see the world. Few jobs with such high earning potential can say the same.
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