Understanding Welding Underwater
When people think about underwater welding, they often start off with a few assumptions:
- Making a good weld in the water requires extreme skill and focus.
- Heavy risk comes with performing welds under the ocean and lakes.
- Due to point 1 and 2, welder-divers get paid massive amounts of money.
Like most rumors, these points are only partially true.
At its basic level, underwater welding is the act of joining two pieces of metal (most often steel) to each other while completely submerged in water.
Great underwater welds do require great skill, but so do surface welds. Wet welding is an art form and technical skill. Learning is relatively easy, but mastering your craft takes years of practice on all types of plates, pipes and other metal structures beneath the waves.
Underwater Welding Hazards
Underwater welders encounter risk, including electrocution. But welder-divers greatly minimize this risk through proper inspection and safety equipment before they even begin the welding job. They wear heavy rubber gloves and on their suits to insulate themselves.
Finally, the underwater welding salary. Welder-divers are paid according to their work and experience - which often doesn't include welding. They do salvage work, boat hull inspections, dam repairs and all kinds of other tasks. Even underwater welding has variety attached to it: Wet or dry.
Though some reportedly make up to $300,000 annually, these paychecks are reserved only for the best and most experienced. For welder-divers who in the top 10%, they can make, double, triple or more of those who are in the bottom 10%. Within the United States, the highest incomes usually come from where employment is greater and cost of living is higher.
Choosing your Playing Field
When you first launch off into your trade, you'll most likely be directly out of diving school.
From here, you'll have your commercial diving license and a few other certifications under your belt. Still, without experience, many underwater welders fade out of the industry within a few months.
Demand for professional divers comes in waves.
Only those who are willing to persevere and take the crappy jobs (sometimes literally) climb the career ladder. Diving gigs in sewage tanks, under oil pipelines and in sea creature infested waters aren't uncommon. As a newbie, you'll probably spend most of your time taking orders from a crew on the surface.
In the United States, these guys are called diving tenders.
Underwater welders are faced with two decisions when it comes to job location: Offshore or inshore.
Both have pros and cons, both personally and professionally. To make an informed decision on where you'll work, you need to assess a few things:
- Do you have a family?
- How far from home are you willing to work?
- Are you disciplined with your current income? If so, could you take on more and make it last in slow months?
- What kind of hours are you willing to work?
Just because you work inshore doesn't mean your life is boring.
On the contrary, inland underwater welders run into some major catastrophes: Capsized boats, docks on the verge of collapsing and dams with foundation cracks.
Welder-divers don't make as much dough as offshore workers. But their environment usually changes on a daily basis, which is more than others can say. Lakes and rivers abruptly change with extra sediment deposits and different weather patterns.
Their schedules are somewhat steady, working around 40 - 50 hours per week. Daily routines may include basic necessities like dock inspection, but almost everyday in the life of an underwater welder looks different.
Adventures and new challenges in daily routine are one of the biggest draws of becoming an underwater welder.
Inland welder-divers sometimes travel to other sites, but most of these are in close proximity to their "home base." At most, an underwater welder will be gone for several weeks in a row. It's rare that he or she will be pulled to another site for longer than a month, since inland maritime work is often handled by local labor.
Jobs offshore usually pull in more money per hour on average than inland.
This is usually attributed to higher demand, greater risk and larger employers. Working on oil rigs is one of the primary types, but some also find jobs on large vessels.
Offshore underwater welders usually work around a month to a month and a half out in the ocean. Each week demands intense, grueling labor both mentally and physically. Weekly hours may rack up into the fifties, sixties and even seventies range.
Though welder-divers pull crazy hours, they also receive longer breaks. After each month-long stint offshore, they come inland (sometimes to a hotel or guesthouse that the company has prepared). These breaks usually last from around a week to two weeks.
After that, it's back offshore again until the project is finished.
Due to their overtime work, offshore underwater welders get paid great money. They also have more opportunities for diverse jobs like saturation diving (going deep underwater in heavy pressure; also involving decompression on the way back up).
As part of the downside, offshore workers are out of work during the colder, winter months. Once late November hits, heavy winds and nasty storms cause major safety concerns. This forces offshore crews to head inland to wait it out until around May or April.
Where Do you Land?
Because of the nature of locations, underwater welders with families often choose inland over offshore. Though the money is enticing, it takes them away from their spouses for lengthy periods of time with few breaks in between.
Offshore workers apply to oil rigs in droves during peak seasons.
They don't have need of many professional divers, so it makes those positions even more lucrative for applicants. As mentioned earlier, recently graduated divers often have unrealistic expectations with the types of jobs they'll land. They think they'll find an offshore job immediately that pays well.
The key is setting your expectations to a realistic level and finding jobs that fit within your range of training and experience.