Underwater Welding Career & Training Information
It is awe-inspiring that today's technological advances allow welding to be performed underwater. But, although modern equipment and work environments are held to extreme safety regulations, this occupation does involve significant risks. Therefore, it's important to gain a full understanding of the field, especially of what it takes to be safe and successful, before embarking on this career path.
So, what does this watery work environment involve? Is striving to be among the best underwater welders a worthwhile pursuit? Keep reading to gain comprehensive information about this challenging and fascinating field.
What Does an Underwater Welder Do?
An underwater welder is someone who performs vital work related to various industrial applications, including building offshore oil platforms, repairing ships, and maintaining underwater pipelines. Unlike tradespeople who only perform topside welding (i.e., welding on land), underwater welders must have advanced skills in both diving and welding, including various specialized welding techniques.
Underwater welders are highly trained in both professional diving and welding. They work with specialized equipment that is designed for safe use underwater without high risk of electric shock.
Although trained in various techniques, these professionals perform tasks that can essentially be grouped into two classifications:
- Means that the welding process involves being directly exposed to wet or fully submerged conditions
- Uses a special waterproof electrode
- Requires the power supply to be connected to the welding equipment through cables and hoses
- When performed at significant depths, requires a highly experienced underwater welder with specialized knowledge of ambient pressure and its effects on welds
- Most commonly uses shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) techniques
Dry welding (often referred to as dry hyperbaric welding):
- Takes place underwater but is performed in a dry environment, usually called a hyperbaric chamber (an enclosed container that is submerged under water)
- Involves working within the hyperbaric chamber, which (similar to submarines) is pressurized to withstand underwater conditions
- Is performed by sealing the hyperbaric chamber around the structure that requires welding work
- Is usually restricted to maximum operational depths of 400 meters
- Can theoretically involve most welding processes but most commonly uses gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW)
Some common duties can include:
- Repairing ships
- Maintaining oil platforms
- Inspecting, repairing, and maintaining underwater pipelines
- Salvaging shipwrecked vessels
- New construction projects, such as bridges
- Building, repairing, and maintaining telecommunications equipment beneath the floor of the ocean
In addition, these professionals are often responsible for taking on a variety of tasks prior to actually performing any welding. Some of these duties can include:
- Performing nondestructive testing procedures while inspecting the quality of metals and welds for underwater pipes, subsea platforms, engine parts, steel structures, and other components
- Inspecting, photographing, and creating maps of the work environment
- Researching and documenting all aspects of the prospective job
- Testing equipment and explosive materials
- Conducting experiments to ensure project viability and safety
Project length and working hours can vary greatly, depending on the scope of the project. Therefore, a job can range from just a few hours to days, months, or even years. However, it is important to note that, although the main purpose is the actual welding task, the vast majority of time and effort is often spent on training, preparation, and safety precautions.
In addition, for safety reasons, they work with a team of trained professionals who remain on standby above the water and keep in constant contact in order to provide immediate assistance if, at any time, the welder ends up in danger.
What Is the Difference Between Underwater Welding and Commercial Diving?
It is common for people to assume that underwater welding and commercial diving are the same thing. However, in reality, they are two completely different career fields.
- An underwater welder concentrates solely on welding tasks (as well as the preparation and follow-up).
- A commercial diver is someone who has the skills and training to handle a broader range of tasks in industries that involve working underwater. Some of these categories include deep sea exploration, hazardous material diving, underwater welding, offshore oil and gas exploration, and bridge construction and repair.
There is sometimes a gray area between these two fields since commercial diving graduates often choose to pursue a career in one particular specialty (and underwater welding is one of their potential choices). So, while people can train in the broad area of commercial diving, they may decide, upon graduation, to pursue a specialized position instead of taking on the more varied and generalized duties of a commercial diver.
What Are the Training Requirements?
- Complete a commercial diving program. It is not enough to simply learn how to dive. Sport or recreational dive programs do not cover important areas concerning offshore working conditions, diving equipment, or safety considerations.
- Complete a welding program. Before you can learn how to perform welding underwater, you must first be capable of welding above ground.
- Obtain underwater welding training. Once you have been trained in both commercial diving and welding, you are ready for specialized underwater welding training, which will teach you how to combine your skills, knowledge, and abilities and apply them to the field.
Although the different types of training mentioned above can take place separately in three different steps (i.e., by taking three different programs), it is also possible to find underwater welding training that includes all of the above areas within one comprehensive program.
In addition, different training options exist for different situations. For example, if you are already a certified welder but want to expand your abilities and prepare to specialize in underwater welding, then you can skip the general welding requirements and concentrate solely on commercial diving and underwater welding training. The opposite is also true: If you are already a certified commercial diver, then you can skip that segment of the training and pursue training in welding.
It is also important to note that, separate from training programs, multiple certifications are typically required to work as a professional underwater welder. And, in order to keep your certifications current, ongoing education is often required. You can find more in-depth information about certification further on in this article.
What Can I Expect to Learn at an Underwater Welding School?
Once you have successfully completed any necessary prerequisites and enrolled in a program, you can focus on obtaining the specialized skills, theoretical background, and safety knowledge required to get started in this field.
Generally, most programs will include theoretical training related to:
- Underwater welding procedures for both wet and dry welds
- Various structures, including ships, offshore commercial equipment, oil platforms, bridges, pipelines, and more
- Welding and electrode terminology
- Welding conduciveness of various materials and common weld defects
- Safety principles related to proper diving techniques, welding procedures, emergency procedures, and much more
- Information about various environments, including common sea creatures and plants
Once you have a solid base of knowledge, the next part of the curriculum generally involves training in:
- Preparation tasks, including map making, research, and documentation
- Proper usage of diving apparel and equipment
- Proper usage of welding equipment, from sledgehammers to pry bars to electric-powered tools
- Types of welding techniques, such as horizontal, vertical, overhead, t-joint, and line
- Safe preparation of the environment in wet and dry conditions
- Quality control and quality assurance tasks
Some underwater welding schools have access to real off-site underwater welding environments, while others create onsite replicas of offshore or inland settings.
In addition, since certification is required to pursue employment in the field, most programs will also dedicate a large portion of training to certification preparation.
How Long Is School?
Training length can vary widely and is affected by multiple factors such as education level and length of program. It can also depend on what the school's prerequisites involve. If commercial diving and general welding are a big part of the curriculum, the program will generally be longer—anywhere from two to five years. On the flip side, a more specialized program that concentrates solely on underwater welding skills can sometimes be completed in as few as six months.
Is Certification Necessary?
Various certifications are required, and can include:
Commercial Diving Physical Examination
- Administered by the Association of Diving Contractors International (ACDI).
- Can be performed by any licensed physician, but it is recommended that you find a physician with knowledge in hyperbaric and/or diving medicine.
- Includes recording of medical history, a physical examination, as well as laboratory tests and/or x-rays and clinical tests.
- May need to include psychiatric and temperament appraisal.
Commercial Diver Certification Card
- Administered by ACDI.
- Application requirements can vary depending on the type of certification card you are pursuing, but all certifications require that you first complete a commercial diving program.
- Common application requirements for those interested in underwater welding can include a set number of field days, a set number of working dives, and the successful completion of an exam.
- These requirements must have been met within the past 24 months of the application date.
American Welding Society Certified Welder
- Performance-based, with no restrictions regarding prerequisite courses or certifications.
- Entails making an appointment at an accredited test facility and performing a weld that must be approved by an AWS Certified Welding Inspector.
- Continued certification requires that you follow certification maintenance procedures and submit verification forms every six months.
What Is the Average Salary for an Underwater Welder?
According to the American Welding Society (AWS), an average salary is difficult to calculate because the majority of people in the field are paid on a project-by-project basis (not based on a set annual salary).
Other factors that can affect pay include:
- Diving depth required for a project
- Dive method used during a project
- The diving environment that a project is located in
That being said, the AWS does state that it's not uncommon for underwater welders to make between $100,000 and $200,000 per year. But it's important to note that these estimates are based on experienced workers, and entry-level employees will more than likely start at much lower annual earnings, which can increase in proportion to experience gained.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the average hourly wage for commercial divers and underwater welders is $28.59, which translates to about $50,500 annually for full-time work. The top earners make $52 or more per hour, which works out to more than $108,000 per year.2
What Does the Job Outlook Look Like?
Employment of commercial divers and underwater welders is projected to grow by seven percent between 2018 and 2028. On average, around 500 positions are expected to open up each year over that time period.3
It's important to keep in mind that the most experienced and skilled underwater welders will be the most in-demand. Entry-level underwater welders may require patience and determination to break into the field. However, you can greatly improve your job prospects by choosing an accredited school, ensuring the program features a maximum of hands-on training and experience, and pursuing the necessary certifications. In addition, when you are first starting out, it's important to be flexible about location. If you are willing to move to where the work is, you are much more likely to secure a position.
What Are the Perks?
- There's no denying that a little bit of risk comes with a whole lot of excitement and a powerful sense of adventure.
- Working underwater, especially in offshore environments, is fascinating. The ocean always has been (and always will be) a constant source of undeniable mystery and awe.
- The technologies and equipment are constantly being updated, and continuous learning can create a strong feeling of satisfaction.
- The ongoing innovation in the field allows for more sophisticated and advanced engineering ideas to be brought to life. Witnessing this progress can be exhilarating.
- The prospect of a six-figure salary can be extremely enticing.
- You can have the opportunity to do extensive traveling—seeing new places, meeting new people, and gaining amazing experiences.
What Should I Do Now?
The underwater welding schools listed above can be a valuable resource in helping you determine your educational and career path. Browse the available programs today and ask for more information. Or type your zip code into the search tool below to generate a list of convenient training programs—it's easy and quick!
1 American Welding Society, "Taking the Plunge: A Guide to Starting an Underwater Welding Career," website last visited on November 5, 2019.
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last visited on November 4, 2019.
3 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Projections, website last visited on November 4, 2019.