Heavy construction, offshore oil extraction, and the maintenance of major infrastructure projects such as bridges and pipelines all periodically require the services of underwater welders. These are certified commercial divers who have the skills and training to weld underwater at great depths and with different types of equipment, and their pay reflects the difficulty and danger of their job.
Commercial Diver Averages
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an average salary of $54,750 per year for commercial divers in its May 2012 figures. Divers in the lowest-paid 10 percent earned up to $30110 per year, while the top 10 percent reported earnings of $93,910 or higher. The largest category for employment was "other heavy and civil engineering construction," which paid divers an average of $60,250. Geographically, divers in New York had the highest average wages at $84,100 per year with Washington state close behind at $80,940 per year.
A Closer Look
The BLS arrives at its data by surveying employers and industry organizations for their hourly wage rates, then multiplies those hourly rates by 2,080 hours to arrive at full-time pay for the year. For underwater welders that's misleading, because the base hourly pay increases sharply with distance offshore, dive depth, time spent underwater, overtime, and equipment used during the dive. Work can be cyclical, especially for new divers with less experience, but the American Welding Society reports that real-world income for underwater welders can range from $100,000 to $200,000 per year.
Commercial divers can learn their skills through a variety of trade and technical schools, offering programs ranging from 20 weeks to one year. Many programs, though not all, include underwater welding in their basic curriculum. Certified commercial divers who want to earn welding certification to broaden their employability can earn that certification separately. Surface welders who want to become underwater welders must take a full commercial diver's certification course. For approximately two years, newly certified divers or welders will work as helpers or "tenders" at job sites, learning and demonstrating the specific skills needed by their employer. After they've demonstrated a suitable degree of competence, welders are trusted to work independently as part of the dive team.
Underwater welding, like commercial diving in general, is cyclical and tends to go on a project-by-project basis. Welders who are willing to travel, following employment opportunities from location to location, are more likely to find steady work. Overall, the BLS projected 16 percent employment growth for commercial divers between 2010 and 2020. That's just slightly better than the 14 percent average for all occupations. Employment for underwater welders is concentrated largely in coastal areas, though some will find underwater work in inland freshwater locations such as the Great Lakes or cities situated along major rivers.