Class 338 has a problem. The dive bell's primary pneumatic line is malfunctioning, internal air pressure is dropping and the com system is on the fritz.
The surface crew springs into action to bring backup systems online. Thanks to its quick work and training, the incident is resolved in time to catch the midmorning snack wagon out in the parking lot.
Such realistic drills are just one of the ways that students at The Ocean Corp. build the skills and experience to help them succeed in the challenging yet lucrative world of commercial diving. From the day they arrive at the school's Houston campus, trainees are immersed in the world of the professional diver.
Topside, they are required to dress and act as if they were operating onboard a rig or a ship; underwater, they gain familiarity with the tools and techniques of the industry while perfecting skills such as underwater welding, inspection and construction.
"What they're here for is a certification from the Association of Diving Contractors International, which is the ticket into the industry, says The Ocean Corp. president John Wood. "Along the way, we make sure they pick up the skills and professionalism that will actually get them hired. Our program isn't just classroom and theory; it's mostly hands-on, and it's designed to prepare our graduates for the realities of the workplace."
The school's seven-month program, which runs from 7:30 a.m. until noon five days a week, exposes students to all aspects of professional diving. The staff is comprised of former commercial and military divers who share their accrued knowledge and experiences through realistic and detailed training scenarios. For example, students don't just receive instruction on how to operate a dive compressor; they are responsible for operating, maintaining and overhauling each of the various makes and models they will likely encounter in the field. The staff's industry relationships and the facility's proximity to the Gulf offshore oil industry create unique opportunities for students to gain familiarity with current and emerging technologies ranging from ROVs to ambient-pressure dive suits, along with specialized skills such as hazmat and nuclear-reactor diving and dive medicine.
Once they have earned the coveted ADC certificate, graduates are ready to work in a field where divers can expect to earn between $30,000 and $35,000 during their first year on the job. Those who advance to the rank of Diver III can eventually expect to take upward of $100,000 or more per year, Wood says.
"The compensation can be good, but you'll earn it," he says. "Commercial diving is a job, just like construction or anything else. It's not as glamorous or as dangerous as the movies and magazines make it out to be. You're there to do a job, and you're part of a team of trained professionals who don't take chances or cut corners.
"Currently, about 80 percent of our grads head for the Gulf of Mexico oil fields, but there are opportunities on dams, pipelines, bridges and other inland markets as well," he says. "There are occasional short-term fluctuations in supply and demand in the job market, but overall it remains strong, and all of our graduates who want to work, can work."
In addition to the expected venues, The Ocean Corp. alumni are working at places as diverse as Universal Studios, Continental Airlines and NASA, while others have transitioned from diving to operations management or even started their own diving-related businesses. And though commercial diving is still predominantly a male occupation, it is not closed to women who want to work, Wood says. There are usually several female students enrolled at any time, and one of the school's graduates recently became the first female saturation diver.
Even with the increased use of ROV and underwater robotic technologies, the need for commercial divers will always be strong, Wood says. "There are a lot of tasks that only a human can do, and as long as humans put things underwater, there will be a need for divers."