By TY SAWYER
Jim Hegeman works in a high paying world few of us will ever know-the often dim, cold waters of commercial diving. He has rescued and repaired cruise ships run aground off Alaska, done time in the oil fields off the coast of California, retrofitted dams in Washington so salmon could return to their birthplace to spawn and even been part of the shadowy world of military black projects. A year and a half ago he became the Diving Supervisor for one of the world's top commercial diving companies-Saic/Maripro in Santa Barbara, California. He has, without a doubt, earned his stripes and become a bit of an expert in the realities of surviving in a highly competitive environment with a high attrition rate. An attrition rate that exists despite the lure of jobs that eventually can pay $800 per day for a diver or more.
Hegeman began stepping through his career with a stint in the Navy as a diver because, he said, "They had the coolest poster." Yet even with four years of practical diving experience behind him, Hegeman still opted to attend a commercial diving school. Why? "Because Navy diving is very specialized-you only do one thing and I needed a broader base of knowledge." Hegeman didn't divine this insight from thin air, his father had worked as a diver for Saic and no doubt the demands of the job were often discussed at the dinner table.
Hegeman stated that Santa Barbara City College "prepared him as an emerging commercial diver to do things the right way-proper procedures; to recognize and understand the tools of the world of commercial diving." Besides the basic core of marine technology related course work, the program expanded his skill set to include emergency medical technician (EMT), biology, electronics, computer aided drafting (CAD), plumbing and more. As with many jobs, the more you know the more employable you are. And most new graduates of a commercial diving program come out "ready to hop into that helmet and make it happen." The first real world realization that hits is the same lesson most fresh faced graduates learn: "Humility." As Hegeman put it, "You realize you aren't there just to blow bubbles."
It's not that newly trained commercial divers aren't prepared for the technical aspects of the job-typically, they are, especially those coming from well known, reputable schools. But it's the social and environmental aspects that provide the biggest adjustment. First, the competition is intense, especially in the high paying oil field jobs. And second (and most important to realize), newly emerging commercial divers may not actually get to dive for two or more years(unless they enter the inland-shallow water-market). They usually begin their career as tenders assigned to divers, setting up their dive equipment; chipping paint; doing equipment maintenance; improving their proficiency in the shop; learning to "think faster, think ahead." As Hegeman says, "you're learning valuable skills, learning to be flexible, previewing career paths, improving your communication, report writing and social skills."
"...currently, the number of jobs greatly exceeds the number of divers..."
The initial pay varies from $6 to $15 per hour and, for those who can make the lifestyle adjustment, there is a very lucrative light at the end of the tunnel. There is also a camaraderie and job satisfaction that exists in few other lines of work. Hegeman, and other commercial divers I've spoken with, have a reverence for their chosen vocation that easily evokes envy among outsiders. But good things come to those who persevere.
Having worked in almost every commercial diving capacity, Hegeman can now look back with the insight of experience and say that students "come out [of a commercial diving program] knowing 10 percent of what they should, while in their minds they think they know 90 percent." But of all that knowledge learned in school: "They will draw on everything, sooner or later." This usually comes when you "breakout as a diver."
Of the 35 classmates in Hegeman's 1992 class, five still work in commercial diving, some are EMTs, some are firemen, some abandoned the career path altogether. Those who stuck it out have all broken out as divers, struck paydirt and gotten the respect that comes with finally getting wet in the commercial diving industry.
In commercial diving, you see, there is almost no middle ground. You go from peon to aristocracy, often from one day to the next. This is the real point at which all that schooling kicks in, and the moment you officially gain membership to a very selective club.
Hegeman told me one piece of exciting news that may signal happy times for new commercial divers and lowly tenders: currently, the number of jobs greatly exceeds the number of divers and the industry seems to be expanding at an accelerated rate with no slow down in sight.