Underwater welding is a highly-specialized category of welding. For those who undertake it, they’ll enjoy the opportunity for travel, adventure, and lucrative pay.
Underwater welders are utilized in underwater construction, underwater surveying, and underwater repair.
They work in a variety of industries including oilfield, shipbuilding and repair, offshore construction, nuclear power, mining, pipelines, military, and public dams, canals and locks.
Most underwater welders work for a commercial diving contractor. Others are directly employed by marine construction companies, shipping companies, oil & gas companies, or the military.
Salaries in underwater welding can vary widely but can be more lucrative than those welders who work strictly on dry land. This is due to the training involved, extra certifications required, and the environment they work in and the amount of risk involved.
What Factors Contribute to Pay Rates?
An underwater welder must first receive formal instruction from an approved school or program that meets the American Welding Society requirements for certification.
Additionally, they must complete a commercial diver’s certification/licensing program. Due to the amount of training required to enter this profession, underwater welding is a highly specialized field.
The specific salary varies depending upon the training required, the type of welding work, how hazardous the work is, how much experience the welder has, and how far and how often the welder has to travel.
Let’s look at some of the factors that lead to higher pay for underwater welders.
Most underwater divers start as apprentices, known as “tenders”. In the apprentice mode, a diver makes much less than a more seasoned diver. Starting pay runs around $35,000 and can grow to over $100,000-$200,000 for a more experienced diver. Experienced underwater welders are worth a LOT more because of the dangers involved in the field and necessary technical skills.
Type of welding
Underwater welding can be conducted wet or dry. Underwater wet welding involves a diver submerged in water.
The welder uses a shielded metal arc stick welder powered by DC current supplied through an underwater cable system to create a weld. The gas bubble from the arc on the stick welder protects the weld.
Underwater dry welding involves creating dry enclosures around the weld area. Air is pumped in. This allows the diver to work in a properly pressurized chamber to create a weld.
Each of these requires special skills and increased risk.
Underwater welders do not typically work in the same location for very long. Some work in inland locations such as rivers, lakes and ponds. Others practice their trade in offshore ocean locations throughout the world.
Offshore underwater welders typically are paid at a higher rate than inland underwater welders due to the extensive travel and greater water depths involved in their work.
Underwater welders regularly handle big equipment specifically designed for underwater welding in an uncertain, often hazardous environment.
Additionally, many underwater welders work at significant underwater depths that place more than ordinary physical demands on the body. It is not any surprise that this type of work involves a significant amount of risk.
Freshwater Welder Income
Inland freshwater welders earn in the range of $50,000-$80,000 in annual salary. Most are employed on a regular salaried basis and can count on a 40-hour work week with limited travel.
Much of the work involves construction or making repairs to docks, bridges, dams and smaller non-ocean going boats.
Freshwater’s Unique Challenges
While the actual welding process takes little time to learn, the diving process combined with welding can take years to master.
Unlike divers that weld in saltwater, there are no salt ions in fresh water to create a natural buoyancy. So it takes a lot of practice to learn to dive in freshwater lakes and rivers and to maintain your position in the water while creating a weld.
Freshwater welders operate in shallower waters than saltwater welders, which carries a couple inherent risks.
In Freshwater, the arc created by the welding stick underwater behaves in an erratic and unstable manner and doesn’t connect securely with the metal being welded.
If the diver doesn’t have experience in dealing with the arc and firmly securing the weld, the risk of electric shock is high.
Also, freshwater carries greater water currents at shallower depths. This can make it more difficult to stay in place, further endangering the diver.
Saltwater Welder Income
Offshore saltwater welders earn in the range of $40,000 to $150,000 or even more each year. Employment is most often through commercial diving contractors.
Some welders though, are employed directly by oil companies, power companies or the military.
REGULARITY OF THE WORK/HOURS
Offshore Saltwater underwater welders typically work on pipelines, oil rigs and marine vessels that are out to sea for several months seasonally from April through November.
Other months of the year, these welders come back inland, because the ocean is too hazardous for them to conduct underwater welding in. Of course, this could be reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.
During the season, offshore saltwater welders can work 80 or more hour a week. The schedule is typically staggered - one week on with a few days off and then on again. After one or two months at sea, most welders will come back to shore for a break.
The actual welding technique is the same as that used in any welding shop and takes roughly 7-8 weeks to learn. Underwater diving in the ocean can take up to 6 months to learn.
The most difficult part to learn is how to operate within a hyperbaric chamber at extreme depths with limited visibility. This makes for a steep learning curve.
Saltwater underwater welders operating in deeper water face more risks than those who work in shallower depths.
At deeper depths, a diver’s air supply will drop more rapidly. For that reason, nitrogen is mixed in with the air in the diver’s tank. The risk of narcosis (impaired motor coordination and judgment) becomes greater.
The risks of explosions can be greater in deeper offshore underwater welding jobs due to the amount of fuel stored on offshore oil rigs and marine vessels.
Pressurized gases in a deep-water, confined, dry chamber weld site can create erratic arc behavior, increasing the risk of electric shock or explosion. Additionally, if gases enter the chamber, the weld operator could suffocate.
Due to the buoyancy of saltwater, the diver has to carry more weight - almost double his own weight - than if he were diving in freshwater. That increases the pressure on the body.
It’s easy to see why these highly-skilled tradesmen pull down the salaries they do. There’s a lot of risks and challenges that they have to confront!
Do underwater welders make good money?
Underwater welders make good money as the highest paid sub-field within welding. Starting pay is often around $50,000 a year while many experienced underwater welders make 6 figures, with some crossing the $200,000 threshold.
What is the highest paid welding job?
Underwater welding is the highest paid welding job. With experienced salaries often going beyond $100,000 experienced professionals typically make 2x-3x the salary of regular welders.
For individuals that choose to obtain their underwater welding training and certification, salaries can be lucrative and career opportunities are unlimited.
Many underwater welders move up to supervisory and management positions or engineering positions. They may become consultants, instructors and inspectors where salary opportunities expand.
Underwater welding is a difficult, physically and mentally challenging career that few feel called to. But as transportation and energy demand continue to advance, underwater welding will continues to be a field in demand.