Deeply Committed

The Waters May Be Murky, but the Future Is Bright for Commercial Diver-in-Training Ryan Gilbert

Ryan Gilbert could fairly be described as a deep thinker. Not content with work just for work’s sake, Ryan is interested in exploring a discipline fully and becoming the best he can be at it.

“I’ve always been pretty hungry for knowledge, and I enjoy doing something to understand it fundamentally,” says the 2022 graduate of Harris County High School. “That pursuit of knowledge is really what I like a lot.”

“Deep” also describes Ryan in another sense – as a Tender for Phoenix International, he’s in his second year of a commercial diving career that takes him to all manner of underwater locations.

From freshwater sites – think dams, reservoir ponds, water tanks and such – to offshore jobs in the Gulf of Mexico to a high-profile job in Baltimore, Maryland – the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge – Ryan is earning a wealth of on-the-job experience in an industry that employs fewer than 3,500 individuals nationwide.

“Normally in construction, you have specialties,” Ryan says. “You have a carpenter, and all he does is carpentry, for example. When it comes to diving, because there’s many different jobs that have to be done, the diver basically has to be a jack of all trades and understand how to work with everything down there.”

From West Georgia to the Pacific Northwest
Ryan began his journey toward this fascinating career by following instructor Mark Howington’s Metals Pathway at Harris County High. He also grew up around welders and other skilled tradesmen, thanks to his father and grandfather, both of whom worked at a WestRock paper factory.

Programs such as Howington’s offer students much more than the high school shop classes of days gone by.

“When you show students they can get their OSHA 10, they can get credentials that means something in the real world, that kind of gives us something to look forward to,” Ryan says. “It gives value to the class, so [a student] can consider that this actually is a career that’s available to me.”

For Ryan, his original career vision began with studying civil engineering in college. Instead, he took the summer off to weigh his options, and the notion of commercial diving kept coming to mind. He enjoyed being around water and had already done some scuba diving. After doing further research, he says, “I decided just to go for it.”

Ryan headed to Seattle, where he enrolled in the seven-month training curriculum offered by the Divers Institute of Technology. Students at DIT are introduced to a variety of scenarios and tools, including chainsaws, jackhammers and hydraulic impacts. Still, as Ryan points out, “No dive school can really prepare you” for what workers ultimately will face in the field.

That’s where Phoenix International, a worldwide marine services contractor with eight offices in the U.S., came in. After graduating from DIT, he was hired by the company and assigned to its location in Bayou City, Louisiana. He has progressed through three levels of Tender – akin to an Apprentice in land-based trades – and anticipates breaking out as a certified Diver after approximately two years on the job.

Ryan describes his work, both in and out of the water:

“When I’m not on a job,” he says, “I do maintenance and take care of equipment in the shop. Those are regular eight-hour days. When a contract goes out, then we’ll move out to a rig or a barge. The longest I’ve been out is a month or so on a barge.

“A lot of jobs go on pretty close to shore,” he continues. “There are a lot of pipelines there, and a lot of them are getting where they need to be replaced or patched or completely removed. The biggest job I’ve had was just off shore near New Orleans. We lifted up a 30-inch pipeline that had exploded; we had to cut out a section and put a new section back on it and set it back down.”

Demanding – and Rewarding – Career
Then there was the assignment that came in the aftermath of the Key Bridge accident in Baltimore on March 26, 2024.

“I moved out March 31 and I was there all of April, right at four weeks,” Ryan explains. “Our main diving task at the beginning was surveying, to give the engineers and marine architects an idea of what’s down there, so they could transfer that to an online 3D image. Once we did our surveys and mapped it up, we went down with hydraulic cutting shears and helped prepare the truss structures to be brought up.

“It was pretty nerve wracking to get the call, but once you get there, you don’t really have time to think of the importance of it until it was done. When you’re there, you’re focused on your specific tasks and that’s all you really need to think of. Looking back now, it’s kind of surreal.”

Commercial diving is a demanding trade, one that sometimes carries high risk but also offers great rewards. U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics for May 2023 showed a mean hourly wage of $36.33 and mean annual earnings of $75,570.

And there are plenty of jobs to go around. Myron Garrett of Marine Technologies Inc. shared a statement for DIT’s website that reads, in part: “Over the next 10 years, the diving community in the United States will need more than 6,000 commercial divers. Commercial diving is a growing industry and will provide steady employment opportunities.”

That means the future is bright for young divers, such as Ryan, who are committed to their craft.

“This is a great opportunity for me starting out,” Ryan says. “I like the job a lot. It takes a certain type of person. It’s a labor-intensive job. Just like any trade, you have to work hard.”


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