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ADVENTURES ON THE JOB

Another Way To See The World

June 23, 1997|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The call came at 8 a.m. June 2 for 22-year-old Joe Lilly.

Could he be at the Port Hueneme pier in seven hours, with rain gear, diving gear and a few tools, for a two-month (or longer) ocean expedition? A marine research vessel needed a top-notch diving technologist for its journey to New Orleans via the Panama Canal, after which it would set sail for a job site in Alaska.

Lilly, who had just graduated from Santa Barbara City College's marine diving technology program, didn't hesitate. He packed his bags, notified his roommates, made storage arrangements for his belongings, then headed for the docks.

"They say in this business, 'You gotta make yourself liquid,' " said Lilly, just two hours before he departed for his first marine technician's job. "It's better not to have too many ties or to set up a home base right away. I mean, if I had ties or was in a relationship . . . " He paused for a minute. "Well, leaving like this would be kind of rough."

The college is the only public school in America that offers an associate's degree in marine diving technology. The program is not for everyone; only the most adventurous, dedicated and self-assured sea lovers need apply.

Every year candidates from all over the world arrive at the school's marine diving facility to begin a grueling two-year program that leads to certification in recreational or commercial diving and jobs that can pay, after only two years of experience, more than $40,000 a year at locations throughout the world.

According to Don Barthelmess, the program's director, his graduating students' hiring rate is nearly 100%.

"In fact, there are more job openings than graduates," he said.

Students who have chosen recreational diving as their emphasis typically find employment as diving supervisors aboard cruise ships and at resorts, as professional diving instructors at private diving schools and as divers for scientific aquatic expeditions. Jobs may take them to such exotic locations as the Arctic Circle, the Great Barrier Reef, the nuclear bomb craters of the Marshall Islands or the warm waters of the Caribbean.

One Santa Barbara City College recreational diving graduate teaches diving to passengers on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines; six others are "toiling away" as diving instructors at Club Meds in the French West Indies, Bahamas, French Polynesia and Mexico.

The commercial diving program at the college is challenging, and its graduates are in demand. After being trained in disciplines such as hyperbaric chamber operation, bell diving, remotely operated vehicle use, underwater welding, life support system maintenance and surface-supplied diving, graduates are able to find work repairing transatlantic cables, operating diving bells, working on offshore oil platforms, doing underwater inspection, mapping the ocean floor, operating submersible crafts and performing intricate salvage operations.

The college's commercial diving alumni have explored the famous wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, performed critical salvage work in the Atlantic Ocean after the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster and, most recently, aided federal investigators in recovering underwater debris from the TWA Flight 800 explosion last year off Long Island, N.Y.

Many of the school's former commercial diving students have been recruited by America's top oil companies to work at their burgeoning Gulf of Mexico operations. Still other grads have accepted jobs with marine construction and contracting firms, performing diving work at harbors, lakes, rivers, dams and even containment ponds at chemical and atomic production facilities.

One reason there are so many openings is because commercial diving is so demanding, said employer Chuck Ebner, Western regional manager of Houston-based Oceaneering International Inc.

"There's definitely a shortage of experienced divers, because once the guys get out of school and into the industry, their attrition rate is phenomenal," Ebner said. "The work is extremely hard."

Early attrition is often linked to entry-level pay comparable to fast-food restaurants' wages. Deckhands may earn $6.50 an hour while they are being trained; beginning remote-vehicle technicians might garner $12 an hour but could be guaranteed daily overtime. Neophyte offshore workers are guaranteed $100 a day in take-home pay.

Incomes can quickly rise once graduates have gotten industry experience under their belts. One 1994 graduate earned more than $100,000 last year working on Shasta Dam in Northern California. Experienced saturation-diving life-support technicians, who spend 28 days at a time in an undersea chamber, earn $1,400 a day.

Getting accepted into Santa Barbara City College's marine diving program is unlike applying to other community college programs. First, candidates must undergo an extremely extensive physical exam. Anyone who has a condition that could be exacerbated by underwater pressure and air changes is disqualified.

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