The offshore environment can be a dangerous place for the poorly trained: diving operations may run around the clock, even in the coldest winter months, and undoubtedly take a physical and mental toll. The whole team on a vessel, rig or platform often depend on the diver to finish their tasks – a great responsibility that calls for excellent training.

The importance of commercial divers and their appropriate training was pinpointed at the inaugural Energy North Awards Ceremony in Scotland, UK, in September 2011, which recognises the best players in the offshore energy sector. In the category the Best Oil and Gas Industry Service Supplier, the UK-based Underwater Centre scooped the top award.

Focused on providing industry-specific skills and competency training, the centre is one of the only places to offer contiguous training programmes for divers and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) pilots worldwide. Here, general manager Steve Ham reveals some of the secrets that have made him a success in the business for over 30 years, and talks about the future of a long-established profession that, despite technological advances and great career opportunities, is struggling to find skilled offspring.

"Commercial divers have to be able to communicate effectively, have to know how to use their hands and need to have a good attitude."

Elisabeth Fischer: Why did the Underwater Centre stand out from its competitors at the Energy North Awards in September?

Steve Ham: We have been training commercial divers since 1975 and ROV pilots since 1995, trying to offer excellent and safe training and to prepare people for the industry. In 2011, we added a range of new products, additional tools, new diving and rigging training, so we feel that we have gone even further in preparing our students.

Since 2004, we invested £3m to improve the quality and standard of our facilities. We have a continued investment programme over the next five years to create a real centre of excellence for subsea training. We work with a very experienced team; mostly experienced staff we have worked with for a long time. We continually invest in their training to make sure that they deliver the high-quality level of training we expect from them.

We’re also looking to improve the relevance of our training for the industry. We get a lot of feedback from students, which which helps to shape the way we will work in the future. This process also includes discussions with the industry. I believe there are a lot of reasons why ours is a really good service: we’re helping to deliver absolutely vital personnel to the industry, and are therefore delighted to have won this award.

EF: Can anyone become a commercial diver?

SH: Commercial divers have to be able to communicate effectively, have to know how to use their hands and most importantly need to have a good attitude. Before taking anyone on as a commercial diver or ROV pilot, we want them to come in and spend a day with us to experience what it’s all about. Not only to see the facilities, but also to get a chance to dive, to test the commercial gear and to find out if they have the right attitude for diving.

Diving is not for everyone, but if it fits your personality then you can get so much out of it. It can be a fantastic, lucrative and satisfying career for the right people. And for us it’s a very rewarding thing to train people who go on to be extremely successful over the years.

ROV pilots are expected to have a high level of technical experience. We are looking for people with different technological backgrounds: hydraulics, electronics, someone who has been trained in the forces or has an engineering background even though we deliver an intensive electronics course tailored for ROVs.

EF: Are you cooperating with the industry to train and employ your students?

SH: We try to maintain good relationships with contracting oil and gas companies, and civil NGOs that employ our students. We use this dialogue to help us identify what we need to continue improving our training. In addition, it’s important to have contact with operators. Even though they are not the direct employers of our people, they do have quite a big say in long-term developments.

We are here to deliver a service, and that service only works if it is what our customers need and want. Our customers are individuals, but they represent companies. We make sure that we maintain a dialogue with all those people to get them what they need.

EF: To give students a feeling for deepwater diving, where do you conduct your training sessions?

SH: The first dives are in a vast 1.5-million-litre onshore tank, which is deep and large enough to give a realistic experience. But it’s a fully controlled environment and safe for the diver. After that, we take our students to the dive-site. We probably have the most unique dive-site worldwide, ideally located and ideal for diving training in terms of the various water conditions: it’s tidal, it’s sea water and easily accessible to all the various depths we need to get to.

We work in water ranges from 8m-100m and have lots of subsea structures such as steelworks, concrete blocks and pipelines. We have many features that students and trainees get to work with so when they get into their real jobs there shouldn’t be any surprises.

EF: The offshore industry is facing a shortage of skilled professionals. Have you felt this decline?

SH: I agree, the industry is facing a big potential skill shortage. On the ROV-pilot side we are seeing a big shortage and we’re getting approached daily by companies looking for confident and appropriately trained staff. In December, we would normally see demand from external companies tailing off, however, the exact opposite happened in 2011 and the demand seems to be continuing to rise. As the global industry invests in new RV systems, they will need a lot more appropriately trained and qualified people. We can forecast there is going to be a big need for ROV pilots.

"The first dives are in a vast 1.5-million-litre onshore tank, which is deep and large enough to give quite a realistic experience."

On the other hand, the oil and gas industry is being very progressive: new diver-supporting vessels are coming on stream requiring more divers. We see areas of growth like new oil and gas fields in Australia and Africa. Also related businesses, such as the decommissioning industry, are likely to employ a higher number of divers in the years to come.

The renewable energy sector has also employed a lot of divers even though it’s relatively small just now. But if you look at the UK and the rest of Europe, there’s massive growth plans for renewable energy, be it offshore wind, wave or tidal. All that requires the subsea expertise of divers or ROV pilots. It’s hard to say exactly what the number will be but the potential is massive and the forecasts about the amount of offshore capacity in terms of wind and tidal is huge, opening up many opportunities for subsea divers.

EF: Will there always be the need for commercial divers in the industry?

SH: Some of our staff were trained in the 1970s and they were told that it was a four or five-year career before ROV technology made the use of divers unnecessary. We’re still here and the need for divers is greater than ever before. We are looking to grow in the next years and we see there being ongoing healthy demand for divers.

The age profile of divers is quite high and many are nearing retirement. These older but very experienced and effective divers will have to be replaced, which creates more openings for young professionals. The industry is growing and at the same time there are people retiring. In addition, new sectors are coming along such as decommissioning and offshore renewables, so actually it’s not really a case of jobs disappearing. There are plenty of opportunities out there and we will continue to help our customers to take advantage of them in the future.