College program leads to unique career option
A downturn in the construction industry in the late 1980s led Shaun Kerr to new waters, literally, as he now dives to work every day.
While laid off after three years of carpentry work, he discovered an underwater commercial diving program at Seneca College.
“It’s a good profession for me ... it’s exciting and challenging,” the 41-year-old says, in a telephone interview following a day out on Lake Erie.
Kerr explains that commercial diving involves working on “virtually any structure in the water.”
These days, as a commercial diver for Talisman Energy Corp., he works primarily on the natural gas wells in Lake Erie. However, he’s worked on many underwater projects, including the Confederation Bridge in Prince Edward Island, power plants, water intake systems, and salvage operations.
“One of the attractions (of the job) is you go wherever you want ... you can work all over the world,” Kerr says. He adds the Seneca program is recognized worldwide. With his training, he’s certified to dive to depths of 165 feet. But Kerr can plunge deeper, thanks to additional training he received in Scotland.
Because his contract with Talisman is from the spring until the end of October, Kerr can do contract diving jobs the rest of the year. A couple of years ago, he worked in Japan for five months salvaging a ship carrying 3,500 vehicles, which was damaged in a typhoon.
The Toronto man has also worked in Indonesia, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Finland, New Zealand, Chile and the Dominican Republic. Some of that work involved constructing and repairing pipelines, or working alongside remotely-operated vehicles, which are sometimes used for underwater filming.
Last year, he worked up north at the Bruce Power plant for the winter. Inspections and repairs at the power plant meant diving under five feet of ice.
Kerr is attracted to the personal challenge of the job, but admits there are some pitfalls. It’s hard on the family life when you’re constantly travelling and the seasonal hours are long.
And Kerr admits, as he gets older, he’s becoming less tolerant of the cold.
It’s also “inherently dangerous,” Kerr says. “You’re working with cranes and things can happen when you have limited visibility,” he says. “Little accidents on the surface can be tragic in the water.” Although every effort is made to ensure safety on the job, Kerr says he’s had some “close calls.
“You really rely on the guys on the surface to look out for your well-being,” he says, adding you trust them with your life.
And it’s a slow job, as Kerr compares it to “working with oven mitts on and turning off the lights.” They wear three-fingered mitts, making it difficult to pick up a half-inch bolt or other small piece.
In recent years, cameras have been installed on the divers “so those on the surface can watch everything being done.”
He says it helps ensure everything is properly inspected because it’s so costly to have to go back and redo an underwater job.
Ross McPhee, a production diver with Talisman, says it aids in training new divers. “We can accelerate the training and can help keep someone from making a mistake,” he says.
The 30-year-veteran of commercial diving says the job is more than just diving.
“Diving is the way I get to my work,” he says, adding he oversees the underground gas field on the Canadian side of the water, comprised of more than 100 natural gas wells and thousands of miles of pipeline from Port Colborne in the east to Wheatley in the west.
“It’s a good profession for me ... it’s exciting and challenging.” Shaun Kerr
As the supervisor, McPhee says there’s a lot of equipment to install, maintain and pressure a hoses to check. He notes that each valve is now computerized, but the computer systems have to be installed and programmed and it’s the divers that do that work. At times, there’s also drilling to be done.
McPhee also schedules the divers who go out in teams of five or six on the vessels or rigs to do the necessary work.
The 52-year-old has spent his entire career in Lake Erie – during that time he’s seen vast improvements in technology and safety.
He studied math and science at university, taking the diving program at Seneca as a reprieve from university. But he was offered a job after graduating from the diving program and never returned to school.
Personally, McPhee said he’s never gotten over the thrill of the first dive of the day, adding, “I hope I never will.” While he sacrifices family time during diving season, the Dorchester resident tries to make up for it during the off-season, opting not take any offshore jobs.
He says there’s a worldwide market for commercial divers, especially after major tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina. In Ontario alone, he said there are a number of jobs — virtually any place that has a shore requires a diver to go under at some point for inspections, maintenance and repairs.
Sean O’Dwyer of The Carpenters Union Local 785 in Cambridge has represented the commercial divers in Lake Erie for the last four years.
He says The Carpenters Union, which began representing divers about 40 years ago, now represents about 70 to 80 divers across the province.
He says commercial divers are also involved in aiding the Department of Transportation in inspecting ships and freighters.
Unionization, he says, has helped to ensure they have more competitive wages, benefits, pension and for those who choose, the opportunity to apprentice as a carpenter so they have options for their future when they can no longer handle the physical demands of diving.