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By Darcy Kieran
Header image of instructor Giovanni Gastaldo, Third Dimension Diving, Tulum, Mexico prepping for a course dive. Photo by SJ Alice Bennett
InDepth magazine and Scubanomics teamed up to conduct a survey in May and June 2021 on the economics of being a dive instructor. In this first article, based on the survey results, we will be specifically examining the economics of being a tech diving instructor and/or instructor trainer. Further analysis will be available on Scubanomics.
Based on the answers to the InDepth & Scubanomics survey, we will attempt to answer the question: Is tech diving instructor/instructor trainer a viable career decision, or is it best thought of as a part time job—albeit a fun one? The survey results help to determine what realistic salary expectations are and hopefully assist with answering the question of whether the pursuit of this career is a good investment of time and money. We also look at tech diving instructors’ aspirations, including how many agencies employ them.
Who answered the survey?
Before jumping into the exciting parts of the study, let’s have a quick look at who answered the survey.
Participants show a bias toward instructor trainers with many years of experience as dive instructors. Presumably, this group is more committed to the industry and is, therefore, more receptive to the survey.
As of this writing, 537 dive instructors have answered the survey, 457 of which were in active teaching status, while the other 80 were no longer teaching. If you haven’t answered the survey yet, you may still do so, as the study will continue until the end of August 2021; the extension represents an effort to gradually improve the reliability of the statistics and reach out to under-represented market segments.
Among those in teaching status, 61% were instructors, while 39% were instructor trainers/course directors. For simplicity of the text, we will use the term “instructor trainers” as inclusive of course directors going forward. This bias toward instructor trainers is even more significant among tech diving instructors. Of the tech diving instructors who answered the survey, 55% had at least one instructor trainer credential. This article defines “tech diving instructors” as dive instructors and instructor trainers teaching cave, rebreather, or other forms of tech diving courses.
Who are the tech diving instructors who answered the survey?
Interestingly, among the tech diving instructors who participated in the survey, 53% were instructor trainers for non-tech diving courses. It appears that teaching tech diving appeals to recreational scuba diving instructor trainers.
Tech diving instructor respondents were teaching in the following regions:
- USA: 45.6%
- Europe: 15.4%
- South Pacific, Indo-Pacific, Other Tropical Asian Region: 10.7%
- Mexico, Central America, Caribbean, Tropical Atlantic: 10.0%
- Australia, New Zealand: 3.4%
- South America: 3.4%
- Other: 11.5%
For the most part, they were experienced instructors. 64.4% of the tech diving instructor respondents had been teaching for 10 years or more, and 21.5% for 5 to 9 years. Of the tech diving instructors who answered the survey, 91.4% identified as males.
The following figure presents the age of these respondents.
And the following graph provides the household income from all sources for these tech diving instructors.
Now, let’s dive into the juicy stuff!
The rest of this article is a presentation of data from tech diving instructors and instructor trainers for rebreather, cave, and other tech diving courses, unless otherwise specified. The following data is from tech diving instructors currently in teaching status. All amounts are in U.S. dollars.
How much money have tech diving instructors invested in their careers?
This is how much tech diving instructor respondents have invested on average to develop their career:
- Training: $50,553.00
- Gear: $74,567.00
How much income are tech diving instructors generating from teaching?
This is how much annual income tech diving instructors have earned, on average, from teaching, including tips and commissions:
- 2020 (pandemic): $18,411.00
- 2019 (pre-pandemic): $27,230.00
This comes with a drop of 32.3% in annual income during the pandemic year of 2020. Similarly, we see a drop of 41.2% in the number of students trained during the year.
- 2020 (pandemic): 48.4 students
- 2019 (pre-pandemic): 82.4 students
This means an average income per student of:
- 2020 (pandemic): $380.00
- 2019 (pre-pandemic): $330.00
What is the level of teaching income for tech diving instructors who are teaching full-time?
The annual income level for all tech diving instructors for 2019 and 2020 is shown above. Next, let’s look at the level of annual income from tech diving instructors who are teaching full time.
- 2020 (pandemic): $32,453.00
- 2019 (pre-pandemic): $46,619.00
Obviously, full-time instructors train more students, but they, too, saw a similar drop in income (30.4%) due to the pandemic.
- 2020 (pandemic): 73.8 students
- 2019 (pre-pandemic): 122.4 students
With an average income per student of:
- 2020 (pandemic): $440.00
- 2019 (pre-pandemic): $381.00
Based on these numbers, full-time tech diving instructors are generating more income per student. In both cases (full-time and part-time), revenues per student went up during the pandemic, which would make sense considering the increased work expected with new public health requirements.
How much are tech diving instructors earning per hour?
This is, on average, how much income tech diving instructors estimate earning per hour when working as a dive instructor:
- All tech diving instructors: $21.85
- Full-time tech diving instructors: $24.89
What was the impact of the pandemic on your activities as a dive instructor?
From the numbers above, we see that, on average, both the number of students trained as well as revenue decreased significantly during the pandemic.
However, 9.4% of tech diving instructors actually experienced growth during that period, as we can see in the following graph.
This is consistent with Scubanomics’ analysis of entry-level scuba diving certifications in the USA. While the pandemic caused a drastic drop in teaching activities, states like Florida and Hawaii actually experienced growth, since people were looking for activities that didn’t require an international flight.
What is your “employer?”
More than half of tech diving instructors are teaching as independent/self-employed.
Employment status of tech diving instructors
This is slightly less true for full-time tech diving instructors. Quite logically, as we see in the graph below, teaching in a resort is more likely to be associated with working full time as a dive professional.
Employment status of full-time tech diving instructors
So… Can you make a living as a tech diving instructor?
If you compare the income of a full-time tech diving instructor ($46,619.00, pre-pandemic) to the poverty line ($12,880.00 in the USA), it appears the answer is yes. Yet, tech diving instructors are quite divided on the question of whether it is a valuable career path for the next generation.
It is pretty much a 50/50 split opinion!
Is it a good investment?
Even if you are satisfied with a $46,619.00 annual income as a full-time tech diving instructor, let’s not forget the considerable upfront investment required.
Tech diving instructors have invested, on average, $125,120.00 ($50,553.00 in training and $74,567.00 in gear) to get the credentials and experience needed to teach scuba diving. Let’s assume you didn’t go down that path and, instead, invested that money for your retirement. If you expect an ROI of 6% annually on your retirement plan, it means that $7,500.00 of your annual income is actually just a fair return on your initial investment. It further means that your “work income” is more like $39,000.00 instead of $46,619.00.
Things worsen when you factor in the number of hours you spent on becoming a tech diving instructor. This ‘time’ has value, because you could have spent it working for pay. So… $46,619.00 in annual income is potentially misleading, because it does not fully take into account the original investment of time and money required to become a tech instructor.
How much diving do tech diving instructors do outside of teaching?
This is the average number of dives tech diving instructors have done outside of teaching in the last two years:
- 2020 (pandemic): 72.1 dives
- 2019 (pre-pandemic): 124.6 dives
Not surprising, this is a drop of 42% from pre-pandemic to pandemic year.
Tech Diving Instructors as Watersport Participants
Besides scuba diving for fun and teaching diving, what do tech diving instructors do as participants in an activity?
There is no surprise here. It’s mainly about scuba diving with a little bit of snorkeling and freediving. What they intend on participating in is more interesting.
In the graph above, we see the intention to participate in the activity (not as an instructor) by tech diving instructors who have never done the activity before. It makes sense that tech diving instructors who haven’t yet done cave or rebreather diving are interested in these activities. The level of interest in freediving is about at the same level.
Freediving has been gaining ground in the last few years, with major recreational dive training associations launching freediving courses. International Training (TDI/SDI) recently acquired Performance Freediving International, a leading freediving training agency.
The interest in surface-supplied air (tankless) diving is a bit surprising at 6.5%, considering the fact that it has not been promoted by any large dive training organization, and only 1.4% of tech diving instructors have already participated in such a dive.
What are tech diving instructors’ goals for the future?
First, let’s look at what additional instructor credentials are of interest to tech diving instructors.
Intend to Pursue Further Instructor Credentials
Once again, we would expect that tech diving instructors would be interested in teaching additional tech diving courses such as cave and rebreather. However, the level of interest in teaching rebreathers is quite phenomenal. It means that about 1 out of 3 tech diving instructors who are not currently rebreather instructors are interested in teaching it! Freediving also looks good.
Then, we have two noteworthy areas of interest:
- Adaptive/handicapped scuba: 12.1%. This is more than 1 out of 10 tech diving instructors interested in the specialization. Perhaps we should expect further development and possibly some acquisitions on this front by dive training agencies.
- Tankless (surface-supplied air) diving: 6.7%. This is an activity currently outside of traditional dive training agencies, and yet, there is a significant interest in it.
What additional professional goals do tech diving instructors have within the dive industry?
These are the goals current tech diving instructors intend on pursuing:
- Become an instructor trainer: 25.9%
- Own a resort/dive center in a tourist destination: 22.3%
- Own a dive center in a non-tourist location: 10.8%
- Own a liveaboard: 7.9%
It is also worth noting that 38.9% of current tech diving instructors had no further professional goal.
A dive instructor article cannot be complete without at least some mention of dive training agencies. On average, tech diving instructors are affiliated with two dive training certification agencies, and the following graph represents that split among survey respondents.
Additional Observations by Tech Diving Instructors
The survey ended with two open-ended questions. Here are some of the noteworthy comments we read in these answers.
What are your main challenges as a dive instructor?
- Other instructors who value only the number of students at all costs. They charge close to nothing just to get student numbers, regardless of the quality of the training.
- Teaching quality courses.
- Finding time for marketing and administration.
- People who want instant training and skills.
- As an independent instructor, finding pools to use is the hardest.
- It is an industry of enthusiasts, not professionals. From top to bottom, it is a very unprofessional industry.
- Trying to produce good divers while recreational students typically just want to get finished as quickly as possible.
- The negative reputation dive instructors have been labeled with.
- Students don’t want to commit to a class that is long enough to produce a competent diver.
- Extremely low pay, and dive centers who want to max out the instructor-to-student ratio.
- Pool time is expensive. Coordinating enough people (students/divers/instructors) to make pool rental economical is a challenge.
- It’s impossible to work in the dive industry and support a family. I’ve even worked for two of the major training agencies and couldn’t make ends meet on dive industry income.
- Ensuring that teaching scuba is enjoyable enough to continue to invest the time and money that I do.
- The industry focuses on certification instead of training. In other industries, where people care about performance rather than just certs, they will repeat training or take the same or similar course from multiple instructors.
- Trying to make a living in spite of PADI soaking all the money out of course fees.
- Dealing with poorly trained divers and dive instructors.
- Getting customers to stay in the sport.
It is noteworthy that 43.4% of respondents included reference to lowball pricing of courses, low quality, and profitability issues in one form or another.
Final thoughts shared by tech diving instructors on the economics of being a dive instructor.
Ready? Set. Go!
- The industry treats being a diving instructor like vacation pay. There is no consideration for the fact that we invest as much as an airplane pilot and are considered disposable people that can be paid a minimum, worked a maximum, and let go as soon as the situation is not ideal.
- A small minority of instructors can “make a living” solely from teaching. Most of those are tech level.
- PADI used to be the market leader, but as Covid has reinforced, they care more about their money than their members. I would advise all people thinking of becoming a pro to do it through SDI, NAUI, or similar.
- There is no such thing as “economics of being a dive instructor.” You can’t make a living doing this. You are unlikely even to recoup your training costs. Dive instructors should be college students and young people, not the crusty old farts we currently have. Unfortunately, greed has driven the price to a point where retired guys are about the only ones who can afford the training to become instructors, and those same guys keep young people out either by intentional exclusion or simply by making the sport seem like an old guy game. Training agencies should stop pushing teaching as a “job.” It’s a hobby, or maybe a way for dive bums to stretch out their avoidance of getting a real job for a bit longer.
- Most potential students don’t understand the difference between instructors and courses. They only see they get the same card at the end, so why shouldn’t they find the cheapest instructor available?
- It has become too easy to become a dive instructor. The market is saturated with people who don’t really care but want a couple of years living the life. The system doesn’t encourage one to pursue a real career in the industry. Average wages usually don’t allow us to make a real living, especially in a domain where we are responsible for our students’ lives.
- You need to specialize in an area in which you can excel.
- The industry is not friendly toward independent instructors.
- It’s tough to do full-time with the lite pay and hours involved. Moving into teaching tech and eventually, CCR, makes it more profitable.
- Being a dive instructor makes no economic sense. One must love the idea of sharing the underwater world with others. You might earn some beer (rum) money. That’s about it.
- Mostly unsustainable as a full-time job. Buyer’s market for employers.
- Quality vs. quantity is a constant struggle for most instructors. It takes time to make good divers… But then the instructor begins to lose money. Producing a lot of divers is how an instructor can make the most money. Finding the balance is difficult.
- So many instructors only do between 1 and 3 years as a “gap” from “real life.”
You may consult the survey results for tech diving instructors in active teaching status here.
There is a lot more to learn from the data in this survey, and further analysis will be provided on Scubanomics.
A Very Special Thank You!
The Data Behind The ‘Economics’ of Being A Tech Diving Instructor
You can find the second part of the analysis of the survey data here: The Economics of Being a Recreational Diving Instructor
In the dive industry, Darcy Kieran has worked in retail and wholesale. He’s been a Course Director and scuba diving Instructor Trainer with numerous dive training agencies. He owned/managed dive shops, dive resorts, and charter boats in Canada and the USA. He’s been on the Board of Directors of DEMA. He has gained valuable experience from other industries, including sporting goods manufacturing, radio & TV broadcasting, railroads & transportation, digital marketing agencies, and education. Darcy is an engineer, radio announcer, and author.
Diving Into The Famous Ressel Cave
Belgium service member, cave explorer and tech instructor Kurt Storms takes us for a dive into the Ressel cave system located in Lot. Get out your reels.
By Kurt Storms. Photos courtesy of K. Storms unless noted.
The Lot and The Dordogne areas of France have an abundance of beautiful caves suitable for all levels of diving expertise, situated in glorious rural locations. Sites are mostly found on three rivers: The Dordogne, The Lot, and Célé. The Lot area lies in the northern extremity of the Midi-Pyrenees region, which stretches from the confines of the Dordogne Valley to the highest peaks of the Pyrenees, forming the heart of South-West France. Cave divers from all over the world return to dive here year after year. With over 20,000 known caves, France is one of the premier cave diving areas in the world. One of the most interesting regions lies in the Southwest, around the rivers of Lot and Dordogne. Here you find a multitude of long and deep caves with mostly crystal clear and relatively warm water, offering superb diving conditions. The water temperature averages 14º C/57º F and the visibility normally varies between 5-30 m/15-100 ft.
Finally!!! We can go to the Lot again. The COVID conditions have thrown a spanner in the works. But because we are all now vaccinated, we can finally leave. This time, for a week of training and then a week of diving holiday with my wife Caroline Massie. Two students (Jo Croimans and Bram Van Gorp) are with me for the training. The next few days, they will be busy with skills and dry teaching. Theory has already been given in Belgium so that we can get the most out of our dives.
Why the Lot?
The area in France is popular because most European divers take cave classes there so they don’t have to travel to Mexico or Florida. One of the most famous caves around here is Ressel. Ressel is located in the village of Marcilhac-sur-Célé, in the heart of the Lot. Most pictures you can see online show huge, dramatic blocks of white rock, flat structures, and the shafts of this cave. The facilities are pleasant, we have a large parking area for our cars, and finally there is also a conveniently located building with a toilet. From the car park we have only to walk about 100 m/330 ft to get to the entry point on the River Celé where we can put all our equipment needed for our dive.
The Ressel was first dived in 1968, by two divers of the speleo club Auvergnat. Martin and Debras reached 150 m/492 ft. It was only in 1973 that the line was extended to 300 m/984 ft, with a maximum depth of 30 m/100 ft. In 1975, Fantoli and Touloumdoian reached Pit 4 and went to a depth of 45 m/147 ft. Further exploration continued over the years, especially by Jochem Hasemayer in the early 1980s, where at 1100 m/3609 ft into the system he planted his knife in the rock to which he attached his line. This knife is still there.
On August 12, 1990, Olivier Isler was the first to cross Sump 1. The total dive time back and forth was 10 h 35 min. End of Siphon 1 is at Lac Isler, and from there on you can continue to the next siphons. Ressel consists of 5 sumps, of which siphon 1 is the longest (1850 m/6070 ft) and the deepest (83 m/272 ft). From Pit 4 onwards, the deep section begins, which can only be done with trimix mixtures. In the following years, the further sumps were explored by gentlemen like Rick Stanton, Martin Farr, and Jason Mallison. In 1999, the end of Sump 5 was reached. The total length on the main line is 4415 m/14,485 ft.
Spectacular Views In The First Section
To be honest, the visibility is spectacular all around. More than 10 m/33 ft visibility, which was near zero before the start in the Celé River—quite a change. As soon as we got to the entrance, the water cleared like snow in the sun. The first thought that ever crossed my mind was: How on earth did they find this cave? How, with the visibility of the river, did anyone see a hole that is 6 m/20 ft below the surface on one side—which is frankly not that big. Enquiries with the locals revealed that when the cave is full of water, you can even see a geyser in the river! Another impressive detail.
There is a rope that runs from the point where you get all the way into the cave, and it continues to the main line; you don’t need a primary reel here—it’s really easy to find the entrance, at 6 m/20 ft deep. Then there is a huge tunnel with white giant boulders, which is impressive.
The first dives were only up to the T (180 m/591 ft penetration), where the obligatory skills were practiced, so that later one can widen the comfort zone. This is also a very beautiful part, especially because of the large blocks that lie here. There are even two exceptional phenomena visible; these are two blocks consisting of white limestone, with a large black spot in it. You won’t find these black spots anywhere else. It is wonderful to be able to admire nature like this.
My wife, the students, and I got in, and on the first dive, with a sidemount set consisting of 2×80 cf (dual 11 ltr) tanks, we did the first T, taking the left corridor. On the next T, we continued toward the shaft to a maximum depth of 30 m/98 ft to take a look. It is so impressive! We felt like we were going to the abyss, and actually we were, to the abyss below ground and underwater. But now they were even more curious about the famous Pit 4 of the Ressel.
To be able to do this dive, we had to bring the right amount of gases. The first dive was with Jo Croimans, my student; he had his sidemount configuration with an extra 7 ltr along, I dived with my Divesoft Liberty SM rebreather. There we went, all prepared. The way there is about a 28 minute dive. On the way, I showed Jo the shunt that goes to the deeper part of the first loop. Enjoying the ride, we continued until we reached the point of the shaft.
Here I asked Jo if everything was Okay, he indicated that it was, and we descended to a depth of about 40 m/131 ft. I could see in Jo’s eyes that he was enjoying himself. But we didn’t have much time to enjoy ourselves, because we had to go back again. If you have deco, you can do it all on the way back on a nitrox 50 (NX50). For the advanced divers, you can take your oxygen at 6 m/20 ft and finish any decompression on O2.
It’s actually a great dive, and the cave allows for a variety of dives, just by choosing different depths in the tunnels, to have different perspectives.
Once we got to the top, Jo couldn’t stop exclaiming about the amazing beauty of this cave, and especially Pit 4. This made Caroline want to go and have a look too. This dive was done a few days later, when both gentlemen had gone home. This time we did the dive by scooter, a big difference. In 13 minutes we were at the shaft, and again I saw a happy face. How nice it is as an instructor to be able to pass on your passion. This is what we do it for. Ressel is one of the most beautiful caves in Europe. It remains an easy, accessible system.
The Ressel is and will always remain a special cave. Last year, I did the deep loop (1160 m/3806 ft long, 73 m/240 ft depth) here with two friends. And I still enjoy it when I talk about it. We still have to come back to do the rest of S1.
X-Ray: Pushing the Ressel—A Cave Diving Expedition in Lot, France by Erik Wouters (2013)
YouTube: Cave diving in France: Emergence du Ressel (2016)
Kurt Storms is a member of the Belgium military, and is an underwater cave explorer and active technical/cave/rebreather diving instructor for IANTD. He started his diving career in Egypt when he was on vacation, and the passion never ended. Kurt is also founder and CEO of Descent Technical Diving. He’s diving on several CCRs such as AP, SF2, Divesoft Liberty SM.
Kurt is also one of the pushdivers that is documenting a new slate mine in Belgium (Laplet). This project was news on Belgium Nationale TV. Most of his dives are mine and cave dives. In his own personal diving, Kurt’s true passions are deep extended-range cave dives. His wife (Caroline) is also a passionate cave diver. In his free time he explores Belgium’s slatemines. When he is not exploring, he takes his camera with him, to document the dives.
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