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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.
Creative director and photographer Brenda Stumpf conjures up a crush of living, breathing mermaids and monsters that dwell deep within our collective unconscious.
Header Image Credits: Location: Simi Valley, CA Model: Traci Hines Safety Diver: Virginia Hankins. “Mermaid Traci was an absolute delight to work with. This was her first underwater mermaid photoshoot and I’m thrilled at how well it came out. “
Alissa Photo Credits; Location: Roatan, Honduras; Model: Alissa Quon; Safety Diver: Virginia Hankins
Virginia Photo Credits: Image 1; Location: Simi Valley, CA; Model: Virginia Hankins; Hair/makeup: Chrystina Yu Makeup & Natasha Johnson; Image 2; Location: Catalina Island, CA; Model: Virginia Hankins; Safety Diver: Jon Council; Image 3; Location: Catalina Island, CA; Models: Virginia Hankins, Paul Suda; Safety: Mike Varga
Jessica Photo Credits: Image 1; Location: Playa Del Carmen, Mexico; Model: Jessica Dru Johnson; Safety Diver: Mike Varga; Image 2; Location: Playa Del Carmen, Mexico; Model: Jessica Dru Johnson; Safety: Mike Varga
Linnea Photo Credits: Image 1; Location: Catalina Island, CA; Model: Linnea Snyderman; Safety: Jon Council; Image 2; Location: Catalina Island, CA; Model: Linnea Snyderman; Safety: Jon Council
Elisa Photo Credits: Location: Playa Del Carmen, Mexico; Model: Elisa Buller; Safety: Mike Varga
Virginia & Jessica Photo Credits: Location: Playa Del Carmen, Mexico; Models: Virginia Hankins, Jessica Dru Johnson; Safety: Mike Varga
Brenda Stumpf has been diving and making photos for the past 12 years in both closed and open water environments. She specializes in fine art and portraiture and can be found passport in hand, ready to head out to another great adventure. You can find more on her website: Brenda Stumpf. For more mermaids, check out her book: The Mermaid Project.
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Creative director and photographer Brenda Stumpf conjures up a crush of living, breathing mermaids and monsters that dwell deep within...