Have Tank, Will Travel

Diver takes custom-made tank to schools, events to demonstrate underwater welding

By Nick Fortuna

Kirk diving in tank at home practice welding with his kids helping out. PHOTOS COURTESY OF KIRK HOOKER

For commercial diving companies to attract the next generation of talent, students must be introduced to the industry and the fact that they can earn a good living underwater, and Kirk Hooker is working overtime to spread the word.

Hooker, a certified commercial diver with 16 years of experience and an American Welding Society-certified welder for the past 22 years, has built a 1,300-gallon underwater-welding dive unit that he takes to schools and events for demonstrations. The educational outreach is a passion project for Hooker, 37, who works full time as a diver and has his own welding business in his spare time.

As a married father of two young children, Hooker knows the importance of hustle, so he makes time to educate the next generation of potential divers and welders despite a packed work schedule.

Kirk welding in tank at Fronius USA Headquarters for international sales team meeting.

“I have a lot of experience in the professional diving industry, mainly in the inland sector, and I want to be a resource on the ground level for students who want to know about underwater welding,” he said. “The demonstrations actually blow the students away. They’re very captivated by it.”

Hooker is a graduate of CDA Technical Institute, formerly Commercial Diving Academy, in Jacksonville, Fla. He spent 15 years in the inland diving sector with Minooka, Ill.-based Lindahl Marine Contractors, servicing industrial facilities such as coal-fired and nuclear power plants, steel mills, paper mills and other marine construction sites.

Last fall, he began working for Global Infrastructure LLC, based in Country Club Hills, Ill., and Northern Divers USA, based in Spring Grove, Ill. One recent job involved wet welding steel bulkheads to decommission a power plant in Chicago, and another required him to weld vertical sheet-pile extensions at a steel mill to combat the rising waters of Lake Michigan.

On nights and weekends, Hooker runs Hooker Welding Service LLC, a welding, repair and fabrication operation serving clients in a variety of industries, including agriculture, forestry and trucking.

About four years ago, a chance encounter led Hooker to begin providing underwater welding demonstrations to students. His father had bumped into an agriculture teacher and welding instructor for an affluent school district near Indianapolis, and when the teacher heard about Kirk Hooker’s career, he wanted to organize a school visit.

Hooker spoke with the students about his career, dispelling the myths that the work is extremely dangerous and lucrative, before climbing into the 300-gallon dunk tank that the teacher had rented.

Kirk welding in tank at high school in Indianapolis, IN.

“It was a small tank, and I was pretty much on my knees, bent over, hardly even underwater, but I was able to show the students what underwater welding looks like,” he said. “It was a hit. The students loved it, the instructor was thrilled with it, and I drove home with a check in my hand.”

I have a lot of experience in the professional diving industry, mainly in the inland sector, and I want to be a resource on the ground level for students who want to know about underwater welding.

Encouraged by the experience, Hooker spent about a year planning and saving before fabricating his own mobile tank in his spare time. The only tricky part of the four-month project was installing an acrylic window that is 1 1/4 inches thick and measures four feet by three feet, ensuring that students have a good view of the demonstrations. After some research and consultation, it all came together, and Hooker now has a patent pending on his mobile dive unit.

Kirk in tank welding demo at AWS sponsored high school welding completion in Indianapolis, IN.

The budget constraints placed upon most school districts preclude them from paying for many guest speakers or demonstrations, so Hooker has taken on sponsors to help fund his educational outreach, including Hudson, Fla.-based Commercial Diving Technologies Institute, the AWS and Fronius International, an Austrian company that makes welding equipment used by Hooker. He said his goal is to secure more sponsors so he can afford to devote more time to demonstrations.

In addition to schools, Hooker has given demonstrations at events such as the Touch of Dutch Festival in his hometown of DeMotte, Ind., and at an AWS-sponsored high-school welding competition.

The typical presentation lasts 30 to 60 minutes, with Hooker telling students about the industry and his career, giving them an up-close look at his diving equipment, including his helmet and hoses, and then getting into the tank to wet weld on test coupons. He often brings another diver along to do the underwater demonstration while he describes the process to students and answers their questions.

For Hooker, making sure young people are aware of the opportunities in the commercial diving and welding industries is personal. His own interest was sparked by a vocational welding program in high school, and he knows that not every student gets that kind of exposure to the industry.

“I see my mission as not necessarily recruiting new divers but exposing students to the industry and giving them honest information,” Hooker said. “I hope these demonstrations educate and inspire them. Being a commercial diver and an underwater welder is hard work and takes grit, but the industry has been really good to me and my family.”