In 1968, Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) pioneered formalized diver and technician education with a curriculum that enabled students to earn an associates of science degree while completing a certified diver training program.
There were several reasons the school took this step, according to Geoff Thielst, chair and program director for SBCC’s Marine Diving Technology Program. At that time, oil companies needed divers to work on the numerous oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel and the abalone fisheries was employing divers to harvest the mollusks.
In addition, the presence of many commercial diving companies in the area at that time spurred innovations in diving gear. (The Kirby Morgan helmet, for example, was developed in Santa Barbara.) The school also had a geographic advantage; Santa Barbara is located on the Pacific Ocean, which offers deep water for dive training just a mile offshore.
Although many of the oil companies and platforms have gone, and the diving companies have moved to other locations, SBCC’s diver training remains a well-known and well-respected program. It is the only community college degree program in the nation that is accredited by the International Diving Schools Association (IDSA) and the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), and it has been audited by the Association of Commercial Diving Contractors International (ADCI).
SBCC Marine Diving Technology is also a very affordable option for people who want to become commercial divers. Since community college tuition in California is subsidized by the state, the cost to obtain the diver certification is just $3,107 for state residents. Out-of-state and international students pay more.
The low tuition is offset to some degree by housing expenses in Santa Barbara, which are high. SBCC does offer students some assistance in finding housing.
Something else that sets SBCC’s program apart is the fact that it is a technician-training program. While commercial diving training is a large part of what it does, the school also prepares students for roles in non-commercial diving, in research, and in other marine-related industries.
Thielst does his best to give students a realistic view of what a commercial diving career entails. He said many young people get into program for the wrong reasons; they see divers hunting for treasure on the Discovery channel, and think that’s what a commercial diver’s job is like. “I tell them that the minimum work day is 12 hours, and it’s usually an 84-hour work week. it’s hard, dirty work and it’s extremely competitive,” he said.
Although the number of enrolled students varies by year, especially since the pandemic, about 32 students usually end up in the class. (Many applicants can’t pass the first day’s rigorous swim test.)
The school follows a normal community college schedule, with two semesters, fall and spring, that are each divided into two modules. The first module, which Thielst says is the most intense, includes scuba diving.
“That’s pretty rare for a diving school. We do it for two reasons, and it’s served us well. One is that doing advanced scuba makes our students more and more comfortable in the water, and if you’re comfortable, you’re more focused on what you’re learning. The other thing is that we don’t just train commercial divers; we also train scientific divers, public safety divers, environmental divers, and those are all typically scuba divers. So we don’t want to just dedicate ourselves to the oil field,” he explained.
The first and second modules usually include training on gear, hydraulic systems (for remote operated vehicles or submarines), rigging and seamanship.
The third and fourth modules includes ocean diving, mixed gas diving and underwater welding and underwater cutting.
After completing the first year, students have earned the ADCI certification for entry level air tender/diver. The outstanding students in each class may receive monetary awards to help them get started on their careers.
“I highly encourage people in their early 20s to continue for another year to get their associates’ degree,” said Thielst. That year would include traditional academic classes like biology and English, as well as oceanography and emergency medical technician training.
“Education teaches you critical thinking skills and a rudimentary understanding of math, and spelling and grammar, which is important,” he explained. “Divers work remotely, out of observation, by themselves. Very often the only testament to what you did is the report you write about the job.”
Studies have shown that those with a degree have a higher earning power than those without. Many marine technology employers require employees who have solid educational foundations in addition to good skill sets. In the commercial diving industry, degrees are not as important at an entry level, but often mean the difference in gaining promotions due to the additional skills they afford an employee after they become established with a company.
SBCC’s marine diving technology program attracts students from all over the country and some from other countries as well. Students must supply their own scuba gear, and can use the GI bill or apply for financial aid to cover the cost of equipment and courses.
The program does not have a formal placement service, but Thielst said that has not been a problem. The diving community is small, and the relationships that he and the program instructors have formed helps students make the contacts that can land them a job after graduation.