Illustration of lung functioning during free diving; four-color process on faded paper, reminiscent of 1960s guides

Training to Work in the Wet

 Published on February 17, 2015 /  Written by /  “scuba divin' 2” by Tecni Color; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 /  1

What do we mean when we use the phrase, “in the real world”? As many of us are in a state of transition between school and work, styles of work, or a balance of both, are we living a less real life if we don’t work for a corporation? Indeed, the different ways humans interface with the world is hybrid. The column below is an inquiry into the meanings of culturally problematic phrases like “the real world,” and “proper use of time,” and the ways these interplay. It will ask questions concerning digital humanities, critical pedagogy, and agency. It is an exploration, a discussion, and a journey. Join us.


Last month, I set out on a journey to explore values and how the ways in which we spend our time accounts for those values. First, I introduced the following question: “How does your training (vocational, traditional, etc.) inform the way you spend and/or value your time?” Then, I set out to find 3 very different people who might bring interesting perspectives to the question. The results were unexpected, fun, and insightful.

The story below is written by a man — Arlo Daniels — who chose to leave academia and learn vocationally. And though I’ve known Arlo my entire life, I am still surprised to learn the rationale behind his journey. As we worked through this piece together, I learned that engagement and readiness both played a large part in what stuck with him. For teachers, it is important to hear stories like the one below, to understand why some students leave the system, and why others make it their careers. As someone who admits to being fully institutionalized by the educational system, I am delighted to get the opportunity to showcase the idea that training (or more specifically, learning) is not a formal, isolated experience in this world. Communal learning is business as usual. It’s us, as academics, who try to identify it, dissect it, and analyze it. That might be what makes academic work feel less ‘real.’ So let us set aside our dissection tools for a moment and consider another way to learn:

When I was a child, we had an old claw foot bathtub that I could barely see over the edge if I was sitting in. It had a drain in one end, and I was frightened of that drain. I imagined being sucked down that drain to a most uncomfortable death. One day, I recieved a bit of training from my mother that made bath time less stressful. She placed her hand over the drain after pulling the plug demonstrating that a person would not be pulled down through that evil little hole. That lesson stuck with me through the years and, since then, I’ve become a professional diver. I’ve learned more about the physics involved in moving large amounts of water through a small hole. It’s called delta pressure or ΔP, which is just a fancy way to say differential pressure. As it turns out, ΔP can be very dangerous to a diver in the water. In fact, there are more than a few stories of people getting sucked through small openings to their death. Safety wasn’t always paramount in the old days. Nowadays, it is the thing we study most. The guys that have been in the business for a while have more than a few harrowing tales. If there is even a remote chance there is a delta pressure situation on the job site, it’s discussed before the dive is underway and it’s the first thing the diver will check for upon entering the water. The same is true for any other perceivable hazard. Like my mother covering the drain with her hand, the old timers show us how to stay alive and get things done while making the unknown a little less terrifying in the process.

Before I made the switch to diving, I worked in a small art glass factory for 11 years. I did a few different jobs there that kept my interest if only because they were challenging. I melted sand batch into glass. I casted the raw material into sheets and ingots. More recently, I built and maintained the glass furnaces. Although it was very interesting work, going to the same place and doing the same thing everyday wasn’t for me. Maybe I needed more diversity, or more adventure. I turned 35 in 2012, and figured it was time to do something drastic before I got too old. 

I never graduated high school because it never seemed like a relevant choice. My parents were absent, and a GED made a lot more sense when all I wanted to do was get to college and leave my childhood behind. I scored high enough on the GED that I made my way straight into university. So when I was 18, I spent a year at Northern Arizona University pretending to study forestry and biology.  What I really did was drink a lot of beer and chase girls around the block because though science was engaging, girls were a different kind of engaging, and a different kind of science. Academia was not for me. I had little money, less parental direction, and because I was younger than the average Freshman, I lacked the intestinal fortitude and self-reliance to complete a 4-year degree. So I quit and just started working. 

Dive school is a very different animal than the university system. The program I went through lasted seven months and we only studied things pertinent to diving. In dive school, the primary focus is the use of equipment for surface supplied diving, although we did also receive SCUBA training and certification. Our learning focused on relevant job skills: we learned hyperbaric physics, and what happens to the human body under pressure. This kind of learning keeps me engaged because it is directly related to the job. We practiced welding and cutting on the surface as well as in the wet (or in water). We studied non destructive testing, or underwater weld inspection, and how to work in and around hazardous materials. There was instruction on being a salvor, or working offshore and the inland waterways. More than anything else, we trained in safety — which is something that still continues. I am a contract worker. And doing a job well will get me invited on the next job which ultimately makes me more money.

In the fall of 2012, I moved to Seattle to train as a commercial diver. I lived in a house full of young men aspiring to be professional deep sea divers — about 15 or so. It did not smell good in that house. I would commute back and forth between Seattle and Portland on the weekends to see my girlfriend and the cat. I got used to traveling and sharing space with strangers pretty quickly. It serves me well in the industry, as I need to go to bodies of water with other people in order to make money. As I write this, I’m living and working in Cody, Wyoming with a couple other divers. I’ve been here four months, since November, working on a small dam. We’ve got another month or so to go. So far we’ve chipped concrete and welded stainless steel plates together, and tomorrow we have to pour concrete under water.

After graduating dive school, I sent my résumé around to different companies with little response, so I applied to an apprenticeship program under local 196, which is the pile drivers, divers and the bridge and dock builders union in the Pacific Northwest. Technically speaking, I am an apprentice pile driver with commercial diving certification, which basically means I’m an underwater construction worker. According to my agreement with the union, I need to complete a number of on-the-job training hours, as well as attend a 40 hour class a few times a year. The classes are at a union training center and they cover all sorts of things related to construction. Blueprint reading, welding, concrete work and pile driving are some examples. The people I work with are personally invested in my training and actively participate in it. When I show interest in what we’re doing, most of the journeymen seem excited to pass on their knowledge to an apprentice. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I’m in today, which makes me work even harder to refine the skills I already have, along with the acquisition of new ones. 

When I’m not diving or working on a dive operation, I’m thinking about it. I’m always looking for new gear to replace the stuff I break. Divers break things a lot. In this profession, I have found it’s very easy to spend a lot of time on something I am actually interested in, which is something I never got going to the same classroom settings, or even the same factory 9-5 every day. Every job presents a new challenge, and whether my skills are to the task will come with more experience. When it comes right down to it, it’s an adventure that I get paid to go on. And that kind of thing is hard for me to resist.

Seldom do we hear from scholars why a person would decide to leave academia for vocational work, especially since most of us are still inside the system. But because I ask as many people as I can, “how did you end up in your career?” I think about it often, and it drives me to want to know what life is like for others. What do people value, and why do they value it? How do other people spend their time both at work and out of it? Arlo is staying 3 months in Wyoming for his job, away from his partner and his cat, in order to make a living. His motivations, his values, and his perspective on time are very different from that of many of us in the academic sphere, but it is real and relevant for countless people like him. This perspective, often ignored or unheard in academic conversations, shines interesting light on the nature of learning that needs our attention. This tension will not be resolved here. Instead, next month’s installment will further complicate the idea of our values, both personal and professional, by presenting the struggle of a K-12 teacher trying to make time for herself in the midst of learning her trade. Until then.

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1 Response
  1. I instinctively recoil from the phrase “the real world”. Almost regardless of context it stinks of snide superiority.

    Arlo’s story is really insightful, flippantly picking out and dissecting some key issues with a standardised route through education. Refreshing to have this done in such as no nonsense fashion. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

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