Believe it or not, if you honorably served in the United States Military you can use your VA Education Benefits to become a Dive Professional.
These benefits can cover all costs for tuition, equipment, and even a housing allowance while you train. But there is a lot to know and understand before you signup to have a sizable check sent to your chosen training institution by the government on your behalf. You sacrificed and worked hard to earn these benefits and you want to be sure you get the most from it. For the scope of this article when I use the term “Dive Professional” it does not include Hard Hat Divers. Those opportunities also exist with VA benefits and some of this info may be applicable. But the focus of this article is becoming a professional in the Sport of Recreational and Technical diving.
For those who served a qualifying period of time based on their respective component, whether Active Duty, Reserve, or National Guard; have earned Education Benefits from the Veterans Administration. Many know this as the G.I. Bill; the G.I. Bill has taken many forms since it was first created in the latter part of WWII as an effort to ease the transition processes for those returning from The War. Compared to wars prior when service members were left on their own to face these challenges and were often left high and dry when Congress failed to honor their promises to those that served their country. For the current generations that qualify for these benefits it comes in two forms, Montgomery G.I. Bill for some of the older veterans and Post 9/11 G.I. Bill for the younger veterans. Both offer benefits for veterans who would choose to do vocational style training instead of traditional college, officially referred to as “Non-College Degree Programs”. However, the current Post 9/11 G.I. Bill offers the most generous benefits for these types of programs. If the veteran left service before September 10th 2001 then they are only entitled to the Montgomery G.I. Bill. For those that served both before and after September 10th 2001 are defaulted to Montgomery G.I. Bill but may be eligible to forfeit it in favor of the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. And finally, for those that joined after the Montgomery G.I. Bill era are only eligible for the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. To verify what you may be qualified for visit Vets.gov and follow the link to apply for education benefits.
What does it mean to be a Dive Professional?
Anyone familiar with diving knows terms like “Open Water Scuba Diver” or “Nitrox Diver”, and the coveted title of “Master Diver”. But all of those are just individuals out having a good time pursuing a hobby. There are two types of Dive Professionals, either a supervisor or an instructor. The most commons form of dive supervisor is a Divemaster. Depending on the certifying agency they can provided assistance to an instructor, usually under direct supervision of the instructor, but mostly their job is to lead other qualified divers as a paid guide. They often work as crew on a dive boat and provide safety oversight for less experienced divers or divers who just don’t go out that often. Some agencies that have a more technical focus also offer more advanced dive supervisor ratings to lead and assist more advanced technical divers or even provide safety supervision in the film industry. The next step up is to be an instructor. All instructors can teach the first few levels of open water diving but within the instructor umbrella there is still room for continued growth that you will learn about depending on what certifying agency the training institution you choose uses. Some schools even offer supervisor and/or instructor programs on rebreathers. It’s these professional rating, and the potential to earn money in the diving industry that allows for the VA to fund this kind of training.
Even though Divemaster is a professional rating most dive centers are only interested in hiring instructors because an instructor can do Divemaster’s duties but the same can’t be said for a Divemaster. That being said, I would still discourage anyone looking to get into one of these programs to sign up for the anything beyond Divemaster from the get go. You may find that this just isn’t the industry for you. Or maybe you want to experience the next level of training in a different environment to become a more rounded professional. And finally there is the possibility that you feel the quality of training is less then satisfactory and you want to continue with a different facility. Always keep your options open. If the place you have chose to train is great, or you really believe this is the job for you it is very easy to submit for the next level of training before you complete your current level of courses.
Just as PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) dominates the market on recreational scuba divers they also represent the majority of certifying agencies used by these kind of training facilities. But they aren’t the only one and some offer certifications with multiple agencies. SSI (Scuba Schools International) and SDI (Scuba Diving International) are also represented and for those with a more technically minded can go with a school that certifies with IANTD (International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers).
How do I find these magical schools that let me become a professional in something that most people consider a recreational activity?
If you do a search on the Internet for VA or G.I. Bill approved schools you will find all sorts of stuff but the only place that has a complete listing of approved training institutions is the WEAMS (Web Enabled Approval Management System) Institution Search at https://inquiry.vba.va.gov/weamspub/. Once there the first thing to do is change the “Program Type” to “Non College Degree”. Then in the name field enter terms like “Diving” or “Scuba” as these terms typically show somewhere in the name of any institutions offering these kinds of programs. From my searches the majority of these institutions are located in Florida but that is not the only place. There are also training centers available in Hawaii, North Carolina, Washington, Georgia and Illinois. Some of the facilities have lodging available or can provide info about temporary lodging in the area so don’t be discouraged if there isn’t a training facility in your area.
What do I get for my money, how much does it cost and how long does it take?
In order to work in an industry like this you will need your own equipment, equipment that isn’t cheap to most people’s standard. But guess what…any VA funded program will include most if not all the necessary equipment. A complete package of usually good quality gear to get you started. A Divemaster program will run you about eight to ten thousand dollars and about half of that is for your equipment. But the G.I. Bill is expressed in months of benefits, not dollars. So what is the real cost? I estimate that a month of G.I. Bill is about $1900, so Divemaster will cost you about 5 to 6 months of G.I. Bill benefits. Now for the rub, the Divemaster program only takes about 3 to 4 months to complete and you only receive MHA (Military Housing Allowance, the VA version of BAH) while in training. So even though you used 6 months of G.I. Bill you only get maybe 4 months of housing allowance. Going onto instructor will cost you a couple thousand more dollars and so on. So you can easily become a dive instructor in fewer than 7 calendar months for less then 10 months of G.I. Bill. Now if you want to get into a rebreather program, the equipment and training costs go up considerably. A rebreather program will cost you upwards of 12 months of G.I. Bill with just 4.5 months of actual training and MHA. Also keep in mind that you can only use 12 months of G.I. Bill in an academic year, the academic year resets August 1st. So if after doing a regular scuba program you decide you want to get into a rebreather you may need to wait until your academic calendar resets.
This all sounds cool, but is it worth it?
Many people will say no but those are often the same people that see value in some lame Liberal Arts degree that just about every Starbucks Barista seems to have. They see more value in a college degree then in a job that brings them joy and happiness. And there is a saying in the industry; “The best way to make a million dollars in the dive industry is to start with two million.” This is not an industry to get into if you want to make a lot of money or intend on having a nice house with two cars and want to support a family. But if you are young, debt free and want a job that can secure you employment in some pretty awesome locations internationally then this could be your ticket to an exciting adventure. The other category of person that gets into this industry are people who already have an established career and are looking for something to do on the side or after retirement. So in the end the only person that can answer that question is you.
I have two more things of caution I want you to consider before going this route. First, with only one exception that I know of, all of these schools are for-profit; they are here to make money. The one exception that is not a for-profit school where you can use your G.I. Bill to become a scuba instructor is Key West Community College. So buyer beware, make sure you understand what you are signing up for and ensure you get everything you are due. All your money is paid upfront so ensure they deliver to the end. The school that I did my PADI Divemaster with went afoul of the VA and was shutdown. Fortunately, I wasn’t a student with them at the time but some that were I’m sure got the short end of the stick and have to take it up with the VA to get any lost benefits reinstated. But this isn’t exclusive to diving schools, this kind of thing has happened with other kinds of for-profit private schools.
And finally, you need to understand your obligation to complete what the VA paid for on your behalf. If you fail to complete training you could be on the hook to pay back not just the cost of the course but any housing allowance you received. Before any debt is collected that VA will attempt to contact you to see if there was any mitigating circumstances like a death in the family, medical issues or what not. So make sure you face any situation like this head on and deal with it accordingly. Depending on the situation you may be allowed to complete training later or be absolved of your debt despite not completing the program you signed up for.
About the Author…
I have trained with two different VA approved facilities in my journey to become a dive professional while stationed in Hawaii on active duty. I currently provide diver supervisor duties and assist in instruction as needed. I will be retiring from a 20-year military career later this year but will not be moving into the dive industry on a full time basis anytime soon, if at all. My current professional dive certifications include, PADI Divemaster, IANTD CCR Advanced Recreational Trimix Supervisor, and IANTD EANx Instructor. If you have any additional questions you can email me at email@example.com. I will try my best to answer any questions you may have and if it’s applicable to other potential readers I will amend this article and add the answer at the end.