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Commercial divers concerned about industry’s future after Seneca College cancels program

Commercial diving experts say the industry will be under water if Seneca College doesn’t reverse its recent decision to cancel its diving program. 

The underwater skills program has been around for almost 50 years, but the college has cited high operating costs and low student demand as the reasons for its closure.

That’s prompting concerns over workplace safety and labour shortages from members of the commercial diving industry, including one of the program’s first instructors.

Doug Elsey was among the earliest instructors with the program in 1974 and still sits on the board of advisors. 

“There is complete shock that this has happened, across the whole industry, across Canada,” said Elsey, now the executive director of the Canadian Association of Diving Contractors.

“It’s like someone flipped the light switch. I don’t know who made the decision but they sure as heck didn’t talk to us,” said Elsey.

In a statement  to CBC Toronto, Seneca College said, “This was not a decision made lightly, and certainly was no reflection on the faculty and staff who have contributed so much to the reputation of the program.”

“Given the combination of the high operating and capital costs, the funding environment and low student demand, there was no reasonable prospect of the program getting on solid operational footing and we are unable to continue the program,” said spokesperson Ryan Flanagan.

But Elsey said the commercial diving industry is hurting for qualified people and the students who came out of Seneca College had a high level of competency that is essential in what can be dangerous work. 

Two men in wetsuits and deep diving masks sit above the water looking at the camera.
Students pictured at Seneca’s deep dive facility in Wiarton, Ont. (Submitted by Doug Elsey)

There are only a handful of commercial diving schools across the country and Elsey said the school was known worldwide for its reputation. 

The school also trained public service divers from various police forces, fire departments and Ministry of Labour employees, he said.

“The whole industry doesn’t know what to do. We are crying for people.”

Concerns about labour shortage resulting in injuries

More than 90 per cent of underwater construction company owner Dave Gallagher’s commercial divers come directly from Seneca College. 

He said he knows of commercial diving companies who were barely able to do work last year because of a shortage of  properly trained divers. The news from Seneca College, he said, is just going to make matters worse.

“[It’s] going to cause huge problems in the very near future,” he said. 

Dave Gallagher stares down the camera with his arm resting on a bronze diving helmet.
Dave Gallagher is seen at his commercial diving construction shop, Galcon Marine Ltd in Etobicoke, Ontario. More than 90% of Gallagher’s commercial divers come directly from Seneca College. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Gallagher is fearful that with the amount of work increasing and not enough divers to keep up with it, employers will start to use divers who aren’t properly trained for a certain job. 

“They are going to be doing it illegally with not enough crew and people are going to die,” he told CBC Toronto from his shop in Etobicoke.

“That’s what we have seen in the past. That happened before the regulations came in.”

‘Brutal the program is going away’: student

Current students will be able to finish the program, like Jack Evans who is enrolled in classes.

“Commercial divers, especially in Toronto are a huge support just from an economic standpoint,” he said, pointing out commercial divers are needed for water treatment plants, nuclear plants, underwater construction, lock systems in rivers and canals and rescue and recovery operations. 

Picture of the outside of Seneca College.
Seneca College said the decision to cut the almost 50-year-old commercial diving program was not made lightly. (Google Maps)

“I think we have a quite large impact on how our province functions simply due to how much water we are surrounded by and it’s really brutal the program is going away.”

He said Ontario divers will now have to consider relocating to another province or out of the country in order to be re-certified, which is required every few years. 

A petition, which has garnered more than 1,000 signatures, has been launched since the announcement was made to students on March 24. 

Diving experts say the news directly contradicts Ontario premier Doug Ford’s promises to invest in the skilled trades. This past week Ontario Premier Doug Ford allocated $224 million to invest in new and upgraded training centres. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Colleges, Training and Universities told CBC Toronto it was not involved in the decision to cancel the program.

“Publicly-assisted colleges in Ontario are separate legal entities that are responsible for both academic and administrative matters, including specific course offerings. As part of their regular business, colleges may choose to suspend or cancel existing programs,” said spokesperson Liz Tuomi.

CBC Toronto has also asked the Ministry of Labour for a response but has yet to hear back.

Elsey meanwhile remains concerned. 

“Here’s something that was golden and they’re pulling the plug on it,” said Elsey. “Whose idea was that?”

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