SCOTLANDíS rapid expansion of offshore wind farms and a rejuvenated North Sea oil industry have led to skill shortages, including an urgent demand for commercial divers.


With as many as 200 windmills set to appear in Scottish waters to meet increasing energy demands, the provision of divers for maintenance and servicing work will also come directly from the North Sea oil and gas sector, putting pressure on an already depleted diving community.


The number of divers operating in the UK sector of the North Sea has already reached an all-time low. Currently, there are between 500 and 600, with the average age rising to about 47, which is a major concern.


"Itís a difficult situation to be in. My oldest diver is 57 and he is one of the best, if not the best," said Abby Ellington, the off-shore manager for Stolt Offshore, the largest underwater contractor in the North Sea..


"Heís devoted 30 years or more of his life to diving and we canít just kick people like that out. Where do they go?


"Unfortunately, the process hasnít been looked at and over the next five years there will be a mass exodus of skilled divers, leaving behind huge gaps in the skills database."


Attracting new recruits to the commercial diving industry is bolstered by the presence of the Underwater Centre in Fort William, chosen by the government in 1972 as the ideal site to establish a commercial diver training centre.


Relatively unknown, it is the only diving school in the world to offer multi-depth levels right up to 150 metres and unlike most other seawater training sites, the sheltered waters allow diving to continue in almost all weather.


Alf Leadbitter, chief commercial dive instructor at the Fort William centre, said: "There is no shortage of interest in diving but we need to see more younger people being accepted.


"If we do get more wind farms then we could see shortages appearing but the diving companies are waking up to the fact that there could be problems."


The centre offers a range of courses, from the £2,180 Health and Safety Executive Scuba course - the minimum certificate needed to be a commercial diver suitable for scientific and inspection divers, fish-farm workers and scallop divers - to the HSE Closed Bell, costing £7,585, where divers learn to work in pressurised saturation systems using a mix of oxygen and helium. Divers using this technique can dive to unlimited depths in pressurised diving systems and earn up to £1,000 a day in the North Sea.


The centre is about to offer two new courses - advanced underwater welding and scientific and archaeological diving - as a result of industry feedback.


Ellington said potential divers should see these courses as an investment in their future.


"To me itís all about making yourself attractive to an employer. I have gone back, through the Open University, to complete an MBA and this is a similar investment," he added.


Stewart Risk, an ex-diver and senior manager in the offshore industry, added that the shortages arise from the stringent requirements and demand for experienced diving crews.


"The trouble is everyone want the most experienced crews," he said. "There is no slack in the industry for trainees and there are very few kids coming through."