I’ve been an independent and private instructor for over 4 years now while I’ve been certified to teach going on 10 years. I’ve got a pretty diverse background from a bachelor’s degree in social work and working in that industry for 5 years to spending 10 years in banking and finance after that. It wasn’t until I quit the bank job that I discovered what was missing in my life — scuba!
There’s an old joke in the dive industry that if you want to make a million dollars in scuba, start with two! This epitomizes the precarious nature of not being a well rounded entrepreneur. It wasn’t until I crossed-over to NAUI that I was actually given business management skills as part of the scuba process. As I had come from SSI which was strongly store driven, equipment sales oriented, that I could see how having to do everything was absolutely critical to financial success.
Of those of us that are old enough to remember how Bruce Jenner won so many Olympic medals, he did that by just being acceptable at all of the events rather than trying to be the best at one or two. Ironically, you don’t have to stay at acceptable if you are willing to reevaluate yourself, find areas where you can improve upon, and most importantly, admit when you can’t do one of those parts alone and bring someone in that can.
I don’t agree that bigger scuba is better as Sports Chalet defines too big to fail in scuba (although they had their hands in almost every outdoor activity). As you mentioned above,
“To this day, the profitability of a local dive shop typically depends on selling dive gear at high margins after selling courses as a lost leader. That is obviously the wrong way of doing it, nowadays — but that will be the topic of a future article.”
I believe that this premise is backwards. After two years of working at a local dive shop and hearing “ what’s in the pipeline” too many times, memories of the bank (the bank I was working for was Washington Mutual) almost illicits a PTSD-like response. I quit the bank job in 2006 because I could see what was happening to the industry but to a greater extent what was happening to the people. Their employees were filled by greed and getting the job done at the expense of the customer. The customers were also to blame. They wanted it quick, fast, and easy. When the time came to put their trust in the system, they chose to run the other way with all of their cash. It doesn't matter how much inventory one has if you have no cash, you'll crash. So the housing bubble of 2008 left the industry, the consumer, and any resemblance of trust in the gutter. If you cut corners, it will catch up to you.
I see scuba having that same two year window before the crash. Anyone that has worked in an industry long enough starts to see "the writing on the wall." I have a 4 year head start this time and now I also have an infrastructure in place that the local dive shop can't catch up to... The first part of the gap is moving towards e-learning. It's everywhere now. You can get just about every degree without stepping foot in a classroom. It's not the education that's the problem, its that e-learning hasn't become another tool to help students succeed, its become a gateway to take people out of the equation. If you let the student teach themselves, they will either learn that they don't need the instructor or do as little work as possible to accomplish their goal — just get through the lessons so they can go diving — not learn about diving and safety so that they don't become statistics.
Without giving away my secrets and as cleverly worded above, that will be in a future article... Suffice it to say, I've offered free training and cash to anyone that has just completed an online course to take the final exam I give my students and no one has ever taken me up on the offer. Some of it may be that they just don't have the time but I seem to be leaning towards the suspicion that they feel like they are going to be made to feel guilty that they would do poorly. What's ironic about this is that the same analog is happening in the real world. Students are graduating with worthless degrees and are in loads of debt with nothing to show from it. If you are going to go into a foreign environment with a literal ton of water over your head only to find out one's training was inadequate, a few more dollars invested in better scuba diving education is more than a reasonable price to pay!
A second issue facing scuba is the certification agencies, themselves. Again, it's not the agency directly but the fact that we're a self-regulating industry. The only accountability is the court system and since that system has it's own issues, until stronger accountability exists, divers will continue to get hurt and even die. To extend the analogy, a program came to the Pacific Northwest to teach divers and dive professionals about educational shortcomings... The program featured insight into concepts like "normalization of deviance" and "cognitive dissonance." The irony of this is that these concepts aren't new. In fact, they've been used for decades in training programs of all modalities and levels of complexity but those that teach scuba believe that it's something that can be taught in a specialty or advanced course (for more money) at a later date.
With an 80% drop-out rate and failure for many to continue diving, the first introduction to the sport cannot be abbreviated. Many in the fields of scuba thought that these insights were so revolutionary as to almost be missing from scuba instruction altogether — that they were not being taught to divers and that's why dive accidents continue to occur. Agency standards are quite clear not to mention that WRSTC guidelines are only the minimum requirements for certification. If you teach for the lowest common denominator, you produce the lowest common denominator...
When divers don't learn about equipment, about physics and physiology, about the aquatic environment, about decompression theory and then fail to demonstrate proper skills, techniques, and procedures, what does that certification card represent? When I say don't learn, I mean retention. Retention has to apply as you will need those skills underwater, if not when you don't need them, definitely when you do!
While much of what I've mentioned is a systems problem, your article illustrates the holes that are before the industry. The solution is not to fill them or cover them up, but start from solid ground from which a solid foundation can be built upon. Thank you for bringing your insights to the table. I love reading about these concepts and hope that many more will continue to contribute this community.