(Story courtesy of www.nooga.com) Ten years ago, Mike Turnbow with TVA looked at an aging workforce and knew that eventually-without a system to train new employees-there wouldn’t be enough qualified people to perform inspections at nuclear power plants.

“We would’ve been struggling to get our work done,” Turnbow, who is general manager of the TVA Inspection and Testing Services, said. “It would have been an ugly situation. We got the data long before it was critical.”

So, Tennessee Valley Authority employees partnered with Chattanooga State Community College and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and developed an associate degree program in non-destructive testing.

Those who go through the program have the opportunity to get nationally certified so that they can perform inspections-not only at TVA nuclear power plants-but on other infrastructures.

“This particular testing is applied in buildings, bridges, airplanes, power plants and the list goes on and on,” Turnbow said. “(Inspectors) make sure they are free of flaws so they will operate like they are supposed to.”

The Program

Tim McGhee, dean of the engineering technology department at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, said that Turnbow approached the school officials several years ago and asked them to think about developing the program.

“Four years ago, we really couldn’t see what the demand was going to be, but Mike had a vision that there would be a critical loss of folks," he said.

Along with TVA volunteers and local inspection service providers, Turnbow helped create the new course material, while teaching the first students at Chattanooga State.

This year, the first two students graduated with the associate degree and now TVA has five interns learning skills they will use at TVA plants while moving toward graduation, Turnbow said.

“We are excited to help move this field forward by offering students the capabilities needed at the same time they get a chance for high paying jobs,” Turnbow said in a prepared statement.

According to the Occupational Informational Network, in 2009, those in the nondestructive testing field made a median wage of $27.66 an hour, $57,530 annually.

Currently there are 14 people in the program, but Turnbow said the goal is to eventually have a school of about 100.

The program isn’t limited for those who will work in the nuclear power industry, Turnbow said.

As infrastructure continues to age, the need for inspectors will increase, he said.

“This program is really far-reaching for other industries, such as the aerospace industry, airlines, buildings and bridges," Turnbow said.

The Industry

The nondestructive testing industry is “fairly small," Turnbow said.

“It is a speciality,” he said. “In the whole country there are probably 60 to 70,000 (employees). That’s the best we can estimate.”

The Occupational Informational Network estimates that between 2008 and 2018 there will be 18,500 job openings and that the industry will grow slower than average at a rate of 3 to 6%.

Turnbow said that construction of new power plants will increase the need for qualified inspectors.

“There has been a renaissance in the industry of nuclear power,” he said.

McGhee said the Chattanooga State program will also help bring more attention to the industry.

"I think the big thing we are doing-we are able to promote that occupation and that skill,” he said. “Really, there is not a lot of promotion. By creating a degree program, we professionalize it.”