If the prolonged global recession has had a silver lining, it is that the economic slowdown has eased the pressure of finding qualified personnel in the nondestructive testing (NDT) field. But it is only a matter of time before activity picks up in key industries and the demand for NDT ramps up again. Will the NDT industry be ready to respond?
A return to “normal” levels of activity for NDT is likely to expose the problem the industry has had in attracting and retaining qualified workers. This challenge is one that will take the cooperation and collaboration of the entire NDT industry to successfully overcome.
Help Wanted: Advanced CertificationsIronically, the problem does not lie in attracting entry-level workers. Between vocational high schools and technical training schools, enough people are entering the NDT field to provide a wide base of available talent. According to the most recent survey by PQNDT Inc., the number of Level I technicians actually rose by 5% in 2008.
Where the industry is falling short is in training and retaining good people further up the chain. The need is greatest for Level II and Level III NDT technicians, as well as American Petroleum Institute (API) inspectors and certified weld inspectors (CWI). The rapid advances in technology that have occurred during the past 20 years, and continue to occur, have made it more difficult for individuals to climb the ladder from entry level.
Individuals with higher certifications in NDT and QC specialties do not arrive full-grown and ready to work from outside the industry. They must be nurtured, trained and cultivated to acquire the necessary skills and certifications.
The ASNT certification program is essentially a career path that starts with an apprenticeship and leads to higher levels of sophistication, responsibility and compensation. This clearly defined path offers a distinct advantage for NDT over other, more unstructured occupations.
Therein lies another problem. To many potential workers, NDT is more of an occupation than a profession. In a competition to attract workers with the proper math and science skills, NDT is not as flashy or sexy as IT, life sciences or medical technology. It is incumbent upon all NDT practitioners to further professionalize the industry so that it attracts the best and the brightest science, engineering and technology people to the field.
Where Will the Learning Occur?A high school diploma or GED has historically not provided sufficient background for an individual to grasp sophisticated NDT technologies such as acoustic emission, P-scan and phased array ultrasonic testing. The skills necessary to achieve advanced levels of NDT certification require post-secondary education and training beyond high school, yet below the baccalaureate level.
While there are several four-year colleges with excellent NDT degree programs, and even more community colleges offering two-year associate degree programs, they do not turn out nearly enough graduates each year. The bulk of the NDT workforce still comes from two sources: trade and technical schools and internal training programs.
For advanced certifications, the training almost exclusively comes from industry-sponsored programs. Companies and laboratories that can identify Level I technicians who have the potential and drive to advance their careers often will provide the necessary instruction, or else pay for the individual to attend outside classes.
The hope is that the newly certified technician will remain with the company in order to provide a return on the investment in training. But there is no guarantee that a new Level II or Level III will not simply shop his skills around to the highest bidder. This is not a very good incentive for companies to provide training.
Corporate training has another cost: the time of qualified trainers. Level III professionals who are best suited to lead a training class are more profitable when they are doing their primary job in the field or in the lab. Training up-and-coming young technicians is an extra duty that may take away from the daily workload.
Another problem is the time constraints placed on the students. Individuals who may be eager to advance their careers by attaining higher certifications can find it difficult, if not impossible, to attend a multi-week classroom training program while employed in their regular duties.
The Move to Online TrainingA partial solution to these obstacles that has proven to be effective is online instruction, or remote training. Candidates for advanced certification can access pre-recorded lectures and seminars from any computer, at any time. This eliminates the restrictions of a set class schedule and location. Some companies have found that online training offers an additional bonus: it is an inexpensive way to pre-qualify candidates for higher certification.
In the past, a Level I technician who showed promise might be enrolled in an outside certification course at company expense or be given classroom instruction by a senior member of the staff. But not all of the candidates worked out, and those that either dropped the program or failed were a costly disappointment. Now, however, early online classes help to weed out those who are not capable of advanced work, or not motivated enough to successfully pursue certification.
Online instruction is not a total solution to the training problem. Candidates still need sufficient hours of supervised, hands-on instruction and field experience in order to achieve competence. However, Web-based classes provide an excellent head start.
Eliminating a Certification BottleneckCurrently, individuals who have passed an American Society for Nondestructive Testing (ASNT)-administered examination are considered certified by ASNT. Even so, they must take their employer’s specific exam, and often a practical exam as well, to be employer-certified based in part on ASNT-administered exams. Those who achieve qualification by being trained at a school or institution also must be employer-certified in accordance with the employer’s written practice that meets the Recommended Practice No. SNT-TC-1A, which is the ASNT’s official certification guideline.
Some companies specify codes to be met that require Level III certification through ASNT’s central certification program (for example, CP-189, a standard requiring third-party certification). Others only require SNT-TC-1A guidelines be met, which allows employer certification. The problem is that ASNT currently has only four authorized examination centers (AEC), creating a bottleneck for those individuals who want or need such certification.
The time has come for ASNT to consider approving more than the four authorized examination centers. Qualified institutions and corporations should be able to administer ASNT-compliant written and practical proficiency exams to a standard norm acceptable to the various industries that they serve. It is vital that such programs be carefully screened, with their curriculums following strict ASNT guidelines. But a technical school, college or internal corporate training and testing program that passes ASNT scrutiny should be able to confer the “ASNT certified” designation.
The NDT industry remains an essential part of this country’s manufacturing, construction and production foundation. The assurance provided by nondestructive testing provides a critical edge in the areas of safety and quality. Despite the advanced equipment and testing methods that have been developed, it is still the observation, analysis and judgment of the NDT technician that provides such assurance. The NDT industry must make the investment in time and money required to attract, train and retain qualified individuals. NDT