HAMILTON, Ont.—Employers need to create more entry-level positions for non-destructive testing (NDT) inspectors to help alleviate a skills shortage, according to the Canadian Institute for NDE (CINDE).
NDE stands for non-destructive evaluation—and includes techniques such as ultrasonic testing, radiography and thermography. NDT is a crucial part of quality and maintenance found in many industry sectors, including the nuclear utility, oil and gas, petrochemical, manufacturing, aerospace and construction sectors.
“Against that backdrop, Canada faces a shortage everywhere. We need to pay more attention at all levels: federally, provincially and at the owner/operator level to know whether or not we’re doing the right things to attract more people to this important occupation,” says Larry Cote, president and CEO of CINDE. “The anecdotal evidence to date suggests we’re not because all industry sectors are hollering for people.”
Much of the current workforce is nearing retirement and the existing hiring climate has created a Catch-22 where many employers won’t consider job applicants without some level of NDT certification from the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB).
Obtaining certification, however, requires on-the-job experience, according to Trends in NDT Certification and Training in Canada, a report written in 2011 by Cote, P.K. Yuen, the manager of Natural Resource Canada’s Non-Destructive-Testing Certification Body, and John Zirnhelt, a senior engineer from Ponteca Inc.
“It’s the employers and owner/operators that need to step up, not just the certification body and training organizations,” says Cote, pleading: “If you’re in an industry with high demand and a reasonable profit margin, please invest in the training and development of a competent workforce.”
Cote notes some employers that do offer entry-level positions feel frustrated when employees don’t stick around after obtaining enough work experience to get certified.
However, this problem could be minimized if more companies offered entry-level jobs to new graduates.
In early May, Cote attended a meeting of the CGSB 48/2 Committee that sets the national standard for the qualification and certification of NDT personnel in Canada. Based on numbers from the NRCan NDT CB, the committee estimates there are about 5,200 CGSB-certified professionals in Canada—not enough to keep pace with the demand based on feedback from some committee members, he notes.
The lack of certified personnel has current NDT inspectors working lots of overtime, Cote says, and there is general agreement that employee burn-out is increasingly an issue.
It appears to be a worldwide problem, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan, based in Mountain View, Calif.
“What is happening in the industry is that there are qualified NDT technicians coming out of the training institutes. However, they do not possess the necessary skill-set or experience to perform high-quality inspection jobs,” says Nikhil Jain, an analyst with the firm.
“The skills shortage are related to knowing how to perform the inspection and how to interpret and analyze the data collected, and a lot of it comes down to experience,” he notes.
Cote agrees gaining field experience is crucial to reliable inspections. It’s often a physically and mentally demanding job, and inexperienced NDT inspectors are more likely to miss a serious defect in a new part or flaw in a piece of equipment nearing the end of its life. The potential consequences of a missed or wrong inspection could be catastrophic to safety, the environment and the financial bottom-line.
Even experienced operators are more likely to make errors if they’re overworked and mentally fatigued, he says.
Another factor contributing to the skills shortage is the amount and type of training available from colleges, industry organizations, private career colleges and employers.
Cote’s report cites an increase in self-guided, computer- and Internet-based education that is eroding the most effective way of learning NDT techniques: hands-on, classroom-based, training at organizations that deliver practical labs for students along with their academic lectures.
Graduates may not be receiving their education in a way that best prepares them for NDT certification exams and the workforce, he explains.
But as the continued reluctance of employers to hire and train less experienced inspectors continues, finding a way to get critical hands-on experience may be tougher than doing the job itself.