This is the first installment of our “So You Want To Be” series. We will be interviewing men and women in engineering or jobs that require an engineering background to ask about their career, how they got into their line of work, and what their job entails.
Today’s interview is with Robert Porter, a Nuclear NDT Technician working for Industrial Testing Laboratory Services based in Pittsburgh, PA. He is a graduate of Embry Riddle University with a B.S. degree in Aeronautical Science.
Tell Us a Little About Your Background. How did you become a Nuclear NDT Technician?
My degree is in aeronautical science, not aerospace engineering. It’s kind of like the difference between computer science and computer engineering. My plan was (originally) to work for the airlines, but I graduated right after September 11th and that industry was not doing too well at the time.
The short answer as to how I found Nuclear Non-Destructive Examination and Testing (NDT) is that my dad does the same thing I do for a living. He told me about what he did, I went to school for a few months, and then I followed him into the business.
Non-Destructive Examination and Testing is an obscure field – if you don’t know someone that does it already you probably don’t even know it exists.
What education is needed to become an NDT Technician?
I went to school for this in Pittsburgh at a company called System One, a technical school. It entailed 3 months of 40-hours-per-week training. The training itself covered non-destructive testing techniques applicable to many different fields – the same techniques are used at chemical plants, refineries and quite a few other industries. However the courses are geared toward people going to inspect nuclear power plants.
As for education, a bachelors degree or an associates degree in a science field can be helpful with some certifications but its not necessary. You do need a minimum of a high school education or GED. After that, you need training – and the classroom training varies for each certification. The shortest certification requires 16 hours of training and the more advanced techniques are 80 hours.
Describe the Nuclear NDT Technician interview process.
The application and interview process is fairly standard.
One somewhat unusual aspect of this industry, however, is that when you obtain a certification you do it through your company. So when you are getting hired you will be tested for whatever techniques you are supposed to be qualified for. If you end up working for multiple companies (which is fairly common) you have to test for each one of those companies and maintain certifications with each one of those companies.
Important Note: Although you don’t need this to work in my field (Non-Destructive Testing and Examination) specifically, it is relevant to working in a nuclear power plant. You will need to pass an FBI background check and regular drug testing.
There are people that have done the kind of work that I do, gone to work (at a nuclear power plant) and failed the drug test. At that point they are out of nuclear power plants for a minimum of five years as required by federal law.
Although once that is on your record (that you failed to pass a drug test), and your record does follow you from power plant to power plant, it is unlikely you’ll come back even after those five years have expired.
What does your job as a Nuclear NDT Technician entail?
My job in nuclear power plants is (usually) part of the engineering department. As inspectors, we’re sort of the eyes of the engineers. We go out into the plant, collect data on things, and report back to the engineers, who evaluate the data and determine the course of action required.
How would you describe the pay as a Nuclear NDT Technician?
It is fairly lucrative. Though the actual engineers in the nuclear power plant do a fair bit better than we do, I make a fairly good living.
How would you describe your work/ life balance?
We travel to facilities to conduct inspections and the travel schedule varies.
I could be working anywhere from 24-30 weeks out of the year. It’s intensive and all the work is actually on site. Though I could be called to travel all over the country, I have mostly remained on the East Coast.
When you are home you’re completely home. When I am working I work 72 hour weeks. And I’m no where near most of my family and friends. While I’m working my life is pretty much on hold. When I’m not working though, I can do whatever I want.
It’s one of the reasons it is a fairly lucrative career – despite the fact I’m only working half the year (in calendar days) I’m still working as many hours as someone with a full-time year-round job. Except that nearly half of the hours I work are overtime.
What would you say the best part of being a Nuclear NDT Technician is? The worst?
The best part of being a Nuclear NDT/ NDE technician is that I get to see a lot of things most people don’t get to see and get to go a lot of places most people will never be able to go.
The worst part is the time. There are times I’d rather be doing something other than work. Maybe a specific date comes up and I can’t go or be a part of it because I have to go to work.
What is your career trajectory like? Are there ways to ‘climb the ladder’?
More certifications. There are more advanced ultrasonic techniques I don’t currently have the certs for, for example. But the routes to advancement often mean you end up jumping around and changing companies a lot.
Any other anecdotes you can share about being a Nuclear NDT Technician?
The terminology is not standardized from nuclear plant to nuclear plant.
So when you are interacting with the engineers, they’ll refer to something by an acronym expecting you to understand what they mean. And though you may have worked on this component before – it was called something else at another plant.
Job Openings: NDT Technician Jobs
Education Required: High School and Technical School (mandatory), college education in science and engineering (preferred)
Salary: (Based on the 2011 report by PQNDT.com, page 17)
Average Annual Compensation $91,167
Level I – $65,660
Level II – $87,120
Level III – $108,807
Certifications: see The American Society for Nondestructive Testing
Work Schedule: Assignment-based, approximately 30 weeks a year.
Industry: Nuclear Energy / Nuclear Power (jobs)Image of Three Mile Island courtesy of rowens27.