The Long and Winding Road: Your Career Path in NDT

You’re at a party, enjoying the music and company, when somebody casually asks, “So, what do you do for a living?”

Where do you begin? How do you define the concept of non-destructive testing to someone who thinks NDT is a cable television network? Explaining in detail the processes and tests you conduct on a daily basis will not exactly make you the life of the party. Taking the high road and claiming to be a valiant protector of public safety and defender of quality standards might be just a bit “over the top.”

If you are like many NDT professionals, you simply mutter something about quality testing or inspection and carefully edge your way toward the punch bowl.

The truth is, our industry suffers the double curse of being too far reaching to easily define, and largely hidden from public view. An analogy might be found in the sports world. NDT professionals are not the players or coaches or team owners or cheerleaders who are always in the spotlight — we’re the people who make sure the lights stay on in the arena so the games can be played.

In fact, there are few NDT insiders who fully comprehend the scope and depth of the industry. This presents a quandary to those who may be considering a career in NDT. It’s also a problem for those already in the business who may be looking for the next step in their career.

The term “career path” conjures up thoughts of a clearly marked, well-trodden trail to be followed by an ambitious individual. In most industries, such avenues to success are long established. The educational requirements, professional certifications, experience levels, and salary steps are well defined and readily available. Think of the careful grooming required of teachers, doctors and lawyers. Every step of their education and training is planned in advance.
But in the world of NDT, career paths are like the streets in my hometown of Boston — winding, narrow, confusing, often one-way and frequently leading to dead ends.

Think about how you first got into NDT. For many NDT professionals, it was happenstance, accident or necessity that brought them into the business. Something needed to be done — a test conducted or inspection made — and they got the call. Until very recently, people seldom entered NDT through the “traditional” portals provided by the educational system. Even now, precious few colleges offer degree programs geared toward a career in NDT.

It’s no wonder that many NDT specialists feel hemmed in by their current jobs, with little opportunity to move up professionally or financially. With no clear career path to follow, they assume the NDT world is limited to what they can see right in front of them. This need not be the case.

Ironically, more opportunity exists for NDT professionals today than ever before. In fact, the NDT job market can only be classified as “red hot.” Reflecting the nation’s overall tight labor market, there are thousands of job openings available in NDT. It is estimated that between 6,000 and 7,000 NDT jobs opened up last year, nearly a 30% increase over the previous year.

There are many reasons for this increase in NDT hiring. A major factor is the overall health of the economy. With key sectors such as manufacturing, transportation and public works humming along, there are more inspections and tests needed. A more important factor for the long-term health of the NDT industry is an increasing realization of the need for non-destructive testing in broader applications. Savvy business leaders are beginning to understand that an ounce of prevention — in the form of more comprehensive testing — is better than an expensive pound of cure, and will lead to a better bottom line.

All this activity has a corollary: an increase in wages for NDT specialists. The tightening labor market and increased competition for the best people have created upward pressure on wages, with salaries rising an average of 10% over the previous year. While money should never be the only criteria for changing jobs, it’s important to know what the current market rate is for a certain position or in a specific region.

Take the salary survey here.

In addition to knowing which industries may be more lucrative, we have found that NDT salaries vary widely by region, similar to the wage variances you might find in other types of work.

What does the current hot NDT job market mean to you? More opportunities to make improvements or changes, either in the type of work you’re doing, where you’re doing it, or how you’re compensated. Is this the right time for you to make a move? There’s no single, simple answer to that question.

If you’re happy in your present position, enjoy the work, and are satisfied with your income, you may want to remain in place. Even if you’re not actively looking for a new job, the tight labor market can work to your advantage. Because it’s so important for employers to retain good employees, NDT specialists have more leverage in their current situations. This may result in higher wages, better benefits, additional training toward certification, improved working conditions, or more flexibility in scheduling.

But if you feel that you could be doing better professionally and personally, this could be a good time to test the waters. It’s important that you don’t view a job search simply as an expedition to find more money. The current job market is really empowering you with the ability to make important life changes. The way you go about making a change in your career should be as carefully planned and executed as a laboratory test of materials. Think long and hard about where you are now and where you want to be in the future.

In past generations, Americans were born, grew up, and died close to home. We also had a tradition of “employment for life,” often spending our entire working life with one company. So much has changed. We have become a much more mobile society, picking up and moving with relative ease. We have also become more comfortable with the prospect of changing jobs. The average American now holds six different jobs during his or her working life.

What happened to company loyalty? It took major — possibly fatal — hits during the recessions of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Workers who had committed to working for one company for life found themselves laid off or downsized. They began to realize that loyalty could be a one-way street.

The result was what management gurus call a “shift in paradigm.” People began to think differently about how and why they worked. Instead of working for “the company,” they began to view their careers as working for themselves and their families. This led to acceleration in the trend toward job shifting and career changing.

The American workforce has become a nation of independent businesses, each called “Me, Inc.” People now take their experience and skill sets from one position to another. This can be seen in the proliferation of portable retirement and pension funds, and the ability to transfer health care benefits from one company to another.