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Game of Pros: Experience v. Credentials


By Lee Wilson

Inspectors and others in the protective-coatings field often ask me which is “better”—practical experience or third-party certification?

My answer: Yes.

The fact is that either or both can benefit one’s personal professional development.

NACE coating inspector

Led by the oil and gas majors, many job ads for coating inspectors now specify NACE Level 3 certification.

Both teach how to inspect surface preparation and paint application, and both provide the fundamentals of quality control of protective coating systems.

The Big ‘But’ …

If, however, you ask which offers the better ticket to gainful employment, then, my friends, there is clearly only one winner: that piece of paper that says you know what you are doing.

If you have any doubts, see the demand for NACE Certified Inspectors that appears on any job website.

Why is this? Is it because NACE teaches something different in regard to quality control of protective coating systems?

I think not. There is only so much that an inspection body can teach about protective coating inspection.

© / ZU_09

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing in the case of coating failures on mega-projects.

Yes, standards differ across the continents. However, the teachings of NACE International, the UK’s ICorr, SSPC and FROSIO (the Norwegian certifying body for surface treatment and insulation inspectors) are similar in regard to inspection techniques.

What Big Oil Wants

Meanwhile, there has been a huge increase in the number of NACE Level 3 Coating Inspectors, due to the demand by the oil and gas majors for that credential.

Unfortunately, the requirement for experience before obtaining Level 3 certification is raising questions. Experienced inspectors are reporting a new influx of inexperienced inspectors straight into senior-level ranks.

We can’t blame the new inspectors for this trend; they are simply looking for employment. And what Big Oil wants, Big Oil gets. You either get the ticket or choose another career path.

No, the blame lies solely with the approval bodies for not checking an applicant’s experience before he or she sits for the certification exam.

© / paci77

Are certifying bodies being less than diligent in verifying job experience before certification?

We all know that we have to sign an experience report that tells the approval bodies the experience we have before sitting for a Level 2 or 3 certification.

By many accounts, these reports are now being falsified—or the requirement itself ignored.

Proof in Performance

Of course, all the paper credentials in the world will not help much if you lack the practical experience that helps you apply the learned knowledge. (A little knowledge can prove to be a catastrophic thing in some coating failures.)

In my opinion, experience and qualification go hand in hand. The approval schemes understand this; that is why they incorporate levels of experience into their systems. They just need to stick to this requirement.

And they clearly aren’t: Guys with little or no experience now hold Level 3 certifications.

© / michaeljung

Certification and experience work best together when inspections are on the line.

I questioned these issues back in 2012 in an article where I used the F1 (Formula One) analogy.

The Drive to Succeed

Obtaining an inspection approval is like obtaining a driver’s license. You can sit the course and pass the examination, but it is how you perform on the road that counts.

We are all well aware that there are many good and many bad drivers; the same can be said for protective coating inspectors.

Simply having Level 3 certification from an approval body does not make you the next Lewis Hamilton (or Richard Petty, to put it in NASCAR terms for my American colleagues).

It’s your performance on the circuit that shows how good you are; only after many years of experience can you end up on the pole position.

We are all learning something new every day. As well we should: Regardless of how long you have been in this industry, the field is moving at an alarming rate, which guarantees that none of us know it all.

Competition and Conflict

So, we have the influx of Level 3 guys and so-called senior inspectors. But why is this causing so much animosity on social media sites and around the industry?


All the paper credentials in the world will not help much if you lack the practical experience that helps you apply the learned knowledge.

Because, friends, the guy who has studied and worked hard in this field all his life; walked thousands of miles across petrochemical sites and fabrication yards; and inspected, accepted and rejected huge quantities of steel worldwide is now struggling for work.

The oil companies have saturated the industry with Level 3 inspectors, leaving little demand for the guys with perhaps more experience but fewer paper credentials.

You can now grasp why the experienced guy is now slightly unhappy.

Who Wins?

Of course, both the talent glut and the competition it creates suit the oil companies just fine.

With so many inspectors certified, and so much rivalry for employment, the oil majors can drastically reduce salary expectations. It’s just another well-organized, well-orchestrated corporate massacre.

© / IvelinRadkov

The oil companies have saturated the industry with Level 3 inspectors, leaving little demand for the guys with perhaps more experience but fewer paper credentials.

All of this leaves us in a situation where the vast majority have licenses to drive, but there are no longer enough roads to go around.

The unhappy ranks on Facebook and Twitter say the shift from old blood to new ink on the job has brought an increase in car accidents—I mean, coating failures.

The solution is simple. Stick to what you know and what you’re good at. Then, when you are ready to move through the ranks, gain the experience necessary before entering higher certification.

Approval bodies, meanwhile, need to fully check individual experience prior to allowing inspectors to enter senior-grade professional status.


Lee Wilson

Lee Wilson, CEng, FICorr, is a NACE Level 3-certified CIP Instructor, NACE Corrosion Specialist, NACE Protective Coating Specialist and Senior Corrosion Technologist, as well as an ICorr Level 3 Painting Inspector and Level 2 Insulation Inspector. The author of the best-selling Paint Inspector’s Field Guide, Lee was named one of JPCL Top Thinkers: The Clive Hare Honors in 2012. Contact Lee.



Tagged categories: EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Engineers; Inspection; Institute of Corrosion (ICorr); Lee Wilson, CEng, MICorr; NACE; North America; Quality Control; Quality control; SSPC; Asia Pacific; Certifications and standards; Latin America

Comment from Simon Hope, (1/5/2015, 5:50 AM)

Good article Lee, it is the usual grind on in some respects but until people listen and take due heed to the warnings, we will continue to have an industry with little respect. Experience is great as long as the correct information has been acted on from the beginning and that lessons learned have been responded to correctly rather than just plough on and make the same old mistakes. As you are well aware there are plenty of gross misconceptions and old wives tales out there!! As for Mr Big Oil, hopefully he will get a few more people to work for him who actually know what they are doing rather than, in the true 'empty vessel' mode that many of the current crop of experts adopt (ie making a lot of incoherent and useless noise about things that they shouldn't be commenting on)and start to bring in sound technical lead and proposals. This then leads to sound controls on the workface along with auditable quality as the people needed will not be able to just hide behind useless scraps of paper blowing in the wind. As you rightly say, it is a combination of proper experience and high quality training that are needed to produce the type of people the industry needs, a five day wonder course on its own will never be the answer and 'cheating' by individuals and certifying authorities help no one nor improve credibility. 35+ years in the industry have left me sceptical and disillusioned to the extent that I have approximately zero confidence in certifying systems for inspection engineers and trust is only built on observation of the individuals to determine whether they can actually do the job for myself. To date the knowledge and ability seems to be sadly lacking or misguided! Too long on the soap box! What are we going to do? This question never seems to get a satisfactory answer!

Comment from Warren Brand, (1/5/2015, 8:50 AM)

Great article, Lee. Being a NACE 3 or SSPC PCI 3 is great, but, exactly as you've pointed out, it does not a competent inspector make. Also, as you pointed out, demand is turning inspection services into a commodity, like flour, butter, gasoline or other undifferentiated product or service. We rarely bid on inspection services if a client is looking for three or four quotes. We only uses seasoned inspectors - for obvious reasons - which are typically more costly. In fact, one of our top inspector has more than 30 years of inspection experience, is a chemist by trade, and has no affiliation with NACE or SSPC - and I would stack him up against any NACE 3 or PCI 3.

Comment from David Reynolds, (1/5/2015, 10:52 AM)

Thorough coverage and discussion of an important area - not only to coatings, but to related areas. Thanks! An approach that may be helpful comes from IFMA, the International Facility Management Association. The top level credential, Certified Facility Manager (CFM) requires appropriate, documented, demonstrable experience, recommendations, and an examination. While other commonly encountered IFMA credentials are knowledge based, and the required tests reflect this, the CFM written exam is said to be competency based. I took (and passed), the CFM last year, after a decade of varied facility management work. It was unlike any previous exam I'd encountered (or given, as a college instructor) in any engineering or technical discipline. While at least a few of the possible responses in many of the questions were feasible and nominally correct, the right choice, I speculate, arose from choosing the one most likely to bring progress in the situation posed. Although I studied intensively for the exam, and could not have passed without doing so, many of the questions came down to making an expeditious choice based on what felt like a guess - well, an informed guess. IFMA has an ongoing process for validating and updating the CFM exam, using both staff and practicing CFMs. I do not know how the group arrives at exam questions, but they seem to have effective methods of doing so. I no longer doubt their claim in any case. I cannot recall another exam where I could not answer out of factual knowledge, discover the deciding factor, or make a calculation, to reach a clear choice. My practical experience in the profession must have figured significantly - just as should apply with project critical inspection practice.

Comment from peter gibson, (1/5/2015, 12:42 PM)

Like for any profession...a credential does not deliver competence. One must have the theory with the practical experience.Today,society is hoodwinked by a piece of paper.Very problematic.

Comment from Alan Nesbitt, (1/9/2015, 2:43 AM)

Hi Lee, See it everyday Men trying to run before they can walk and trying to fast track through the courses,the majority I know personally and they have very limited experience but as you say they need that bit of paper, time will prove you right and sadly the old statement of Lions being lead by Donkeys will become more of a norm.

Comment from Jennifer Morse, (1/9/2015, 7:39 PM)

Hi Lee, Outstanding blog, and comments from everyone. I work for a large corporation that contracts many coating inspectors, and in some cases inspectors who also look at coatings, across North America. The real criteria to select the good inspectors includes training, experience and common sense. However the people who contract these inspectors know nothing of coatings, and providing them a comprehensive list of what to look for on a resume is difficult at best. Training only establishes they were in class and passed the tests. Experience, when listed on the resume truthfully, can mean real learning or simply being present with no learning. Common sense is not quantifiable for a checklist of inspector qualities. I have issues with both NACE and SSPC inspection programs, but see no better option than to continue attempted influencing for improvement. In the meantime, I will have to write company specifications for paint/coating/lining inspection because we cannot continue to afford the major failures of NACE certified inspectors that we have seen in the last few years. Even this will not solve all the problems, but should at least improve accountability and reporting.

Comment from Alan Nesbitt, (1/12/2015, 1:50 AM)

Hi Jennifer, Confusious alledgedly said "Common sense, not so common" excellent comment.

Comment from George Moonen, (1/13/2015, 3:37 AM)

Life would be so easy if "common sense" could certified...

Comment from Lee Wilson, (1/15/2015, 11:34 AM)

Common sense is a very rare commodity excellent comments though

Comment from Michael Baase, (1/16/2015, 2:32 PM)

As a lead representative for a major asset owner, this post, brought to my attention by my colleagues, warrants some level of comment. While reading through the original Blog and the subsequent posts, I saw many aspects I can agree on and relate to. In particular, mentions of the importance of common sense, the undervaluation of experience and the unfortunate instances of certified inspection personnel falling short of expectations. I’m not aware of any certifying organization that is also in the third party consulting business. Perhaps, I’m naive in this, but my understanding is that both NACE and SSPC were born out of industry needs to help provide some levels of consistency, standards and assistance to owner bodies, not to provide guarantees that either individuals or businesses certified by them would perform in some angelic way and be the end all for an industry plagued by a lack of understanding from people that are directly tasked with utilizing the products of this industry. It is incumbent upon user organizations to take responsibility for the oversight of their projects, including the hiring and constant evaluation of inspection personnel of any level whether in-house or through third party consultant firms. Simply put, if you don’t know what is going on, on your job, and you are not keeping an eye on the whole process, then shame on you. Don’t pass the buck. We require NACE or SSPC certification and certain levels of experience for our in house personnel, third party inspection services and contractor’s QC inspection personnel. The certifications are the first filter we use to determine whether or not we will even consider utilizing personnel on projects. Certification confirmation is followed by a requirement for certain amounts of experience (job duty dependent - that we try and verify) on our type of projects. Our next line of defense is having in-house personnel that oversee all projects and are hands on during spot inspections to further ensure that inspections and contract administration are being performed up to our expectations (this could also be done through consultants). Ultimately, we are responsible for the outcome of our projects. We have had many successes and some failures, which we learn from and modify how we work to minimize the chance of failures repeating. The other side, of this that I have not seen mentioned as of yet, is that while the coatings industry as a whole is large, most of the different subsets of the industry are fairly small. Most of us are focused on one or only a few different industries and these are relatively small communities. What is immensely important and not being considered, is that in this industry, you live and die by your reputation. Those that are bad performers, usually are found out, and in short order have nowhere to go. My advice to my fellows in our industry; it’s easy to find problems, that is after all what we are paid for. Take ownership and when you find a problem, have at least one solution to that problem before you point it out and assess blame.

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