Managing risk through certification

In recent years, it has often been noted that workforce demographics are changing, especially with the pending retirement of the "baby boomers."

Ian Verhappen
Industrial Automation Networks Inc.

In recent years, it has often been noted that workforce demographics are changing, especially with the pending retirement of the "baby boomers." This is especially true in the oilfield, and many oil and gas companies are at risk for losing valuable instrumentation and control knowledge and experience. Many of these older workers learned their skills "on the job," and fewer younger workers are entering technical fields. These trends place oil and gas companies at risk.

One possible contributor to the recent increase in incidents in the offshore industry could be the reduced level of experience available in environments that are increasingly challenging. These include the deepwater drilling areas on the continental Gulf shelf, salt beds off Brazil, and the North Sea. Most companies working in these high-risk environments use a range of risk management practices not only to manage their financial exposure but to manage their health, safety, and environment (HSE) risks as well.

The same risk management principles could and should be applied to the workforce. One way to manage these types of risks is to use outside agencies that can verify minimum levels of qualification, the same way that electricians and other tradesmen are verified. The International Society of Automation (ISA,www.isa.org) has developed and supports a number of certification programs related to the automation industry. These programs provide third-party verification of the minimum skill levels needed for those passing the associated experience requirements and testing program. The programs for automation professionals are: CCST – Certified Control Systems Technician for trades and crafts workers; CAP – Certified Automation Professional targeted more toward design professionals; and CSE – Control Systems Engineer. This last one is the Professional Engineer program that is run by the Board of Examiners, but ISA supports it with technical experts.

The CCST and CAP certification programs have minimum experience requirements; continuing education/development requirements (PDH – Professional Development Hours); and three-year renewal terms to be sure that all those carrying this designation continue to stay current in this continuously evolving field.

Just as there are different levels in an apprenticeship program, the CCST certification has four levels to represent the types of work for which each individual is capable. Level I is the entry level of this certification while Level IV is reserved for full proficiency or "master" of the complete range of skills expected of an automation professional. Level IV CCST and CAP registrants are qualified in not just a single industry or one aspect of the automation field but rather the full range of activities. They are trained and tested for applications in a variety of industries, including continuous, batch, and factory automation. Skills covered range from specification and troubleshooting of field sensors, motors/drives, and communication of the associated signals to the control system (DCS, PLC, or single loop controller), to the configuration and commissioning of these same loops. Safety systems are also discussed at a high level to insure familiarity with their application as well. (There are other organizations that certify safety system specialists.)

There are presently approximately 3,500 CCST and 350 CAP automation professionals worldwide. The CAP program began in 2005 while the CCST program began in 1994. Other than the few people who developed the initial course, all the above individuals have had to pass exams to receive their certification. Passing the exam is not easy, as evidenced by the typical pass rates of CAP at 60% and the CCST exam at 65%.

An additional advantage of these independent certification programs is that they are another way of verifying the credentials of workers independently of the education received in their home country. The ISA certifications are in compliance with the Automation Professional Competency model that was accepted and adopted by the United States Department of Labor in 2009. This model is also accepted internationally under the umbrella of the International Automation Competency Model Network.

The Automation Competency model is also used as the basis for the curriculum at a number of colleges and also for the Automation Federation AutomationVET Initiative. For this latter initiative, the model offers a template to define what courses and additional skills these professionals need for a future career in the automation field under the GI Bill Benefits program.

The next generation of workers will require a wide range of "tickets" and certifications to confirm that their knowledge has been verified by an independent third party. Once confirmed, renewed certifications will show workers are making an effort to maintain the relevance of their skill set through continuing education. As indicated above, ISA, other engineering societies, and a number of private organizations can provide this capability, but industry must support it by including these certifications in their job requirements. The offshore oil and gas industry needs to encourage their employees to pursue these certifications and to participate in the relevant work groups, so that the new generation of workers can develop and maintain the skills needed for automation, instrumentation, and control.

The author

Ian Verhappen, P.Eng. is an ISA Fellow, ISA Certified Automation Professional (CAP), and a recognized authority on Foundation Fieldbus and industrial communications technologies. Verhappen operates a global consultancy Industrial Automation Networks Inc. specializing in field level industrial communications, process analytics and hydrocarbon facility automation. He can be reached at iverhappen@gmail.com.

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