Industrial Instrumentation Technician
Keep gauges goingGood hand-eye coordination is importantThis work requires expertise in a range of technical subjectsYou'll need specialized training and usually a college degree

Robotics and artificial intelligence have become buzzwords of the 21st century. These technologies promise to change the face of industrial and manufacturing plants of the future. As industrial machines get increasingly complex, there are a bunch of professionals who need to constantly stay abreast of these changes. They are industrial instrumentation technicians.

Industrial instrumentation technicians (IITs) inspect and test the operation of instruments to diagnose faults, repair and adjust system components, replace defective parts, calibrate components and instruments and schedule preventive maintenance.

Good instrument technicians know everything about the instruments they're repairing.

"I value an instrument tech who's knowledgeable of the whole loop, right down to the physics, math and theory of operation of each and every component," says Bob Whitney. He is an Oregon-based IIT in the wastewater treatment field. "A good tech also can operate any system that he works on or calibrates."

Instrumentation technicians work in the pulp and paper, mining, crude petroleum and natural gas and wood industries. They also work for public utilities, manufacturing companies and industrial instrument servicing firms. Companies may employ their own technicians or contract services through an instrumentation maintenance company.

Good hand-eye coordination, mechanical aptitude and excellent computer skills are musts in this field. Good eyesight and color vision are needed to inspect and work on small, delicate parts. And good hearing is necessary to detect malfunctions revealed by sound.

Common shop injuries and cramped conditions when performing repairs are constant threats. Though accidents caused by instrument failure are no one's fault, technicians may feel a considerable amount of responsibility.

"There may have been no way to detect the failure, nor reason to suspect one, but the IIT responsible for that instrument will still suffer emotional stress," says industrial electronics technician Shaun Karr.

The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) says electronics repairers of commercial and industrial equipment held about 72,000 jobs in 1998.

It is hard to determine exactly how many IITs are currently employed in the U.S. The Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA), which is based in the U.S., has about 43,000 members worldwide. The ISA has several sections across the U.S., with varying membership sizes. The New Jersey section, for example, has about 125 members.

The OOH says workers in this category of occupations will experience an average rate of job growth through 2008. "Many job openings should result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force," says the OOH.

Dick Glass of the Electronics Technicians Association is quite optimistic about employment outlook in the field. "There's still a steady demand for technicians in the industrial setting....Each job becomes more and more computerized and more electronic every year. So they need more capable workers to handle it all. It's not a production-line type of thing."

But Bob Purdue, an industrial field technician working in Bridgeview, Illinois, has a different view on job availability. "I think there's really not a lot of instrument techs. A lot of companies will use their own engineers to start up the instrumentation. If they have problems, that's usually when I'll get a phone call and hop in the car or jump in a plane and go correct things," says Purdue.

He says when he entered the field years ago, it was relatively inexpensive to keep a service person on staff. Now, instrumentation specialists require expensive support systems.

Peter Collins is the vice-president of the Central New Jersey section of the ISA. He sees a positive job picture. "There's great potential because there is a need for people with current technological knowledge, in a field like electronics, to work on some of the analog mechanical systems in the plants," he says.

"There's quite a bit to be done to bring current equipment up to date with technology."

In 1998, electronics repairers of commercial and industrial equipment earned an average wage of $17.11 an hour, says the OOH. While some earned less than $10.22 an hour, others were paid more than $23.81 an hour.

Collins says earnings depend on several factors. But on average, he puts the entry-level salary at around $30,000. High-end earners tend to work in the administrative side of things and could make between $50,000 to $60,000 a year.

RegionAverage Annual EarningsAverage Hourly EarningsU.S. National$53,990$25.96RegionOutlook2008 Workforce2008 to 2018 Growth RateU.S. NationalDecreasing164,030-2.20%

Instrumentation technicians need a high school diploma, specialized training and usually a college degree. Two-year or four-year programs are offered at many colleges and universities. Courses in drafting, technical writing, mathematics and computers are essential.

"A lot of the colleges have simulators set up for the students to troubleshoot as they're going through their training in instrumentation, so they're getting the hands-on experience they need," says Mary Cousins, a senior product specialist.

Those entering this field may choose to complete formal apprenticeship programs. In the U.S., applicants for entry-level jobs may have to pass tests that measure mechanical aptitude, knowledge of electronics, manual dexterity and general intelligence.

The International Society of Certified Electronics Technicians and the Electronics Technicians Association each administer a voluntary certification program. In both, an electronics repairer with four years of experience may become a certified electronics technician. An associate-level test is offered for repairers with less than four years experience.

In order to be successful in this field, individuals should expect to spend time keeping current with changes in technology. Certification is increasingly important.

Here is a sample of related training:California University of PennsylvaniaIndustrial Technology Program
250 University Ave.CaliforniaPA15419USA
Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society
67 Alexander Dr.Research Triangle ParkNC27709USA
Electronics Technicians Association
5 Depot St.GreencastleIN46135USA
Scientific Computing and Instrumentation Component News Engineering Magazine Maintenance and Plant Operations