Saturday, August 8, 2009

A career where College is NOT required!

There are few well paying technical jobs left in the United States where at least two years of college is not required. A certified fire sprinkler layout technician is one of the few.

With experience I would estimate the average pay for technicians to be the following:

Level II with between 2 and 5 years experience: $30,000 annual or $15 per hour.

Level III with a minimum 5 years to 10 years experience: $55,000 or $27.50 per hour.

Level IV with minimum 10 years experience: $65,000 to $75,000 or $31.75 per hour to $36.00 per hour.

It's been my experience if a trainee starts at age 20 he should be Level II in two years when 22 years old, Level III by the time he is 26 and Level IV between 30 and 31 years old. $70,000 per year, more than likely with a company vehicle, at age 30 without a college degree isn't a bad living wage. Could be worse, you could be a school teacher.

Nearly all of these jobs are provided with a full range of benefits including health insurance, 401(k) plans, profit sharing, disability insurance and life insurance. It is what it takes to attract what few qualified technicians there are.

In addition it isn't unusual for many senior Level IV technicians receive company vehicles.

NICET requires a minimum of 2 years documented experience before they will issue a Level II certificate and there aren't any exceptions. For a Level III a minimum of 5 years documented experience is required with a minimum of 10 years for a Level IV. There aren't any shortcuts to the process and even if someone where to come out of college with a BS degree it will still take 5 years to a Level III and 10 years to a Level IV.

Russ Leavitt in his blog has this to say about the shortage of certified technicans.
Over the years, obtaining NICET certification has certainly become necessary in the fire protection industry. A number of state and local jurisdictions now require certification to obtain a fire sprinkler contractor’s license, qualify for a Certificate of Competency, or be named as a Responsible Managing Employee. Many jurisdictions require working plans to be signed by a certified layout technician, the contractor to have a certified technician on staff or individuals to be certified in order to obtain a permit or license to perform inspections and testing. The objectives behind these rules are worthy and I agree with most of the arguments for having such requirements. However, all of us involved in the industry must be mindful there are unintended consequences–some of them serious.

As the CEO of a large organization that has NICET certified technicians in all the fire protection sub-fields I deal with some of these unintended consequences on a regular basis. In addition, I occasionally serve as an expert in litigation which often involves certified technicians and as a result see consequences that others face.

One consequence includes exasperating an already serious shortage of certified technicians and the high costs of developing and training to meet this shortage. For example, several states have enacted requirements for all inspectors of water based systems to be certified (level 2 or 3). This has created and continues to create a serious challenge to keep inspection costs as low as possible for the building owner because an inspector cannot work alone until certified (up to 5 years depending on the certification level required). This will force contractors to often use two inspectors (one certified and one trainee) on even the simplest inspections where one inspector could do the job. The increased costs will be borne by the contractor or passed on to the customer. In reality, this requirement and the associated costs could cause even fewer companies to invest in training because of the long payback time (up to 5 years) thus creating a more severe labor shortage as contractors resort to poaching certified inspectors from each other.

I agree, there's a severe shortage right now and it is only going to get worse in the next coming 10 years.


Two ways to get started.

The traditional method is to be a trainee at a company but these positions have all but been eliminated as to expensive and time consuming.

A new trainee will be learning for the first six months not doing a bit of work that would contribute to the income of the company. Pay is going to be $10. an hour and cost a minimum of $13 once payroll taxes and benefits are figured in. That's a bare minimum of $13,000 training before the trainee can contribute his first nickle to the income of the company.

In the second six months he's going to get a little more money and while will start to contribute some I doubt it will offset what he costs during the second six months. What a $12 an hour trainee takes 40 hours to do I can do in 4.

After a year the trainee finally starts to pay his way and here the company has $30,000 invested and no guarantee the trainee is going to stick around. At one to two years the trainee starts to become valuable and there's danger of him being picked off by a competitor who wants to avoid the first year training costs.

Thus very few trainees in the industry today. If I were to need someone I would rather use the $30,000 to get someone I can use right away.

So if you want to get into the field what do you do?


I find this really exciting but there's now three community colleges, that I am aware of, in the United States that offer a two year Associate of Science degree in the layout of fire sprinkler systems! If I missed one on the list let me know and I will add it.

In alphabetical order.

The first one is Bates College in Olympia, Washington and is the only school I am aware of that offers courses in both Layout and Inspection of fire sprinkler systems. I haven't touched on Inspections yet but will later on in my blog.

The second school is Delaware Technical College and I think that campus is in Wilmington, Delaware.

The third school is a recent newcomer but I know the people who are putting the program together and it promises to be an outstanding program. The is Parkland Community College in Champaign, Illinois. I recently received a brochure concerning Parkland that I would like to share here. Front Side. Back Side.

To give you an idea how tight the industry is on the back of Parkland College's brochure you'll read where part of the program is paid internships where you can earn while you learn! This is unheard of in a community college situation.

If searching for a community college closer to you keep in mind the following.

There are many "fire technology" courses but most of them are for fire fighters. Fine programs but if you want to go into sprinkler system layout you need to look for NICET on the course offering or description.

We work with CAD a lot and if I had to put a percentage of time on it I would guess 75% for the average layout technician.

But taking CAD classes is not an alternative.

A NICET Level III designer who didn't have any CAD experience could be throughly trained in a short time of anywhere from two weeks to two to three months.

An expert who knew everything there was to know about CAD would still take five years to obtain his Level III. In my estimatation CAD is 3% of the program.


  1. typo: could be throughly trained

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