Job: Industrial rope access technician
The role: Industrial rope access technicians are hired to do a range of tasks that are made more difficult because they have to be done while wearing a harness and suspended from a rope. Tasks range from high-rise window cleaning to the repair and inspection of infrastructure – such as power plants, wind turbines and bridges – which can only be reached by rope.
"A rope access technician is basically a jack of all trades, a handyman that works on rope systems in a variety of industries," said Greg Korpela, the general manager of Canadian Rope Access Specialists, which offers training in Vancouver and Montreal. "The trade skill is being able to move around on rope, and the specific task depends on the industry."
Mr. Korpela adds that rope access technicians are used most frequently by the energy industry for basic maintenance and inspection.
Salary: There are three training levels for industrial rope access technicians, each with its own average hourly wage. Level one rope access technicians earn between $20 and $30 an hour, level two technicians earn between $25 and $35 an hour, while level three technicians typically earn between $35 and $60 an hour.
Furthermore, rope access technicians who have additional trade skills and are qualified to complete more complex tasks on ropes are paid a premium. Mr. Korpela says that rope access technicians also enjoy a high proportion of overtime pay.
"Most of the time when we're called in somewhere, it's for some maintenance task, and often that requires a shutdown of some kind, so you have this big industrial facility that isn't making money because this maintenance task has to happen," he said. "Sky's the limit in terms of pricing, they just need to get it done now, which means the hours are sometimes incredibly long."
Salaries range widely based on location, work frequency, and overtime pay. Mr. Korpela estimates that level one technicians typically earn between $25,000 and $60,000 a year, while level three technicians can make anywhere from $50,000 to $140,000 annually. Level two technicians typically fall somewhere in between, earning between $40,000 and $90,000.
Education: While some provinces, including Alberta and British Columbia, have strict rope access regulations in place, others have yet to adopt them. According to Mr. Korpela, however, uncertified rope access technicians are unlikely to find work in any province, for insurance and liability reasons.
"There might not be a legal requirement for people to have training, but in practice in the industry, no rope access company would hire anyone that isn't trained," he said.
Rope access technician training programs can be found all across Canada. Students typically complete a week-long, 32-hour, hands-on course at a training facility for a cost of approximately $2,000, depending on the level of training, before being tested by a third-party trade association, such as the International Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) or the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT).
"It's a performance-based test; they go through all the manoeuvres," Mr. Korpela says. "It's a three-strikes-and-you're-out situation, so any safety infraction or anything considered even a little unsafe, on the third strike you're removed from the program and you need to do it again."
Though training programs typically only take one week to complete, rope access technicians are required to log 1,000 hours and 12 months on the job before advancing to the next level.
Job prospects: While the oil and gas industry provides better-than-average job prospects in the western provinces, there are job opportunities for certified rope access technicians across Canada and abroad.
But Mr. Korpela says that level one rope access technicians often struggle to find work when they begin their careers.
"People who have never logged any hours, companies tend to shy away from them a little bit," he said. "Once you get out there and you've accumulated a few hours, people know you can do the job and your employability goes way up."
Level three rope access technicians are in constant demand, not just in Canada but all around the world. That is because industry standards require a top-level industrial rope access technician to act as supervisor on each job site. As a result, level three technicians are flown around the world to supervise projects in places where there are a lack of qualified professionals.
Challenges: Finding work as a beginner is difficult for new entrants to the industry, while sporadic and inconsistent hours make it difficult to predict work schedules and annual pay. Furthermore, Mr. Korpela says, industrial rope access technicians often work in some "fairly undesirable conditions."
"The facilities are often in remote locations, so you might be flying up to some remote mountain environment, crawling through tunnels, going down dark shafts, you might end up in the tar sands working in an oil and gas refinery," he said.
Why they do it: Mr. Korpela says that each industrial rope access technician is attracted to the job for different reasons. While some come from mountaineering backgrounds and enjoy working outdoors, others enjoy the variety of projects and travel opportunities, while others simply enjoy a job that, as Mr. Korpela put it, provides a salary "disproportionate to the amount of training it takes."
Misconceptions: According to Mr. Korpela, most people have no idea what an industrial rope access technician is, and those who do assume it's a very risky job.
"There's a perception that it's a dangerous thing," he said. "People that are not in the know see us hanging on a rope and think it's dangerous, but it's really not."
In fact, according to a 2013 health and safety report by IRATA, there were only two fatalities in the industry between 2009 and 2013 in a working population of 30,000. According to the report, "the accident rate for work on rope was 0.46 per 100,000 hours worked for all injuries, maintaining a rate of less than 0.5 [reported accidents per 100,000 hours on the job] for the last four consecutive years."
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