Surehand Spotlight: Curtis Harms

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The Surehand® Spotlight shares just some of the many thousands of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate, maintain, and ensure the safety of the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance the industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.

This month, the spotlight is trained on Curtis Harms, a NACE-certified coating inspector in Houston, Texas who recently obtained his FAA 107 drone pilot’s license and has taken his industrial inspection career in a new direction: UP.

Photo credit: Curtis Harms

Tell us a little bit about yourself, Curtis.

I was born in Southern Illinois, in a small town of 6,000 people called Mt. Carmel. Most of the adults I knew worked in coal mines, on farms, or in the oilfield.

How did you get involved in industrial inspection?

I was working as a coatings applicator at a coating facility in Houston. It used to be called Socotherm Labarge before it was bought by Shawcor. I had worked my way to the coating booth and had the chance to speak with some of the client representatives as they came through. After some very good advice and many conversations, I decided to study and get my NACE CIP 1 certification. I still remember the conversation I had with a man named Joe Gibbs, a man I will forever owe my career to. He told me the best investment a person could ever make is “in themselves.” A week later I paid for my class and the decision was made: I was going to be the best coating inspector I could be.

Where did you get your training?

I went through the NACE Coating Inspector class and completed Level 1 and Level 2 in 2012. As far as drone work, I took my FAA 107 last year (2019) because I saw an opportunity to use new technology and be a part of a solution to a rapidly growing need in my current field. I try to continue learning and progressing daily.

What do you like the best about the industrial inspection industry?

The paid travel. Number one is definitely the ability to see the country, work offshore, and visit places you couldn’t normally go as a regular civilian. I have also met and worked with some of the smartest and kindest people you could ever hope to meet. Lastly, I get a front row seat to ongoing changes to the energy industry as a whole, and that vantage point allows me to make better decisions for my future.

What are the biggest challenges of finding work in industrial inspection?

The biggest problem I saw as a younger inspector was the “friends and family” system that would place a person in a position where they were not as qualified or capable. (I’m sure that dynamic is not unique our industry.) As a young man, I watched the oil prices go up and down like a roller coaster, so I was prepared for the current downturn. (Not one as bad as this downturn, of course, but the feast or famine cycle in the O&G industry has existed since the mid 1980’s.) With the dual challenges of oil prices dropping and labor demand shifting due to the global response to the  COVID-19 pandemic, the primary obstacle for finding work now is the reduced need for inspection personnel due to postponed or cancelled projects.

Sounds like you’ve recently made a shift to drone-based inspection. Tell us a little more about that shift and what motivated you to make the change.

I have always had a fascination with robotics, aviation, and AI—drones have all of those interests wrapped up in a single device. As a coatings inspector, I have been involved in projects where an aerial view would have been very helpful. I knew that drone technology had progressed in such a way that we could safely start incorporating them into our regular photographs and reporting system. As the same feedback came from clients and project managers, I knew then that drone inspection would become part of my regular work scope. I wanted to make sure I had the skills and abilities that any future client might need. I wanted to get out there ahead of the curve as much as I could before I found myself too far behind. Knowing that the oil and gas industry has a pattern of ups and downs, it felt like the right time to prepare for a down time, so when projects were being postponed or cancelled, I simply looked UP.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten in your field?

“Do you see anyone lined up to invest in you? Well, the best investment you can make is in yourself, and you are the one who’s gotta do it.” —Joe Gibbs

That man forever changed the course of my life, I will never forget that.

What’s one thing you want an employer to know about you?

I am a leader, not a boss. I believe in teamwork, motivation, creativity, and doing our best to accomplish all goals. We work to create safe and efficient environments where people can grow and succeed. My email has been the same my entire adult career— (i Am Making Something For Us)—because there is no point in success if you stand alone and are lonely at the end of the day. I have seen too many people end up with nothing but money in the end, never finding the right balance.

What do you hope to gain by being a Surehand user?

I want to help other people who are looking for the right job or companies looking for the right contractor. I also believe that Surehand is doing their part to provide help where there is a great need, and I really like that philosophy.

What do you like to do in your down time?

Run trails and exercise with the family, fly drones for fun (not just work), travel, find great food places, and enjoy family nights in the living room (playing games and eating snacks).

Obviously, these are difficult times with significant disruptions to O&G and other industries due to COVID-19 and other factors. Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for your fellow inspectors?

Everyone, things will be okay. I know it is different this time; I know it is scary for some; and I know firsthand the challenges of the double whammy that hit us all. You can keep your head down and continue doing the same things. Or—you can look UP, see that the future is still out there, and take comfort that tomorrow will come. Yes, the current downturn may hurt, it may cause us to lose some things, it may shake our entire world up, but what then?

You already know what to do:

If you have one cert, try to get another one and increase your value to the client. If you have multiple certifications and experience, you are awesome! Just keep up the good work. If you don’t, that’s okay. Use any down time to start studying, learn a new craft, and step outside of your comfort zone.

The Coronavirus has moved us all out of our comfort zone, so don’t limit yourself to the “same old, same old.” Try to start every day with something positive and motivational—whether it be music, motivational speakers, working out, whatever makes you tick.

Hero image photo credit: Curtis Harms

Our thanks to Curtis for making time to share his story with us. We wish him continued safety and success in his inspection career.

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