Certification Aids Techs, Contractors, Consumers

May 31, 2010
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The NATE test is not something a technician can take lightly.


At North American Technician Excellence (NATE), they’re always working to make their certification tests better and improve the quality of HVAC service across the board. They’re not making a better mousetrap, but they could tell you how well any given mousetrap was working and prove they know what they’re talking about.

It is a non-profit organization serving the HVAC industry and a testing and certification organization recognized by the whole industry. Patrick Murphy, NATE vice president for certifications, said the organization’s test isn’t something a technician can take lightly. He or she can’t cram for it specifically and there are no official study materials. The test covers the job as it exists in the field and the tech either knows the material or he doesn’t.

“There’s no training for the exam,” he said. “Our exam deals with a technician’s expertise, their ability to do the job and the ability to do it properly.”

The organization doesn’t produce a study guide. Rather, it turns out something called a KATE (knowledge areas of technical expertise), which is a statistically-validated job task analysis that technicians can use in lieu of a study guide. There is a different KATE for each of the certification tests NATE offers.

“Not every item on a KATE will appear on our tests,” Murphy said. “But the opening page of each of the KATEs will have a list of categories and a percentage that indicates how many questions from that category will appear on the test.”

For instance, the core exams for installation and service both have “electrical” as a performance category. But the installation test will only ask 10-15 percent of the total electrical expertise questions where the service will have 25 percent of that information on the test. Murphy said that’s because there are more electrical issues in service operations than there are in installation operations.

The number of questions in any given category is only represented as a percentage because NATE doesn’t want to be accused of “teaching to the test.”

“The purpose,” Murphy said, “is to turn out better technicians.”

ASSOCIATIONS HELP

Murphy said NATE doesn’t generate a list of professional standards to prevent anyone in the industry from accusing them of testing to those standards.

Between 1999 and 2000, the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES), the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) and other professional organizations banded together to make a study guide. That guide is still available. Other organizations make training manuals that are also good for the NATE test, and there are many texts that cover all of the relevant information.

The quality of the testing they do at NATE is important and the process itself gets a regular and rigorous review. Murphy said the practice of writing and giving a valid, appropriate test is what makes NATE certification a value to the technician who takes it, as well as the company that certifies its workers. More to that point, the tests themselves and the KATEs that accompany them are updated as frequently as necessary to keep up with technological advances in the industry.

Perhaps ironically, it’s been a learning process.

“I spent my entire life in (HVAC), but when I started to do testing I found it was its own, separate industry,” Murphy said. “Testing has mathematical formulas you can use to see if the testing you’re doing is working and how well the questions are working.”

He said the testing industry rates a certification test on its validity, reliability, and defensibility. That last portion is important because it protects NATE from people who aren’t happy about the grade they got on any given test. Murphy said if someone fails the test and decides to sue, NATE could show conclusively that their test is an accurate gauge of acceptable standards in the HVAC industry. Similarly, if a question or line of questions were indicated on a given test’s KATEs, NATE officials can point to those documents as proof that the test measured the candidate fairly.

NATE constantly reviews its processes and practices to make sure they have a good test and they know what a passing score is.

MANUFACTURER SUPPORT

They also have a protocol for what the tests aren’t supposed to do. NATE constantly reviews its processes and practices to make sure they have a good test and they know what a passing score is - they just aren’t sharing that particular information with anyone. The test is there to see that technicians know what they’re supposed to do, nothing more than that.

“The test scores are not for hiring purposes, they aren’t there for evaluating raises. We don’t give out a technician’s score, we only say whether he or she has passed,” Murphy said. “We’ve got the wholehearted support of the industry. Carrier decided to support NATE two years ago.”

That support is pretty substantial too. The manufacturer has mandated that fully one-half of their work force has to be NATE-certified technicians. Since implementing that certification standard, Murphy said the company saw its raw number of service claims from customers drop by more than 25 percent.

Gary Clark, senior vice president marketing, Goodman Global Inc., said NATE certification of technicians gives consumers something on which to base their purchases. Like a good write-up in Consumer Reports or a thumbs-up from a movie reviewer, people who shop for services look for endorsements when they compare services they themselves aren’t familiar with.

“A level of trust between a homeowner and an HVAC dealer is critical and, in many cases, could be the difference between the selection or rejection of a dealer by the home- owner,” Clark said. “We believe that homeowners will always seek what they determine to be the best qualified dealers to service, install, and maintain their central heating and cooling systems.”

He said NATE certification is something consumers can look to when they’re deciding whether or not to choose a contractor or repair operation. It’s a way they can make a choice about who they hire and feel comfortable that they’ve made the right choice.

“We fully support the NATE certification program with both print and electronic communication vehicles,” Clark said. “In addition, our distributors offer training and certification tests. We will fully support any program that offers HVAC dealers the opportunity to increase their knowledge and apply it to the successful growth of their business.”

Michael Moore, director of training and development for Lennox Industries, said NATE certification allows customers to feel better when they shop for home HVAC service and ultimately save service companies money.

“When people are buying service for their home, they’re interested in qualified technicians and NATE certification is a way to differentiate between businesses,” Moore said. “But it also means that employees who have gone through various development programs will fix problems the right way the first time. That means there are fewer re-calls for service and better customer satisfaction.”

For more information, visit www.natex.org.

Publication date: 05/31/2010

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