One Certification For The HVAC Industry: What Will It Take?

September 13, 2002
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Editor’s note: This is the second part in a four-part series on industry certification. In this installment, The News investigates the possibility of the industry adopting one nationally recognized HVACR certification, and how North American Technician Excellence (NATE) continues to improve its testing and gain support.

In a recent informal poll on The News website, an overwhelming majority of participants (324 out of 370) said that the HVACR industry needs one nationally recognized certification. For those who agree with that concept, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that some work still needs to be done before this goal can be accomplished. The good news is that many in the industry are optimistic that one industry-accepted certification is coming. In fact, some believe that it is just a matter of waiting for a few details to finally fall into place before certification really takes off.

HOW DO WE GET THERE?

The News’ poll asked respondents which certifications they favored. North American Technician Excellence (NATE) and the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) were mentioned most often by participants in the poll.

With so many individuals suggesting that the industry needs one certification, why is it that the industry still hasn’t achieved this goal, and what steps need to be taken to get there?

The acceptance of one certification hinges on a few details. According to some in the industry, manufacturer support is one of those details that will get contractors and technicians off the fence. Many believe that with more manufacturer support, contractors would then have a reason to monetarily reward technicians for earning certification.

Robb Isaacs, executive vice president of RSES, has a few suggestions. RSES is also a supporter of NATE, and Isaacs is a voting member on the NATE board.

Isaacs also believes that the industry needs one nationally recognized certification.

He said that RSES originally backed NATE in order to provide the training necessary to prepare technicians for the NATE exam. But since backing the organization, Isaacs said that some necessary pieces still need to fall into place. He explains that manufacturers backing NATE need to provide benefits to contractors who employ NATE-certified technicians. For example, a manufacturer could provide equipment discounts for contractors having a certain number of employees who are NATE certified.

Thus far, according to Isaacs, this hasn’t happened.

“We’re getting to an area where a lot of technicians have been in the [NATE] program and are ready to be recertified,” said Isaacs. “What is their motivation to do that? We, as an industry, need to give technicians a reason to be certified.”

These concerns also came up in the recent online poll.

The poll asked readers who were not certified to explain what is holding them back. Forty-nine participants said they did not have the time to get certified, while 50 said that they did not see the benefit, which included monetary benefits, such as raises and bonuses from employers. Another 53 participants said that the cost of certification was too high.

According to NATE, it is the only certification program to have the backing of most major manufacturers, including American Standard, Bryant, Carrier, Lennox, Nordyne, Rheem, Trane, and York. Paul Stalknecht, president of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) and a supporter of NATE, noted that the manufacturers will play an important role in the acceptance and push towards one industry certification.

He explained that once manufacturers provide benefits to their network suppliers, more and more contractors will begin to jump on board for NATE certification.

“Manufacturers are critical to NATE’s success because they are the means to put the NATE name in front of the consumer, but if contractors and technicians aren’t ready when that happens, consumers will be unhappy,” said Carl Smith, marketing manager for NATE. He also noted that Lennox, Trane, American Standard, Carrier, Nordyne, Rheem, York, and Bryant are already setting up time frames to provide incentive to contractors employing NATE-certified technicians. Smith was told that by January 2003, Bryant will require its dealers to have at least one NATE-certified technician.

CORRECTING EARLY MISTAKES

NATE will be the first to say that acceptance of a certification takes time. But the organization also notes that it has made massive strides since it began.

“We have reached critical mass and we are beginning to roll,” said NATE president Rex Boynton.

Boynton points out that within the last three years, NATE has consistently and systematically gained more support and recognition than it did in the beginning. He noted that in 1997, when NATE first started, the organization would approach other associations and manufacturers for support. Now the industry is coming to NATE to create partnerships, according to Boynton.

Boynton admits that this is because NATE has made improvements and changes to the test. But some in the industry may still be unaware of how NATE has confronted some issues.

“We have overcome the early missteps we made,” said Boynton.

One of those missteps had to do with the writing and question format of the NATE exams.

Some technicians felt that the questions on the NATE exam either had more than one correct answer, or contained questions of a nontechnical nature.

With that in mind, NATE implemented regular maintenance on its exams. Pat Murphy, technical director for NATE, noted that the organization’s technical committee meets twice a year to review, create, and analyze test questions. If a question is statistically unsatisfactory, it is revised or rewritten for clarity. For example, if a particular question has received too many wrong answers, NATE will review the question to make sure it is not misleading or doesn’t have more than one answer.

“Nothing will be static. Questions will always change to reflect the requisite industry skills,” said Murphy. “It’s a living document.”

Since implementing these measures, NATE has seen a noticeable upturn in key test statistics. The NATE exams now have a 66% passing rate. Also, the number of NATE test takers has doubled in the last year.

There are currently over 11,500 NATE-certified technicians throughout the United States, Canada, and seven other countries.

AREAS OF CONCERN

Respondents to the recent News poll also expressed concerns about NATE and certification in general. Many of these concerns are currently being addressed by NATE.

  • Some participants in the poll said that NATE has left off some important areas of industry certification, including refrigeration and hydronics.

    NATE stated that these two topic areas are in the developmental stages. Murphy explains that the development of new testing areas takes a great deal of time, research, and input from the entire industry, as represented by the 120-plus members of NATE’s technical committee.

    “You can’t arbitrarily write a test,” said Murphy.

    He explains that certification areas must have a job study and be researched to find the exact skills standards from which to begin developing questions. The actual writing of the questions is time consuming, and the organization must ensure that those questions are valid and correct, he said. The test must first be approved by the technical committee and then be approved by the NATE board.

    NATE is currently preparing a series of hydonics tests, and a Senior Level certification, which should appear within the next two years.

  • Recertification was also a concern, according to poll participants. They asked, “Why should a technician have to pay to take an exam and then pay again five years later to be recertified?”

    Smith and Murphy both explain that in an industry that continues to change and evolve, recertification is a necessity.

    “There are very few professions that don’t recertify,” Murphy stated. “Our test is a living document. This is not a static industry. Skills and tasks required of technicians in an industry change because of technological forces, and we have to adapt.”

    Smith explains that by recertifying, a technician is keeping up with the industry’s changing technology. “We are no different than any other profession. Consumers would have a problem if their teachers or doctors were not staying current with education, training, and new technologies, and they expect the same of HVACR technicians,” said Smith.

  • Other participants to The News poll said that they didn’t know where to go to take a NATE test or how to prepare for it.

    “We accommodate anyone who wants to take the NATE exam,” said Murphy.

    All partner organizations of NATE can proctor and administer the NATE exams. This includes every distributor, manufacturer, wholesaler, contractor, trainer/ educator, and utility that is a NATE partner, as well as association chapters, such as the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES), and the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association (PHCC). In short, anyone who supports NATE can be a testing organization (TO), and one can become an exam proctor by completing some paperwork. These applications can be downloaded from the NATE website (www.natex.org).

    Technicians can call NATE or go online to find out where their closest NATE proctor is located.

    There are currently over 3,000 proctors and test sites, of which 400 actively gave tests in the first half of 2002.

    NATE as an organization does not offer training. (“For NATE to train and test individuals would compromise our status as a third-party provider,” said Smith.)

    NATE does provide online information on where technicians can receive refresher courses for the NATE exams and provides detailed outlines called Knowledge Areas of Technician Expertise (KATE). There is a KATE for each of the 12 tests.

    KATEs provide educators and trainers a curriculum of what to teach in order for technicians to pass the NATE exam. Any training facility that aligns itself with the NATE knowledge base can be recognized as a NATE training provider.

    Training facilities, schools, and associations that teach HVACR refresher courses can be found by contacting NATE.

  • Finally, some participants in The News poll said that they didn’t know what NATE was.

    “There will always be someone out there who won’t embrace it,” said Boynton.

    He recalls that when NATE first appeared, many technicians said that if NATE was not mandatory, they wouldn’t participate. Boynton said that some technicians wanted to wait and see if NATE would take off before they would participate in the certification. But other technicians saw NATE as a way for them to test their skills and prove their knowledge in the industry.

    This sentiment seems to have caught on, according to Boynton.

    Boynton believes that 30% of the industry is comprised of top-notch individuals, ready to try something new and test their skills. The majority of the industry, about 60%, falls in the middle, according to Boynton. These are the technicians who are more cautiously optimistic, waiting for others to test the waters. Boynton believes that this first 30% is finding success with NATE, and that the idea of the certification is beginning to trickle down to the rest of the industry.

    NATE is beginning to generate visibility from outside the industry. The organization has presented Beverly DeJulio, host of the home improvement show “Handy Ma’am,” in a free public service announcement addressing the need to have a home HVAC system furnace filter checked by a NATE-certified technician. Recently, Murphy participated in a satellite TV tour with DeJulio. According to NATE, the tour attracted over 750,000 viewers.

    The organization also created its Consumer-Contractor-Connection (C3), which allows consumers to go to the NATE website, type in their zip code or area code, and find the nearest contractor employing NATE-certified technicians in their area.

    NATE believes that as the number of certified technicians continues to rise, and as visibility of NATE among media outlets continues to grow, more and more technicians will see NATE as a definite benefit.

    “NATE,” said Murphy, “is about making a better technician.”

    Next week: Part 3 of the certification series will take a look at union certifications and explore the possibility of unions and independent contractors agreeing on one certification for the industry.

    Sidebar: Results Of News Online Poll

    If you are not certified, what is holding you back?

    35% Costs too much
    33% Don’t see the benefit
    32% Don’t have the time

    Sidebar: For NATE, Manufacturers May Hold The Key To Success

    North American Technician Excellence (NATE) has the support and backing of most industry associations and contractor groups. NATE is also supported by many manufacturers, including Lennox, Bryant, American Standard, Nordyne, Aprilaire, Luxaire, Carrier, Westinghouse, York, Rheem, Tappan, Coleman, Armstrong, and Trane. This manufacturer support could be the key to creating certification acceptance among technicians in the field.

    Trane and Lennox provide two cases in point.

    Trane has been a supporter of NATE since the organization was formed six years ago. Dave Pannier, president of the Trane Company, said that certification benefits everyone.

    “We believe it was important [to back NATE] because we deal every day with customers, and we understand the frustration when they’re less than satisfied,” said Pannier.

    He explained that many times when equipment is installed improperly, the blame is placed on the manufacturer and the product, instead of on the technician.

    “We are very dependent on our dealers to do a good job,” said Pannier. “If the end customer isn’t happy with their Trane product, we’ll hear about it.”

    He says that the technician will also hear about it, and that is why Trane is backing NATE. Pannier believes that NATE will help to elevate consumer perception of the industry by distinguishing which technicians are qualified.

    Scott Boxer, president of Lennox, agrees with Pannier. Lennox has also been a supporter of NATE from the beginning.

    “As a manufacturer, we feel very strongly about [NATE],” said Boxer. “This industry as a whole has been struggling and will continue to struggle. The industry has an image issue and certification is one issue that can help set the bar.”

    Both Lennox and Trane are working to encourage their distributors to employ NATE-certified technicians. Part of this encouragement entails passing along some incentives.

    Lennox has set up a dealer locater program, which can be found at the Lennox website. Consumers can go to the website and find a contractor in their area with NATE-certified technicians.

    Lennox is also advocating education to help technicians prepare for and pass the NATE exam. The manufacturer has been donating equipment to training schools and other HVACR programs. Lennox also noted that International Service Leadership (ISL) is “very strongly endorsing NATE” and is helping to provide training.

    Trane is also rewarding its dealers with NATE-certified technicians by placing them in the company’s Elite Customer program. Dealers qualifying for the program are provided with unique training opportunities and sales leads. For example, Elite Customer dealers are part of Trane’s Home Depot program, which provides the contractor with customers through the chain store. Trane also helps its dealers in marketing by helping them create websites for advertising.

    But are these incentives enough? According to participants in a recent News poll on certification, some felt that certification would not be beneficial because it would not help them in receiving higher pay or any kind of promotion.

    Boxer said that he has spoken with contractors who are enlightened about the benefits of NATE certification. He explained that many contractors are willing to pay extra for NATE-certified technicians because they know that the certification will help to guarantee better customer satisfaction and fewer callbacks.

    He also stated that it is still early for NATE, and contractors and technicians will come around when they begin to see more benefits from certification.

    “As NATE becomes more widely accepted and seen as a valuable tool, it will increase the ante,” said Boxer. “While there is still a lot to be done, I think we are off to a good start.”

    — James J. Siegel

    Publication date: 09/16/2002

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