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Technician certification: Vote with your checkbooks

September 11, 2000
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The recent merger of hvacr certification programs is such good news that we almost have trouble believing it. “Bickering among competitors” is a concept we understand. “Cooperation for the common good” may take more time.

As we reported in last week’s issue of The News, ACCA and RSES have agreed to become part of the NATE certification program. ACCA soon will fold its ACE program into NATE, and RSES will do the same for its new NTC program. (RSES will continue to administer its own members-only certifications, CM and CMS.)

The merger is the beginning of a new era in the recognition of professional hvacr field technicians. Now anyone who knows what he or she is doing in hvacr service and installation will have an easy and universally recognized way to prove it.

Just makes sense

As competitors, NATE and ACCA were going nowhere fast. Between them, they had certified only 1,400 technicians. Multiply that number by 100 and you have the beginnings of success, but anything less is insignificant.

Eventually we’ll find out exactly how the impasse was broken between North American Technician Excellence (NATE), Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), and Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES). Something happened, and what it was isn’t yet clear.

If you consider the revenues generated from testing, NATE was a clear winner. As NATE president Rex Boynton said in a telephone press conference several weeks ago, “NATE will be the owner of the tests. NATE sells the tests.” And NATE keeps the money.

ACCA, RSES, and others will be allowed to administer the test, and even to mark up the fees. (We suspect that market forces will keep such increases minimal.)

Before this, no one really wanted to talk about the test fees. That wasn’t supposed to be an important part of the process. But all were aware of just how much money could be made if the whole certification process took off like it was supposed to.

When it didn’t take off, the fees became a moot point. A full share of nothing isn’t worth fighting for.

Declaring NATE a winner doesn’t make ACCA or RSES losers. Both groups are in a position to increase their visibility substantially by offering the training that makes it possible to pass the NATE exam.

Yes, but ...

There are valid reasons that some will use to criticize the merger. As certified second-guessers, we are obligated to present a few of the most popular.

  • ACCA and RSES are the premier representatives of contractors and technicians. They are the best judges of what qualified techs should know in order to be certified. If their voices are blended with all the other interests of NATE members, they may not be properly influential in the process.

  • How can one three-hour test adequately gauge the competence of a tech on such diverse topics as air conditioning, heat pumps, oil and gas furnaces, and air distribution?

    Say the test expects you to answer two questions a minute — an exceptionally high rate. That’s only 360 total questions on the test, hardly enough to cover all the subjects that should be addressed. And the actual number of questions is likely to be far fewer than 360.

  • Advertising and public relations campaigns could exaggerate the significance of hvacr certification. Instead of correctly identifying certification as a minimum level of competency, the public might believe that any tech wearing the NATE logo is worthy of trust.

    We recognize these concerns, but don’t believe that they are compelling enough to have prevented the merger. Others will disagree and, presumably, will make their thoughts known in writing.

    Consider, however, these thumbnail responses.

  • ACCA and RSES have recognized that it is better to be members of a team that is winning, rather than remaining individual competitors that can’t even make the playoffs. We believe that both will make their marks on the new NATE program.

  • The length of a test and the number of questions it contains are poor measurements of its effectiveness. A mere 10 questions answered incorrectly could identify most hvacr charlatans. Another 10 questions could pinpoint those with above-average knowledge. Of course, they must be the right questions.

  • Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; the public will not be deluded into believing that certification bestows genius status on anyone with a NATE patch. First we have to convince them that certification even exists, then that it has any meaning or credibility.

    It will be years before a local TV station is crowing about how a certified nincompoop cheated a kindly grandmother.

    Be counted

    The creation of a single certification program doesn’t make its success inevitable. Technicians will still need a good reason to take the test.

    We submit that nothing gets an employee motivated like a firm nudge from the boss.

    In our opinion, every hvacr contracting company in North America should require its technicians to achieve certification within a reasonable amount of time. And because they will require it, these employers should pay for the testing. The process needs to be jump-started and this is the best way.

    When education is needed to make passing the test possible, then the technician should at least help pay for these costs. An employer may want to help, but ultimately every person must invest in his or her own skills.

    If consumers are to be told that they should only use certified technicians, then a reputable contractor will need to advertise that his people have achieved that status.

    As ACCA executive vp Roger Jask said, “Don’t hold back. . . . Become certified now.”

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