There’s more behind the words, “celebrate with NATE,” than just a hashtag. There’s hundreds of thousands of administered exams, 34,000-plus certified technicians, at least 4,500 contracting businesses, and a plethora of other industry partners that back those words up. But, what really calls for a celebration is the history behind them — 20 years of it to be exact.
North American Technician Excellence (NATE) is trending in the industry right now, and it has been well before “trending” was even a thing. It serves as a sense of reliability to homeowners, a symbol of professionalism to employers, a mark of confidence to manufacturers, and a source of pride to technicians. So, no matter what your role in the industry is, there are countless reasons to #celebratewithNATE.
TWO DECADES IN THE MAKING
NATE was born into existence based on the needs of the industry.
“Those in manufacturing, distribution, and contracting had concerns that many individuals involved in servicing and installing systems and equipment lacked the proper knowledge and experience,” said Valerie Briggs, director, marketing and business development, NATE. “As a result, consumers and contractors were unhappy with recurring callbacks and added costs, manufacturers were receiving unnecessary and costly returns of equipment that were not defective, and technical advisors were plagued with repeated calls on service and installation questions that should have been common knowledge.”
In November of 1997, nine months after it was incorporated, NATE provided its first national testing. Since then, the organization has continued to grow in size and in scope.
“NATE and its certification standard was founded with support from the entire HVACR industry, and that support remains today,” said Briggs.
The small, nonprofit organization is based in Arlington, Virginia. However, NATE has certified testing locations throughout the country and offers certifications for nearly all levels and areas of HVAC expertise. Over the years, NATE has developed certification exams for entry-level techs to professional and senior techs. In addition to this, techs can carry specialty certifications in several categories — heat pump, gas heating, air conditioning, and air distribution, just to name a few.
“For any technician, the most beneficial certification is one that matches the type of equipment they see on a daily basis,” said Brett Sumpter, training manager, Morris-Jenkins Heating, Air Conditioning, and Plumbing, Charlotte, North Carolina.
“We hear from technicians all the time who say that having earned NATE certification gives them a sense of pride and makes them more confident and comfortable with their customers,” said Briggs.
In order to properly serve the HVACR community and offer that assurance to contractors, homeowners, and manufacturers alike, NATE observes the challenges facing the industry and identifies the long-standing trends from the fads in order to respond accordingly.
“The industry is constantly changing, and I feel NATE does a great job of staying up to date with those changes,” said Sumpter.
One of the challenges the NATE team is working on overcoming is the lack of awareness of NATE certification at the consumer level.
“Unfortunately, many homeowners do not recognize NATE and do not know what it is, so it doesn’t gain us anything in the marketplace,” said Wesley Holm, chief culture officer, HELP Plumbing, Heating, Cooling, and Electric, Cincinnati.
“I think NATE would have a greater influence over the industry by better marketing themselves to contractors and consumers on the benefits of being a NATE-certified contractor,” agreed Doug Hunt, education and content development manager, Rheem Mfg. Co.
However, Sumpter pointed out that he has noticed an increase in the number of homeowners who are aware of the organization over the last few years. “Though that number is still a relatively small portion of the market, NATE is doing a great job in helping spread awareness of the value of its certifications,” he said.
“Homeowners are growing more aware of NATE and are even willing to pay more for the services of a NATE-certified technician,” said Briggs. According to Briggs, NATE-certified techs earn 11.2 percent more than noncertified technicians, are preferred among consumers, require fewer callbacks, and generate more income for their employers.
The recertification requirements also presented obstacles for the industry due to the time and energy required to meet them.
Holm said he sees too often that technicians will let their certifications lapse.
“If a service specialist got a NATE certification nine years ago but didn’t keep it up, he still calls himself certified,” he said.
Because recertification numbers were lower than desired, NATE came up with a solution.
“In 2014, we restructured the program to a two-year program requiring only eight hours of training per year,” said Briggs.
Prior to this, the process required 60 hours of training over a five-year time period.
Additionally, NATE launched two new certificate exams in 2016 — the Ready-to-Work certificate exam to help alleviate the shortage of qualified workers in the industry and the HVAC Support Technician certificate to identify when a contractor is ready to go out on service calls alone.
“[Maintaining certification] shows your employer and customers that you are committed to providing the technical competency they deserve,” said Sumpter.
MANUFACTURER’S POINT OF VIEW
Several manufacturers require contracting businesses to have anywhere from 25-100 percent of their service technicians NATE-certified in order to become factory authorized dealers.
“More and more manufacturers, utilities, municipalities, and government contracts are incorporating NATE into their requirements based on the standard it has represented for the last 20 years,” said Briggs.
Although Rheem does not require NATE certification, the company awards NATE-certified contractors with additional continued education units (CEUs).
“We feel strongly about giving our contractors incentives for going above and beyond by becoming NATE certified,” said Hunt. “When a contractor is NATE certified, it gives our company confidence that the contractor has gone through rigorous testing and has the knowledge to install and service our products in a professional way.”
As with anything, NATE still has room to grow.
“We would really like to see additional NATE training materials to help contractors study prior to taking NATE tests, and it would also be beneficial to offer more online courses,” said Hunt. “Another ideal scenario would be for NATE to partner with manufacturers to help support the program and training on a nationwide level. For instance, Rheem plans to allow NATE testing at our new training centers that are expected to open during the second half of 2017. By presenting more locations across the country to complete the test, we hope contractors will take advantage and obtain NATE certifications.”
Holm said NATE certifications should be required nationally in order for techs to work in the field.
“You can’t be a service specialist for us without having a NATE certification,” he said, adding that, unfortunately, he doesn’t see a high level of professionalism in the industry from everyone in it. He believes an industry certification standard would solve that.
“When I send a service specialist to a job site, I have to be confident that he knows how to act, that I know what his background is, and, most importantly, that I know he is professionally trained,” Holm said. “NATE’s a big part of that.”
The small group of just nine employees that make up NATE work close together amongst themselves and with the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) to stay connected to the industry. They are optimistic for the future and have prioritized plans in place to keep their momentum moving forward for decades to come.
“We will continue our commitment to serve the industry with new services, products, and resources for exam preparation and training,” said Briggs. “We will continue to review and update exam content as part of our regular exam maintenance to ensure our certification exams reflect the latest technologies and practices within the industry.”
In addition to this, NATE is looking to expand its available exam suite with new NATE tests and access to other industry exams, such as recent approval to offer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 608 Type I, Type II, Type III, and Universal certification exams.
ALL ABOARD THE BANDWAGON
NATE certification focuses on the basics of HVACR, and Holm believes that maintaining that strong educational foundation is one of the most valuable investments a technician or contracting business can make.
“There are a lot of fads in our industry that tend to flash and burn out,” he said. “Where NATE shines is getting back to the basics.”
Holm believes it’s important for contracting businesses to not only require NATE certification but to provide it for employees. He said some people ask him, “What if you pay for their training and they leave?” His response — “Well, what if you don’t, and they stay?”
“The 20-year anniversary of NATE is a big milestone for the industry,” said Sumpter. “It’s proof that NATE is here to stay.”
With 20 years of experience behind it, NATE has proven the importance of a nationally recognized certification. Certification helps separate technicians and companies that are committed to training and industry competency from technicians and companies that aren’t.
“We remind contractors that certifications can be powerful marketing tools for their businesses — if they are certified, they will set themselves apart from average contractors,” said Hunt.
Publication date: 3/20/2017