SMWIA offers TAB certification to union members who complete their apprenticeship training. (Photo courtesy of NEMI and SMWIA.)
Editor’s note:This is part three in a four-part series on industry certification. In this installment,The Newsexamines how unions certify technicians and if it is possible for independent organizations and unions to accept one certification.

While the industry is busy debating the concepts of one universally recognized certification and which organization should provide it, one segment of the industry is focusing on producing competent technicians.

Union organizations such as the United Association (UA) and the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association (SMWIA) sometimes work together and compare notes. They develop training, certification, and standards that they believe will turn their apprentices and journeymen into top-notch technicians.

It’s hard to ignore what is going on in this HVACR sector. One union organization has already met with representatives from North American Technician Excellence (NATE) and is considering a formal adoption of the certification for its members.


Certification is not a requirement for SMWIA members, but it is encouraged for those who want to really flex their technical muscles.

Individuals who are accepted into SMWIA’s program must go through five years of rigorous apprenticeship training. Apprentices work for a contractor and participate in training and testing.

According to Stephen Murzen, training director for Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 in Warren, MI, his students participate in approximately 2,000 hours of work per year. Most of that time is spent in the field with a contractor; one day out of every two weeks, apprentices come to Local 80 for training.

Each year, apprentices must complete a specific number of training hours and pass tests before moving on to the next year of training. After five years, apprentices are recognized as journeymen. SMWIA contends that this journeyman card is as good as any certification.

Murzen explains that consumers and contractors can rest assured that their technician is qualified because s/he has successfully completed five years of intensive field and classroom training.

Tony Asher, SMACNA Metropolitan Detroit Chapter General Counsel, says that technicians are guaranteed to be qualified workers because of industry involvement in the apprenticeship process.

“Our Apprenticeship Committee is made up of employees from the union,” said Asher. “They have direct input into training. Everybody has input into those five years.”

He also says that many union contractors have the opportunity to work in the field with apprentices before they graduate as journeymen. This gives union contractors the chance to see how apprentices are coming along before they hire them.


For technicians who want to earn more than the journeyman card, SMWIA offers a few separate certifications, including welding and Testing, Adjusting, and Balancing (TAB).

TAB certification was developed by the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI), a not-for-profit corporation sponsored by SMWIA and the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). According to Erik Emblem, executive director of NEMI, the purpose of the institute is to identify new and emerging markets and develop programs that will prepare its members for industry trends and technologies. When these training needs are identified, the International Training Institute (ITI) develops curricula to help educate and certify members.

According to NEMI, the TAB certification guarantees building owners and managers that the contractor, supervisor, and technician balancing their buildings’ HVAC systems can verify that the systems are operating to design specification.

To earn TAB certification, journeymen must pass a two-part written test consisting of air and hydronic balancing concepts, as well as two days of hands-on testing in a certification lab.

Training for TAB technicians occurs at more than 160 Local Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees (JATCs) across the United States and Canada. Emblem says that NEMI and ITI can supply these facilities with state-of-the-art equipment to enhance hands-on training.

Each of the sister organizations also contributes money to help in the development of qualified technicians. For example, Emblem says SMWIA and SMACNA together contribute approximately $55 million a year to help in the training of its members.

TAB certification requires a two-part written test and two days of hands-on testing in a certiciation lab. (Photo courtesy of NEMI and SMWIA.)


Various SMWIA training facilities across the country offer a service curriculum, although no service certification has been developed yet. Emblem says NEMI and ITI are currently looking for a certification that could be of benefit to its members.

NEMI is looking at several certification options, including NATE. Emblem says representatives from NEMI and the union met recently with representatives from the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), a long-time supporter of NATE.

“The consensus is that NATE has come a long way,” said Emblem. “They are really trying to do the right thing.”

To some in the industry, it may seem surreal for a union organization to even consider formally adopting an independent certification. But Emblem says his organization should look at certifications or other training methods that would ultimately be an asset to members.

NEMI does not have an official stand on NATE, but the organization does not encourage or discourage members from participating in the certification. Before NEMI could take an official stance, Emblem explains that NATE would have to live up to the same ideals that the union organization supports.

For example, Emblem says that NATE’s certification process would need to meet minimum standards. NATE would also need to maintain a level of credibility. Currently, members who are certified through NEMI programs such as TAB must sign a code of conduct. “This makes members responsible for their work,” says Emblem, ensuring building owners that the work on their systems will not only be done correctly, but honestly.

Emblem says NEMI is still studying NATE and its certification process, and plans to take a position on the test this November. NEMI and SMWIA are looking at several options besides NATE. There is also the possibility that the organization may just create its own service certification.

“Some people have strong feelings one way or the other” about NATE, said Emblem. “But feedback is more positive than negative.”


NEMI works with the UA from time to time. The association offers a five-year apprenticeship program along with its own certifications. Unlike NEMI, the UA is not considering the use of an outside certification any time soon.

The UA operates more than 400 chapters and has approximately 291,000 members. With this kind of support, it needs state-of-the-art equipment and up-to-date training technology.

Recently, the association hosted its 49th annual instructor training program and Industry Day at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, MI. The week-long event provides training specifically for UA instructors to learn new teaching methods and technologies.

Participants had the opportunity to witness a number of UA training opportunities, including the videoconferencing system that is now operational at nearly half of the UA’s 300-plus locals in the United States, Canada, and Panama.

UA representatives were on hand to show off the association’s latest accomplishments, as well as announce the creation of UA S.T.A.R. certification. The program was developed jointly by the UA and Ferris State University, Big Rapids, MI.

The object of UA S.T.A.R. is to give college credits to union members who successfully pass the exam. Current apprentices prepare for the certification throughout their five years of training. Upon successful completion of the exam, the individual will be certified and earn 30 college credits through Washtenaw Community College.

Journeymen who have already finished their apprenticeship training can also take the exam and earn the credits. These can then be applied towards an associate’s degree in HVACR or Construction Supervision.

The exam tests several areas, including mechanical systems, electrical systems, controls, A/C and refrigeration, heating, steam systems, plumbing, ventilation, piping, lifting equipment, safety, mathematics, and customer service.

George Bliss, UA training director, says that the certification is a financial benefit to its members. He explains that apprentices can earn college credits and receive technical education without the burden of owing money after attending a university program.

“Our service technicians advance in their career faster than many BA graduates,” said Bliss. “Now, in addition to offering them a lucrative career, we are able to award college credits to build on. This is good news for the industry.”

Steve Allen, assistant director of training for the UA, believes that S.T.A.R. certification will make union technicians even more visible among consumers. “Certification has to be driven by the end user,” he said. “The public is the end user, and we want them to feel secure.”

He explains that consumers are looking for HVACR technicians that are qualified and trustworthy, and that union technicians can provide this service. With UA S.T.A.R. certification, consumers will be able to more easily recognize union-qualified technicians.

The association has developed a patch to be worn by technicians who pass the exam. The UA hopes to make the logo and its meaning more visible to consumers.

More information on the UA S.T.A.R. program can be found at (website).


The Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) says it fully supports UA S.T.A.R. certification and is developing a number of marketing tools to get the word out on union-certified technicians.

MCAA and the UA are working on a number of advertising methods including billboards and radio spots. According to Barbara Dolim, executive director of the Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA), the organization is pacing itself on advertising because the UA S.T.A.R. Certification is still new. When more technicians have had the opportunity to earn the certification, more aggressive promotions will follow.

Allen said he is proud of the certification and the union in general. “Our certifications are directly tied into our training.”

He explains that union certification works because apprentices must take five years of mandatory and extensive training before completing the certification. This, Allen says, cannot be provided by other independent testing organizations. Allen believes that contractors, as well as consumers, can be guaranteed that their technician is up to par because the union offers a total package consisting of training and certification.

Next week: The News will talk with contractors with certified technicians to see how certification has benefited them professionally.

Publication date: 09/23/2002