Air Engineers, a distributor in Birmingham, Ala., bases some of the company’s training on topics technicians will encounter on the NATE exam.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Technicians need incentive to get training, at least according to Jeff Marquess. Marquess is the field service manager for Birmingham, Ala.-based Air Engineers and developer of the distributor's training curriculum.

The Trane distributor has offered its customers training for several years, but Marquess wasn't sure if dealers and technicians were getting everything they needed from the courses.

"Trane has encouraged NATE certification and urged contractors to be proactive about it," he said.

Marquess decided to find out if testing for North American Technician Excellence (NATE) was a priority for his customers. He surveyed attendees in all of his classes throughout Alabama and the Florida panhandle. About 95 percent of the participants said they had heard about NATE and would be interested in getting involved in the certification process.

Marquess concluded that offering NATE testing and a curriculum geared toward the NATE exam would not only help determine if dealers were learning from the company's classes, it could enhance participation in the training as well.

With the new NATE-based curriculum, Marquess believes that 200 technicians will complete the courses by the end of this year.

"NATE is here to stay," he said. "Eight years later and it's still going strong."

Specialty A/C Products in Benicia, Calif., developed its own vocational school in order to train future technicians for local contractors. The curriculum is based on the subjects covered on the NATE exam.

The NATE Base

Air Engineers offers training based on the installation and service of Trane products and general training based on the NATE exams. The company's NATE-based training is conducted six times a year.

Marquess explained that every two months he teaches a course based on a NATE test. One month the class focuses on what attendees may encounter on the core exam; the next month focuses on topics on the NATE specialty exams, such as gas furnaces, air distribution, etc.

At the end of the six-hour class, attendees can take the specific NATE exam or, if they feel they are not ready, they can come back the next morning for the test.

Technicians who take all six of the courses through Air Engineers and earn a score of 70 percent or better on the NATE exams can earn prizes from Air Engineers. Techs receive a set of R-410A gauges, a variable-speed motor, and three Fieldpiece test instruments.

At the end of the year, the three technicians earning the highest scores on the NATE exams will receive the company's Master Technician designation and additional tools.

Air Engineers is not the only distributor to base its training program around the NATE exams.

O'Connor Co. in Omaha, Neb., a Trane and American Standard distributor, decided to get behind NATE when Omaha Public Power started to back the certification.

John Sigerson, a technical support employee for O'Connor Co., took the NATE exam through Omaha Public Power when it was first introduced. Sigerson said he achieved a high score on the exam and immediately recognized the value that NATE could bring for the industry.

"After that, I started pushing it in my service school," he said. "The only way it was going to get off the ground was to put together some testing."

Sigerson used NATE's Knowledge Areas of Technicians Expertise (KATEs) to develop some of the training. The KATEs direct educators on the subjects they should be teaching in order to help technicians pass the exam.

Sigerson now offers the exam courses six times a year and conducts the training through Omaha Public Power. The program makes use of satellite broadcasting to provide remote training to the northern-tier counties of Nebraska. The training is also open to all contractors, not just Trane dealers.

"Helping out the entire industry is a good thing," said Sigerson.

Specialty A/C Products, an independent Trane and American Standard dealer in Benicia, Calif., is also a proponent of NATE certification. In fact, the company has a great deal of time and effort invested in training.

Mark Waters, the senior California field service manager for Trane and the training director for Specialty A/C Products, said that his company knew it had to do something to address the lack of technicians in the industry.

"There is a very short supply of workers in the [HVAC] industry," said Waters. "California is one of the worst. We don't have enough people to go around."

To remedy this situation, Specialty A/C Products worked with the state to develop an HVAC school that would be an alternative to local programs. The idea was to create a course that would take students after high school or individuals in need of retraining.

Waters said that the company worked with local contractors to set up the school, under the condition that contractors would hire the students upon graduation.

The course takes a little over five months to complete. Students meet five days a week for five hours. Two entire sessions are held each year and each session accommodates 20 students. Waters said that the course has a placement rate of 100 percent.

"We put 40 people in the workplace each year," he said.

The distributor's training is based on what technicians encounter on the NATE exam, but Waters said that he does not make it mandatory for the students to take the NATE exam. He said he offers it to students who want to take it after they have gained knowledge in the field. The course also provides the Industry Competency Exam (ICE) to its students.

Specialty A/C Products, an independent Trane distributor, educates approximately 40 students each year in a program that boasts a job placement rate of 100 percent.

A Stake In Certification

Certification is an obvious concern of technicians and contractors, but some distributors are beginning to see the impact certification can have on the wholesale-distribution end of the industry.

"If I have guys out there that are properly trained, I don't have to worry about warranty issues," said Waters.

So far, the training program is working, said Waters. Specialty A/C Products has been the recipient of Trane's Extended Warranty Excellence recognition, which goes to the distributor with the fewest warranty issues on Trane products.

A knowledgeable technician will also help to raise profits, said Sigerson.

Sigerson tries to get his students to see that consumers will be more willing to do business with a certified technician, especially when many customers are suspicious of technicians. "We really need to do something to raise the bar as far as homeowners are concerned," he explained.

Sigerson asserts that well-trained technicians can boost sales because they have more experience with different types of systems. For example, technicians who are knowledgeable about high-end systems and accessories will be more comfortable offering those items to customers because they know how to install them and service them. This gives them an edge over other technicians, said Sigerson, and could result in increased compensation for the technician, as well as the company.

"NATE is starting to become a very common word now," Marquess said.

He explained that many manufacturers are starting to support the need for NATE certification by providing incentives to contractors who employ NATE-certified technicians. And homeowners are learning what NATE means. Marquess said it's only a matter of time before more customers start requesting a certified technician when they need work done on their HVAC systems.

Publication date: 10/18/2004