Prepare Your Technicians for Certification
Originally published: 11.01.18 by Mike Moore
Use these tips to set them up for success
Are you thinking about sending one or more technicians to take a NATE (North American Technician Excellence) exam? If so, it’s a great way to elevate your technicians, and your company’s presence in the marketplace. According to stats on natex.org, more than 5,300 HVACR contractors, with 34,600+ technicians, hold NATE certifications. Since the organization administered their first test in 1997, NATE certification has become a way to show contractors and homeowners alike that a srvice technician possesses the skills and knowledge to perform a job right, the first time.
Odds are, you know all this, and that’s why you’re considering sending your technicians to take a NATE exam. As you may be aware, Lennox is one of the HVACR manufacturers that offer NATE testing and proctoring. A chat with one of the company’s Field Technical Consultants revealed some interesting details that you can use to set your service technicians up for success.
NATE Exams are Extremely Comprehensive
If you earned your stripes before NATE was around, you may not be aware of how in-depth their exams are. To earn an installation or service certification, a technician must pass both a 50 question core exam, and a 100 question specialty test. The combination runs $300, whether a candidate passes or fails and it must be completed in a four-hour period.
By contrast, EPA Section 608 exams are usually 25 questions, and anyone with a basic working knowledge of HVACR is likely to pass. Not so, with NATE certification. It’s more comparable to ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certification, for auto mechniciananics. To have a reasonable chance of passing the exam and earning a certification, candidates should have months of preparation. Yet, it’s common for technicians to walk into the testing center with only a day or two of notice prior. Sometimes, they don’t know which specialty to test for; they just know they’re taking a NATE test.
Imagine taking a grueling test (most candidates require the entire four hours to complete it), with complex questions that are sometimes worded to test your reading ability, as much as Technical knowledge, and then finding out that you didn’t even come close to passing. That would be pretty demoralizing, right? It can also be expensive. In some cases, business owners will pay for the exam, but only if the candidate passes. This adds an extra level of anxiety to the process.
How Can You Help Technicians Prepare?
- Make sure they know that NATE doesn’t have any regional certifications. If you operate in a warmer climate, your technicians likely don’t spend much time working on gas heat. Conversely, technicians in a colder climate might not be as knowledgeable about air conditioning and refrigeration. NATE exams are designed to test to industry standards, across the board.
As a manager, if you don’t hold at least one NATE certification yourself (there are 13 specialties), it’s a good idea to visit natex.org, and familiarize yourself with the requirements, specialties and prerequisites. Even better, if you take the exam(s), it will give you enormous credibility with your team, to be able to say, “I know exactly what you’re walking into.”
- Treat it like a professional development track. According to the “2018 Workplace Learning Report” from LinkedIn Learning, a whopping 94 percent of employees say they would stay longer at a company that “invested in their career.” Having a NATE badge on your technicians’ sleeves, and associated with your online presence, is great for your business. It’s also an investment in each technician who earns their certification (it’s the individual who is certified, after all).
Give them a win. Talk to the individual candidates you’re thinking of sending to take the exam. Find out what their strengths are, and then steer them toward the specialty they’re already strongest in. For instance, an installer in Phoenix, AZ, would probably take the installer core test, and specialize in heat pumps. Having figured that out, you should sit down together and come up with a study track. For those technicians who are new to the industry, NATE offers Ready-to-Work and HVAC Support tests. These are designed more with technicians that have 0 – 6 months, or 6 – 12 months of experience, respectively. Ready-to-Work and HVAC Support can be good intermediate certifications, before tackling the more advanced Core and Specialty tests.
Use review materials that are no more than two years old. As you would expect, the NATE test-writing committee periodically changes and updates the exams. To make sure your technicians are getting the most out of their preparation efforts, help them out with study materials that are current. The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society publishes a “Preparing for the NATE Exam” series of manuals, covering the Core Essentials and five specialty areas.
You’re probably going to want more than one NATE certified employee, so why not make it a company affair? One method would be to hold weekly review sessions with your service department. This will help to keep candidates accountable to do the studying, and allow them to benefit from one another’s questions, knowledge and study habits.
NATE and ICE can be Tough to Pass
Unlike the EPA Section 608 test, NATE is often cited as having the lowest first-time pass rate of any HVACR industry certification exam. Various sources put the industry average pass rate between 30 percent and 40 percent. ICE (Industry Competency Exams) are similarly intense, and NATE also administers those. Many vocational Technical schools require students to participate in one or more of the Industry Competency Exams.
You don’t have to go it alone.
If preparing for certification is starting to sound daunting, you should know that you and your technicians don’t have to tackle it on your own. In addition to vo-technician schools, there are more accelerated programs to help new or relatively new technicians learn the theory, and practice the work, needed to be a successful technician.
For instance, Lennox offers the BuildATechnician program, a four-week course which trains students in all the basics of being a qualified HVACR technician. The curriculum includes preparation for the NATE Core exam, as well as the Air Conditioning, Gas Heat, Heat Pump, and Air Distribution specialties. 2017 stats for the program indicate a 74 percent pass rate for the exam.
What if your technician doesn’t get certified on the first try?
Many technicians find they need to challenge the NATE exams more than once. Even with a concentrated and thorough training program, not everyone earns their NATE certification on the first attempt. If you have employees in this group, don’t worry. Believe it or not, there is some benefit to not passing the first time.
With NATE test results, whether electronic or mailed, a passing score results in a message congratulating the student on passing. There are no further details on how students performed, if they pass. However, if candidates score is below the passing threshold, they receive a percentage breakdown of how they did in each area.
This is valuable information. Armed with those stats, you and your technician or installer can work together to outline a more targeted plan to prepare for taking the test again. Returning to the previous example of an installer from Phoenix, if that individual scored well on the Refrigeration section, but got a low percentage on the Gas Heat section, he or she could know what to spend more time studying, for next time.
Sitting through a grueling test, only to find out that you did not pass, would hardly boost your confidence, right? As a manager or owner, it might be tempting to show disappointment in a technician who didn’t earn their certification on first challenging the exam. While it would obviously be preferable to have the chance to congratulate them on success, how you handle failure can really boost your cred as a manager. You might even consider covering the cost of the first attempt at the exam, regardless of the outcome.
If your technicians fail to certify, work with them to identify the areas to study more, and if possible, give them extra opportunities to put that knowledge into practice. Shared effort in training becomes shared victory in successful certification. You’ll be proud of your technicians (and the value they bring to your business) when they’re NATE or ICE certified, and they’ll appreciate that you cared enough to invest in their careers.
One Last Note
Having gone through the work of studying for, and passing the NATE exams, it would be a shame to let those hard-earned certifications lapse. To keep NATE certifications current, a technician must complete 16 hours of NATE Continuing Education Credits every two years. Advanced Technical training classes, and short online courses, are both good options for meeting those training requirements. Not to mention, regular training will keep your service department sharp.