By Kimberly Kaylor, CPSM
Certification in the construction industry provides return-on-investment (ROI) and market differentiation, as well as improves safety and quality by establishing best practices. The benefits include increased safety, less material waste, and early identification of design and construction challenges, as well as creating a pool of qualified individuals or plants well-suited for a particular project. Further, certification helps level the playing field as it ensures plants and crews are all working toward the same desired level of quality.
While few argue about the merits of integrating certified personnel, plants, or products on a project, including such a mandate in the specification is often thought to be a limiting process. However, the key to success is to integrate the right specification in the correct way.
Certification on the rise
Interest in certification in the concrete industry is certainly rising. According to John Nehasil, managing director of certification and chapters for the American Concrete Institute (ACI), the number of concrete-related certification exams administered by his association in 2014 broke 30,000 for the first time—a six percent increase over the prior year.
“When the economy was down, certification growth decreased,” said Nehasil, who also attributes the growth in certification to the influx of new workers in the construction industry. Many left the industry during the recession, he said, so the new workforce needs both certification and training to meet demand.
Ted Neff, executive director of the Post-tensioning Institute (PTI), said he too has seen major growth in the certification rates of personnel in his industry. In fact, the number of individuals certified by PTI as bonded post-tensioning installers roughly doubled in 2014. Neff attributed the growth to the fact post-tensioning is a specialized area of concrete and provides designers and contractors with a unique skillset to set them apart in today’s marketplace. He also noted the growing appreciation of certification by owners, who see it as a means to better ensure project quality.
“Owners and designers have fewer resources to police their projects,” said Neff. “As a result, certification provides a means to ensure they get the quality they deserve. More and more, we get calls by members of the concrete industry stating they need to get certified as the owner or the general contractor on the project is requiring it.”
Neff said while the growth of the Post-tensioning Institute’s Unbonded Tendon Plant program has slowed due to its maturity in the marketplace—PTI-certified plants now account for around 95 percent of the industry’s production in North America—he is seeing increased interest in personnel certifications.
Charles Hanskat, PE, executive director of the American Shotcrete Association (ASA), noted the organization is seeing a record number of applicants requesting certification, representing a 20 to 25 percent increase over last year.
Jim Baty, executive director of the Concrete Foundations Association (CFA) and the technical director for the Tilt-up Concrete Association (TCA), also noted growth. Baty stated as the volume of commercial and residential construction work has been increasing these past few quarters, employers have found it necessary to mirror this with changes to the process of hiring a new workforce. In this instance, both employers and individuals are looking for ways to differentiate themselves. Both CFA and TCA sponsor corporate certification personnel programs and the personnel programs for both are co-administered through ACI.
“As there is more and more work out there to be earned by contractors, certification programs are going to help firms be able to select the right individual for their company,” said Baty. “The same applies to owners as they are able to identify who is going to work on their project based on a certification status and the implied quality assurance and training that results from earning the credential.”
The American Concrete Pumping Association (ACPA) is seeing a 30 to 40 percent increase in people seeking certification of pump operators. Executive director Christi Collins believes it comes down to a desire for safer jobsites. She also observed there is an increase in crane regulations requiring certification; she feels this will trickle down to the construction industry as well.
Collins reported ACPA has seen a decrease in accidents since the industry embraced its certification program in 2008. She noted the key benefit of the certification is the education and training that occurs, as it truly reduces accidents and enables individuals to make better decisions in the field. A better safety record also improves a firm’s insurability.
In addition to safety, quality is a key factor driving the rise in certification. According to Anya Plana-Hutt, education manager for the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI), the rise in certification can certainly be looked at from a quality assurance perspective.
“An individual earning a certification shows commitment to that industry’s best practices for installation,” said Plana-Hutt.
The difference is the training
One of the challenges, however, with the increased interest in certification of personnel, products, and plants in the concrete industry is ensuring the certification program is relevant and a result of education.
There is a big difference between training and certification; a creditable certification program requires more than just issuing a certificate. Owners and specifiers should be cautious of a certificate program not tied to an organization with established best practices related to its area of the concrete industry. For example, there are many instances of companies self-certifying when time is of the essence and they must meet requirements in order to keep a project.
Another example is the licensing or certification local jurisdictions require for contractors as a means for keeping track of those companies who have been reviewed to work. However, according to Baty, these programs are rarely founded in an established set of best practices specific to the industry.
Neff agreed training is the critical component of a certification program, stating that PTI is uncomfortable certifying people without training them first. Hanskat explained ASA’s shotcrete nozzleman certification—an ACI program averaging a few hundred certifications per year—is really about technique. Education and training really do make a difference in quality, he explained. Further, certification is not just about the exam.
“Having experienced shotcrete installers who know how to do it right the first time and how to be more efficient really helps material usage, time on the job, and bottom-line contractor performance, as well as team safety,” Hanskat said. “ASA advocates the entire team should be qualified, not just the nozzleman.”
Hanskat pointed out the training and knowledge of the entire crew, not just the certified individual, is important. He emphasized firms must look at certification not merely as paperwork, but as a process that becomes ingrained in the firm’s culture.
“The lessons learned through our certification process embrace the safety concept,” Hanskat said. “This safe approach becomes what you do, and how you operate. It is part of your routine. It is how you do things. From day one, when you hire someone, the educational process, and ultimately certification, should be part of their training.
Getting it in the specification
While some argue integrating a certification specification into a project can be a costly venture, proper planning can alleviate this concern. Further, some argue specifying a certification program may limit the competition. However, as certification programs mature, this is less of an issue as the playing field becomes large and level. Although it may cost time and money to include the certification, the investment pays off for the general contractor, specifer, and ultimately the owner by reducing errors as well as improving quality of materials and workmanship.
“Communicating the certification requirements early in project planning is key,” said Neff. “Not only do you risk limiting the competition if you do not communicate it early, but when professionals are forced to rush through a certification process, they likely miss out on truly gaining the best education on the topic.”
When seeking to specify certification, companies should look first to the associations and trade groups relevant to their particular type of project as most will have suggested specification language to be used in the project. Also, industry standards should be used as much as possible.
For example, ACI 301, Specification for Structural Concrete, references several of the industry’s certification programs and using it will cover numerous certification requirements needed for a concrete project. The specification should be clear and distinct in order to avoid vague interpretation. Such distinction will help eliminate companies self-certifying their crews.
Owners should also be committed to understanding what is covered in the certification programs they are requiring and not over-specify—rather, the certification level specified should meet the project’s actual requirements. For example, Nehasil described one scenario in which the owner specified an ACI Concrete Laboratory Testing Technician–Grade II certification, yet the project did not require the testing covered by the credential. The owner simply believed a Grade II-certified technician would be more proficient on the tests covered by the Grade I program.
Baty emphasized in addition to relying on associations for information on a particular specification, it is important to ask about their educational programs, which help inform the owner and specifier on the topic so they better understand the specification and certification.
Recognizing that when the workforce is busy it can be tough to pull crews out of the field for certification, Hanskat recommends firms plan ahead when times are slower. Although it takes time away from the workload, it arguably makes time spent on projects more efficient, as well as provides the firm an opportunity to win more work. Nehasil agrees, cautioning it is common for firms to wait until a certification credential is needed, rather than participate ahead of the curve. This, he noted, creates unnecessary scheduling and program delivery issues and could result in construction delays and requirement implementation delays.
Jessica Chase, ICPI’s director of marketing and membership, concurred, noting her group has various one-hour educational presentations registered through American Institute of Architects (AIA) and American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) for continuing education. She encourages industry members to rely on their concrete industry for certification programs and training, but also for the neccessary tools to train other members of the design and construction team, including the owner.
Some managers, Hanskat acknowledged, worry allowing team members to earn certifications improves their marketability, and therefore, increases the likelihood they will receive job offers from competing firms. However, as more individuals earn certifications and it becomes the norm, Hanskat said, there is decreasing competition between firms for certified workers. The increasing prevalence of certification has resulted in companies that do not employ certified crew members are less marketable than their competitors.
Like any rule, code, law, or requirement—enforcement is key. Those interviewed recommended companies check credentials and identification to make sure the person who shows up for a project is as advertised. Similarly, the credentials of those in the bid and their certification status should be researched and verified. It should also be confirmed the certifications specified and received should come from a reputable organization.
Certification can often be viewed as a chicken-and-egg relationship. Contractors are often resistant to invest in certification until they find a job with such requirements. Specifiers and/or owners are hesitant to establish a requirement for certification for fear they will not find a competent set of bidders to ensure a quality bid process. As indicated by the number of years concrete certification programs have been in place, the competency of the market and the proven track records indicate both the chicken and the egg must be engaging certification and using it to their desired advantages. Contractors must invest in their workforce today for the growth required in the coming years. Similarly, owners and specifiers must engage specifications today to establish the highest measure of quality for their sustainable investment.
Kimberly Kayler, CPSM, is the president of Constructive Communication Inc. (CCI), and has written about the construction industry for the last 20 years. A member of the board of directors for the American Concrete Institute (ACI), she chairs ACI’s Marketing Committee and is co-founder of the Women in Concrete Alliance. Kayler is also an adjunct professor at Columbus State Community College, president of the Construction Writers Association (CWA), and the first person in Ohio to earn the Certified Professional Services Marketer designation. She can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.