April 10, 2009

Certification is not mandatory

Filed under: News — Tags: , , , — nabcep @ 10:37 am

Last month, I learned that another major incentive program for solar electric installations had included language that required NABCEP certification to be able to participate in the program. While it is always flattering to have the NABCEP installer certification program receive a strong and visible vote of confidence from program planners, requiring NABCEP certification also poses some real and significant issues.  To articulate but a few questions, which arise when NABCEP certification is made mandatory, I pose the following: are there sufficient NABCEP certified installers in the state to handle the volume of work? Are there other qualified individuals who should be allowed to participate in the program?

It is admirable that program planners charged with dispersing public funds seek to apply the consumer protection offered by an industry recognized professional standard. However, it is not necessary to mandate a requirement for certification – a voluntary program that promoted the benefits of choosing certified installers and perhaps even paid a higher incentive for system installed by certificants would achieve the desired ends without constraining the growth of the installer base.

It is unfortunate when incentive program language highlights NABCEP certification, but leaves out wording which states the obvious–that all program participants will have to comply with all applicable requirements and standards pertaining to individual and business licensure, trade qualification and permitting. NABCEP is not meant to be a “pass” around any other existing standards and should never be used in a PV or solar thermal incentive program as a “short cut” to trades of licensure qualification.

When NABCEP certification is made mandatory, it generates some confusion about the extent and purpose of the certification. I have been fortunate to be involved with NABCEP from its inception and can speak with confidence in saying that the NABCEP Board has never considered its certification programs a substitute or alternative to licensure and trade qualifications. We do, however, recognize that standards and requirements vary greatly from state to state and even within states. NABCEP serves a unique purpose in that it offers a national standard of competency measurement that can be overlaid on any jurisdictional model as a means of identifying individuals with specialized knowledge in a solar discipline.

One of the great things about NABCEP certifications is the fact that the task analysis, which drives each exam, covers skills and knowledge that span a multitude of traditional trades. A solar installer is routinely called upon to perform work that goes beyond general electrical or plumbing trades, like roofing, carpentry, metal work.  These and other tasks are an everyday part of many installer’s jobs.

To reiterate: NABCEP certification is a means of identifying individuals who have met experience and education requirements necessary to sit for and pass a rigorous examination which is professionally designed to asses specific solar thermal or solar electric knowledge of the candidate. It does not replace or supplant any other trade or professional qualification, nor does it intend to supersede any such qualification in any jurisdiction where other professional qualifications are required.

In closing, I want to turn to an entirely different matter.  Recently, the NABCEP Sponsorship Program was recently rolled out in an email to most readers. NABCEP really does need the financial support of those who see the certifications and programs we offer as valuable and important to our growing industry. I urge all business owners who employ NABCEP certified installers to become sponsors of NABCEP. Please visit our website for more information on how you or your business can participate in and benefit from the various levels of NABCEP sponsorship opportunities.

February 16, 2009

From the Chair: Does a qualified tradesperson make a qualified PV installer?

HVCCConfLogoI am going to focus this column on the PV Installers Certification and I want to be clear that the views I express are my own.

One of the biggest issues facing NABCEP today is also a real blessing for the solar industry. Qualified trades people are taking notice of the amount of work there is in the PV industry and seeking PV Installer Certification. All of the entry paths to sit for the PV Installer exam require on-the-job experience as the person responsible for the installation. Many of these otherwise qualified trades people are seeking to sit for the exam before they actually ever install a PV system on a job site.

I’ve been involved with NABCEP from the very beginning and, for me, one of the “best features” of the Certifications we have developed is the multiple paths different individuals can take establish eligibility to take the exam. It was very important to the Board that we create a Certification that was inclusive of all qualified installers and relevant to the industry of the day. While I never thought I’d call the early part of the 21st century “history,” the PV industry has grown at such an amazing pace that virtually everything has changed since the Board first sat down to craft a set of fair test prerequisite conditions. We did a good job then, and the time has come to open the conditions for review.

The issue at hand is “does a qualified trades person – a journeyman electrician in this case – necessarily make a qualified PV Installer.”  The obvious short answer is “no.”

There are special skills and knowledge outside the scope of every-day electrical work that a PV Installer needs to do their job. Unfortunately, the world is not such a simple place and the long answer is more complex.  Journeyman electricians have thousands of hours of training on the job and in a classroom environment as part of their apprenticeship process. While extensive the additional skills and knowledge that these individuals need to learn is generally within the scope of their professional training and experience, there is no real reason that the unique parts of the solar electric installation trade can’t be taught to journeyman electricians.

The question is: How do you assess the installation part of a training program? All of the current entry paths to NABCEP Certification rely on the permitting and inspection process of real-world electrical installation. At the time, successfully obtaining an electrical permit for a solar electrical system and getting the system through to a signed off “Inspection Complete” status was as good as it got for validating that the person sitting for the exam actually did the work and pass a written exam.

Today, there are dozens of well-equipped solar electric training labs across the country and a similar number of extensive and thorough training programs aimed specifically at electrical trades people.  Heck – we even have real textbooks now!  Graduates of these programs are knocking at NABCEP’s door at a time when our industry is undergoing strong demands for an expanding work force.

At our October meeting, the NABCEP Board formed a committee to look for a way to define standards for “hands on installation training experience” that would serve as alternative to on-the-job experience for journeyman electricians. This committee has been hard at work, but like many things “volunteer,” it is moving more slowly than we originally anticipated.

The committee continues to wrestle with vexing questions such as:

  • how many students should be able to get “alternative experience credit” from a single installation;
  • what sort of equipment should be installed:  should it all work out-of-the-box, how complex should the installation be, what type of roofing and racking system should be used;
  • what is an appropriate student to teacher ratio; and
  • how shall the student’s success be evaluated.

As always, we are fortunate to have the caliber of volunteers we do at NABCEP and the group working on developing the new qualifying path standard is made up of some of the more notable names in the solar electric training industry, representing the wide range of stakeholder groups who offer comprehensive solar electric training programs.

I look forward to being able to present the recommendations of this committee to the Board this spring. It will be a good thing for NABCEP and the PV industry to find a way to open their doors to greater numbers of qualified and specially trained electricians.