Education and Certification Each Valuable

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The majority of remodelers value education, according to a Qualified Remodeler reader poll, but smaller numbers have made the commitment to become certified under programs offered by the major industry associations, correctly emphasizing that education and certification are not the same thing.

Most remodelers (84 percent) have taken some type of continuing education course related to the industry, but the survey reveals the signature professional organizations are not as well represented as one might have expected. The responses do indicate, however, there is a variety of educational opportunities available— and a great deal of interest in continuing education.

Respondents reported taking courses as follows: National Association of Home Builders, 18.4 percent; National Kitchen and Bath Association, 11.8 percent; and National Association of the Remodeling Industry, 9.5 percent. More than half report taking courses from other associations, private educational organizations (such as sales consultants and business coaches) and groups that don’t fall into any of the other categories. The courses this half of the survey respondents took included: state licensing courses, manufacturers and building material distributors.

Certification numbers closely mirror where remodelers are taking courses, suggesting that those who take association-sponsored courses are most often doing so to gain certification. Respondents report certifications from: NAHB, 10.6 percent; NKBA, 7.8 percent; and NARI, 7.6 percent. More than a third are EPA lead certified, and 23 percent have no certification.

Not the Same Thing

Certification and education are not the same thing, points out NARI director of education Dan Taddei, which suggests an explanation for the divergence between the number of survey respondents who have taken courses but who are not certified. Education and training are highly valued — and perhaps more accessible — than certification.

“One of the challenges for me is that [some people] view certification as education, and it’s not,” he says. “Certification demonstrates knowledge or skill, depending on the certification you’re seeking. Education is the acquisition of knowledge to change behavior, to gather information to run a company better or to use a particular product. That’s education and training.”

Taddei also notes the current economic climate has had an effect on remodelers seeking certification. NARI has dropped prices for most of its certifications by $200, recognizing the challenges remodelers are facing financially.

NARI certification candidates generally participate in study groups to prepare for exams, although participating in one is not an absolute requirement. “But they’re usually not successful unless they participate in a study group of some sort. There have been people who have done it on their own, but usually they get frustrated after six months or so,” Taddei says. “Our test is a challenging exam; we’ve had about a 75 percent pass rate.”

Of those certified, only 56 percent feel certification has helped them competitively. Detractors of certification often argue that homeowners and the general public don’t know what the designations mean. Yet, survey respondents indicate they often don’t use their certifications to promote their business. Twenty-two percent say they put their designations on a business card, and the percentages drop for things such as websites, advertising, sales literature and truck and jobsite signs.

Contradiction of Perceptions

Contradicting the perceived lack of public awareness and value of certifications, the National Kitchen and Bath Association’s market research shows more that 80 percent of the time consumers would rather work with someone who is certified as opposed to someone who is not, according to Andrew Mackenzie, manager, certification for NKBA. National Association of Home Builder market information found a similar percentage: 83 percent of consumers found certified contractors more professional and credible. (See chart, p. xx)

“The higher the level of consumer awareness, the more valuable the certification,” says Mackenzie. “We’re trying to help certified members promote themselves. We can’t take out a Super Bowl ad, but we provide a toolkit to help certified members promote on a grassroots level and strengthen their brand that way.

“We provide certified members with logos which are different from the typical member logo,” he continues. “They can use that on their print material, website, LinkedIn page, Facebook page, business cards, etc. We also provide press release templates, newspaper and magazine templates, and promotional brochures they can use in their showrooms to explain why a client should hire a certified designer.”

Another service to members is NKBA’s ProSearch tool that allows a homeowner to visit the association’s website, enter a ZIP code and get a list of members in that area. Searches also can be made for fabricators, designers or only certified members. Other associations offer similar online search capabilities.

New Designations

In an effort to give certification a broader reach, NKBA recently introduced a business-to-business nondesign designation — Certified Kitchen and Bath Professional. The curriculum includes residential construction, business knowledge, materials and products, and project management. “The idea is you have someone like a fabricator, cabinet manufacturer or sales rep who has been in the industry for at least five years. He or she has all this knowledge and expertise, and would like to validate that,” says Mackenzie. 

Another service NKBA is working on is a one-stop Web-based program that will house, manage and distribute the association’s courses and products. Students will be able to peruse the curriculum, track their progress and even take classes.

NKBA is heavily involved in online education to make classes accessible to more students. “In the past, much of our education has been in person,” Mackenzie says. That, of course, was an expensive proposition, considering the cost of airfare, hotels and meals for the instructor and students.

“We still offer in-person classes,” he says, “but because of the economy we’ve made many of our classes on-demand, where there is a recording of the class and some interactive quizzes. You can take the course at your own pace.”

NKBA also offers virtual instructor-led training in which students and instructor log on at the same time for more of a traditional classroom feel but the convenience of taking the course from a home or work computer without the expense and time involved in traveling. Classes may be one-time or span six to eight weeks.

The association is offering about 20 course per quarter – some of them on-demand and some with virtual instructors – and is moving to align those courses with NKBA’s professional resource library, which consists of nine volumes covering kitchen and bath systems, design principles, residential construction and business management, according to Mackenzie. The books are entering their second edition, and NKBA plans to roll out new ones each year.

The association also is embarking on new learning paths. “Previously, everything had been design oriented,” Mackenzie says, adding NKBA also feels members need business skills to succeed. “We’re creating learning tasks centered on business management, sales, HR, marketing and all those areas, and offering 20 to 25 classes in each area. That will provide them with the skills necessary to survive in this economy, and really, in any economy,” Mackenzie says.

Not So Easy

Despite criticisms that certification (also called designations) is easy to obtain by anyone who sits down to take a multiple choice test, the reality seems to be otherwise. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has about 1,900 people who have earned the certified graduate remodeler (CGR) designation, according to Jeffrey Jenkins, director, candidate and instructor services, NAHB education.

The graduate master remodeler (GMR) is an even more select group. “We don’t have a lot of those because it requires a candidate to have been a CGR for a nine years along with comparable industry experience. We’ve had 30 people earn the GMR since its inception,” he says.

“I find the people who have earned our NAHB designations really put a premium on learning. They’re always looking for opportunities to expand their knowledge and to put that knowledge to use to better serve their customers,” he says.

“We went to them to continue learning wherever it is, but obviously we have a lot of great resources here [at NAHB] for them. We do a weekly series of webinars, many of them on remodeling topics. We had a lot of sessions at the International Builders Show that were really well attended. People attend not only because they want to learn but because they want to earn continuing education units to maintain their certification,” Jenkins says.

Remodelers are hungry for information so they can distinguish themselves from their competitors, and they’re doing it through education, Jenkins feels. “It’s showing your customer you really know what you’re doing, that you’re always trying to better yourself, and you want to know the latest cutting-edge trends and products that consumers want,” he says. “I think the last couple years have been a challenging because remodelers have to make a decision [about spending money on education and certification.] I think they will find professional designations are something that will pay off for them in increased credibility and send a message to their customers that they are continually learning and trying to be better at what they do.”

Branding with Designations

NAHB recently presented a webinar, “Branding Yourself and Your Business with Your Designation,” to address the questions many remodelers have about what to do once they have a designation and the feeling that homeowners don’t necessarily know what the designations mean.

“We’re trying to empower remodelers and builders who have NAHB designations to get the word out and to use every opportunity to let their current and future customers know what [those designations] mean. We hope that will start the conversation and get a consumer to ask: ‘What is a CGR, what’s a CAPS, what’s a GMR?’ Essentially the message is: I’m a remodeler who took classes; earned this professional designation; and on an annual basis, I am continuing to learn, perfect my craft and be the best remodeler I can be. It’s an assurance to that customer that [the remodeler] cares about doing good work and giving them the kind of service they deserve,” NAHB’s Jenkins says.

“You can’t just get a designation and sit back and wait for the phone to ring,” says Jeff Hunt, CGR, GMB, CAPS, CGP, of Heritage Construction Services in Houston and one of the webinar presenters. “You’ll be waiting a long time.”

Hunt, who was NAHB Remodeler of the Year in 2008 (see Qualified Remodeler, November 2008, p.22) recounts he sent a press release about his designations to every local newspaper, magazine or neighborhood newsletter he could think of. The Houston Chronicle, a major paper in town, picked it up and ran it in the real estate section one Saturday. After that, Hunt took the initiative to contact local news outlets with stories and information he thought were beneficial to the consumer and was able “after beating [his] head against the wall for a while” to land an interview on the evening news about a project he was working on. He was able to interject into the interview why the homeowner cut his risk by hiring a certified professional. That led to a subsequent interview with another station, and over time, to interviews with national media, including the Wall Street Journal and CNN Money. “I’m a promotion hound, and I think you have to be,” says Hunt.

He advises remodelers first to go after the “low-hanging fruit” in promoting their designations. “Sure, you put it on your business cards, letterheads, proposals, brochures, websites, Facebook pages, email signatures — everything that goes out,” he says.

Logos are available from the associations granting designations, Hunt points out. These can be added to printed material.  “I have a section my proposal that lists all of my designations along with the appropriate logo, and I have a little explanation about what each designation means,” he says.

Promote, Promote, Promote

Beyond that, Hunt promotes industry designations every chance he gets. For example, he gives presentations about how to modify a home for aging parents to local civic groups, during the course of which he promotes the advantage of hiring a Certified Aging in Place (CAPS) remodeler.

While Hunt holds a CAPS designation, he feels his presentation helps others with similar designations. “My belief has always been that it’s incumbent on each of us designation holders to do all we can do to [promote designations]. Every time I [make a presenation], I help everybody in the industry who has CAPS, CGR, CGP or other certification, and if we all do it, I think that the argument that nobody knows designations mean will become less and less of an argument.”

Hunt notes there are two different markets when it comes to designations. “In certain markets, you might be the first CGR in that market, and I’d hammer on it all day long.  In other markets where there is greater penetration, you’d better have a designation just to keep up. It depends on where you are,” he says.

There are additional benefits to holding designations and even in the process of obtaining them, Hunt says, attributing a current job he’s working to the contacts made through educational endeavors.  “I always enjoy being a roomful of my peers,” says Hunt, who has been an instructor for a number of certification and other educational courses. “I will tell you that involvement has direct benefits to me and has put food on the table,” he says

“Networking and being involved with your peers, especially for those of us who run fairly small organizations, are critical in my view,” Hunt adds.

Don Van Cura, MCR, CKBR, GCP, CLC, UDCP, of Don Van Cura Construction Co. in Chicago is a NARI member who is equally convinced of the merit of education, saying of those who are skeptical of education and certification. “You don’t know what you don’t know — until you know it,” he says

Fireman Mentality

“We have this fireman mentality as remodelers; you know, the phone rings, and you say, ‘Yes, ma’am. I’ll be right over.’ You’re mentally geared to serve people and respond, especially when you have a lot of competition because of the economy,” Van Cura says.

Remodelers, Van Cura thinks, hesitate to become involved in certification because they feel they don’t have the time. The truth is “if people would stop and get involved in certification, they would learn how to gain the time. They manage their business with much less effort, and they have more time.”

Van Cura acknowledges it’s hard to convince people who haven’t taken a serious step toward certification. “People are looking for instant gratification, and just being a member of NARI, NKBA or NAHB doesn’t mean people are going to flock into your office or showroom,” he says. Nevertheless, he reports that a considerable number of potential clients mention seeing his certifications on the Van Cura website. “The value and public perception is a goldmine,” he says.

He mines that perception by constant promotion of the designations his employees hold. “Our guys have their names and designations on their shirts. It’s amazing how many people ask what those letters mean,” he says.

Asked how remodelers can find time to become certified, Van Cura cites Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as his inspiration, and particularly Covey’s dictum to “sharpen the saw.” Van Cura gives the example of someone who doesn’t have time to sharpen his saw because he is too busy cutting down a tree, not understanding that if he stops to sharpen the saw, he tree will come down in a matter of minutes instead of hours. “That’s pretty much my outlook on certification. You just have to stop and take advantage of it; that’s the only way you’ll see results,” he says.

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