Editor’s Note: Contracting Business first interviewed NATE president Rex Boynton at HVAC Comfortech 1997 in Nashville, TN, and CB and NATE have worked as partners on many levels in the intervening decade. The story from that initial interview appeared in the October, 1997 issue of CB, so we thought our October, 2007 issue was the right place to celebrate what NATE has accomplished in its first 10 years.

Nate? Who’s he?
Back in 1997, it wasn’t uncommon to field a question about identity when discussing North American Technician Excellence. Today, 10 years down the road, there’s a very clear answer as to who NATE is: NATE is more than 25,000 professional technicians from across North America who every day bring high levels of quality and value to the entire HVAC industry. NATE president Rex Boynton recently spoke with CB to look back at what has been a whirlwind first 10 years for the organization, and look ahead eagerly to the next 10.

The Past
“There are three things that really strike me, as I look back on the early days of NATE,” Boynton says: “The extraordinary vision of the program, the scope of the effort, and the breadth of support we wanted to bring from across the industry. Frankly, it was nothing less than audacious.”

Boynton says NATE actually started with a very simple premise: to recognize quality HVAC technicians through a voluntary testing process that led to certification. However, the longer-term vision was to be a leader in developing and promoting excellence in the installation and service of mechanical environmental systems. To that end, the first version of the NATE test was created, in all its 300 question glory. As you might imagine, the test was comprehensive but a little overwhelming.

“It really was a beast of an exam; technicians needed an eight-hour window to complete it,” Boynton recalls. “When I was asked back then who would take our test, my somewhat glib response was ‘the brave.’”

Today there is not “a” NATE test. To become NATE-certified, a technician chooses either the service or installation path. To earn NATE certification, a technician must pass both a core and a speciality test with a grade of 70% or higher on each. There are 50 questions on core tests and 100 on specialty tests.

There are 12 specialties available, with another six being beta tested (for a complete list, visit www.natex.org). In addition, there is a senior certification called the HVAC Efficiency Analyst Test. To sit for this exam, the candidate must already hold valid certification in two separate NATE specialties, one for heating and one for cooling. Certification is good for five years.

Back in 1997, Rex and the rest of the NATE staff were working to build a coalition of industry players to drive support for the program. “We wanted to bring everyone to the NATE table: the manufacturing community, the wholesale distribution channel; contractors; technicians; the utility community; the trade associations, both union and non-union; the educational and training community; and important government associations. Trying to do that was a pretty bold initiative,” Boynton says.

However, slowly and surely, it happened.

According to Boynton, there were a number of threshold events that helped bring NATE to where it is today. The first occurred shortly after the program was launched in 1997, when the U.S. Department of Energy recognized NATE and indicated that it supported technician certification. “That really created some critical momentum for what we were all about,” Boynton says.

Then, in 1999, came the sea change. “Initially there were several competing certification programs in the market, and we worked very hard with the leaderships of both the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) to bring all those programs together under a single industry umbrella. I think the real, seminal moment for us was in the summer of 1999 when those organizations became part of the NATE coalition.”

The People
Boynton admits there’s no way to properly acknowledge everyone from a long list “personalities and characters” who have helped make NATE what it is today. However, he did single out a few individuals for recognition.

“All of the gentlemen who have served as chairmen of NATE have had a significant hand in helping guide our enterprise,” he says. Boynton’s thanks go to:

  • John Garvelink. “One of those people who relishes a challenge. He devoted himself to really helping rally the modest NATE coalition back in the difficult early days.”
  • Fran Williams. “A detail-oriented guy who really helped keep us on track.”
  • Skip Snyder. “Skip definitely falls into the ‘character’ category. A very vocal and passionate leader who took NATE to a new level. He was a very effective communicator and influencer who helped us engage the coalition to begin thinking actively of what each of them could do to help drive NATE.”
  • Randy Tice. “Our first non-contractor chairman, Randy, a wholesale distributor, helped distributors see the value-add that NATE brings to their businesses. To this day, distributors continue to be the largest single outlet for our testing.
  • Scott Boxer. Our current chairman has helped us become more strategic in our approach to the marketplace. He’s been very helpful in finding cost-effective ways to stimulate consumer interest in NATE certification.”

Boynton also tipped his cap to Ted Rees at the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) and Reuben Autrey at the Gas Appliance and Manufacturers Association (GAMA) for supporting the organization during its early days and keeping NATE high on the agenda for their associations, and Nance Lovvorn, a fixture on the NATE board of directors.

“And, of course, someone who must be mentioned not only as a wonderful advocate but also as a dear friend, is the late Jeff Forker, former publisher of Contracting Business,” Boynton says. “Jeff saw the potential for NATE early on, allowed us to use all the resources of CB and its partners, and was one of the leading players in getting NATE, ACCA, and RSES to come together. I’ve often said that I think without Jeff’s quiet leadership, I don’t know that that would have happened.

“Jeff had an extraordinary ability to bring people together, had great credibility not only in the contracting community but also with manufacturers and distributors. He really made a big difference in what has happened here at NATE over the last 10 years.”

The Future
Boynton looks ahead to the next 10 years with optimism and enthusiasm.

“I want us to remain true to our core focus, the technicians, and remain committed to helping create a stimulating environment of continuous learning and applied knowledge,” he says. “I want to help technicians reach their true potential.”

Plans for the future include additional certifications, such as commercial refrigeration. Boynton also said he anticipates an increase in government entities using NATE in some manner, such as using NATE certification as a part of their licensing, or asking NATE to provide test development services to state licensing bodies.

There are also opportunities for manufacturers to begin requiring NATE certification in order to install or service their equipment, and for utilities and distributors to offer incentives for technicians to become NATE-certified.

Boynton notes that NATE’s marketing materials use the phrase, “NATE-certified professionals: the best,” and he truly believes that’s the case. “These individuals are good with their hands and with their heads,” he says. “One of our goals is to drive hard to the consumer, so the consumer knows the value that NATE certification brings to their indoor environment, and knows where to find them.

“I see a very bright future,” Boynton concludes. “This is not the kind of work that can be outsourced. We’re going to need quality technicians as far as the eye can see, all over North America and all over the world. So I think the potential for those who make the choice to join our industry and become certified is extraordinary indeed.”

Defining NATE's Value
In 2006, NATE and The Service Roundtable conducted a study in which 80 contractors were identified: 40 who employed NATE-certified technicians, and 40 who did not. The actual field performance of the two groups was compared, and as Boynton notes, the results were “a little stunning.”

Compared to noncertified technicians, NATE-certified techs were found to have 13% fewer callbacks; a 6.8% higher billing efficiency; and 28% lower warranty expenses.

“Given all that, we tried to quantify the added value a NATE-certified tech brings to his or her employer, and we found that in a typical year, a NATEcertified tech adds in excess of $10,000 of value,” Boynton says. “So having four or five NATE-certified techs would add $40,000 to $50,000 in value to a company. We think that’s clearly a home run for contractors.”