Certification Nation


By Kimberly Kayler

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Quality control of epoxy-coated reinforcing steel.

With a stronger economy, many sectors of the concrete industry have seen a growth in certification programs for plants, products and personnel. As the workload increases, firms are using certification as a means to distinguish their organization and earn work, as well as a way to help them select the right individuals to hire. The rise in certification programs also is gaining favor with owners, municipalities, governmental agencies and code departments, some of which are developing their own requirements as a means to establish greater competency and accountability in their projects. The result of all of this growth is a hodge-podge of programs that range from certificates earned after minimal training to qualified certification programs tied to international standards, and everything in between. The disparity can be confusing and even dangerous if proper training and inspection does not occur.

Not All Created Equal

Dean A. Frank, P.E., LEED Green Associate, director, Quality & Sustainability Programs at the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI), assesses the confusion, noting that some public sector agencies and private companies are establishing certification programs in-house, often drawing upon the body of knowledge promulgated by the appropriate technical institutes (either directly or via public sector standards bodies) as the basis of their quality systems. However, not all certification programs are created equal, so it is key to ensure that your certification program is offered by a reputable, knowledgeable advocate and resource for that particular industry.

“Many commercial companies and industry organizations offer certification services,” says Frank. “However, not all such offerings are supported by the necessary functional elements of comprehensive quality systems typically embodied in an industry’s technical institute. A certification program developed and run by an independent technical institute ensures transparency, allows for continued process improvement, and removes any fear of bias towards one or more industry stakeholder.”

A credible certification program requires more than just issuing a certificate, so be cautious of a certification program that isn’t tied to an organization that has established best practices related to their 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 that local jurisdictions require for contractors as a means for keeping track of those companies who have been reviewed to work. However, in most cases, these programs are not founded in an established set of best practices specific to the industry.

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Epoxy-coated bars on the jobsite ready for concrete placement.

Case in point is the development of certification programs by unions. Post-Tensioning Institute (PTI) Executive Director Ted Neff notes that the development of such programs isn’t inherently bad as they are often based on industry knowledge and the developers have technical expertise, however, it is also key to have relevancy to code bodies and industry standards. For example, ACI 301, Specification for Structural Concrete references several of the industry’s certification programs and using it will cover a number of certification requirements needed for a concrete project.

Neff says that the specification should be clear and distinct in order to avoid vague interpretation, as such distinction will help eliminate companies self-certifying their crews, adding: “Owners and designers have fewer resources to police their projects, so certification provides a means to ensure they get the quality they deserve.”

Robert Bowers, P. Eng., LEED Green Associate, director of Engineering for the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI) concurs, noting that certification programs are used by many to differentiate themselves from their competition by demonstrating their ability to meet and exceed industry standards. “Those individuals seeking certification recognize the importance of promoting their experience level and knowledge of industry best practices, as well as a commitment to continuing education,” he observes. “These are the three key elements to the ICPI Concrete Paver Installer Certification, which should be similar to other personnel based certifications.”

PCI Managing Director of Research and Development Roger Becker notes that certification programs should provide customer-focused, management driven, and process-based quality management systems. “While commercial companies can provide audit services, only the technical association or institute associated with that particular subject matter can today provide all the required elements that are necessary of a credible program,” he says. “The work of the technical institute within a strong, unified, and quality-focused industry benefits all stakeholders, the end-user, and the general public.”

Becker also notes that the benefit of institute-based certification programs is that they are an integrated knowledge development and continuous improvement process connecting directly with the industry’s body of knowledge. Further, they are developed by a wide range of experts so a program reflects a diverse mix of industry professionals.

“Review by committees and open comment are key,” Becker concludes, “since the industry organizations are typically governed by boards that have no financial gain from the program, their efforts to reach consensus are not based on profit.”

Global Standard
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Evaluation of epoxy flexibility as part of coating quality control.

Newly appointed PCI President Robert Risser, P.E., reflecting on his Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute tenure, cites the importance of a certification program being tied to a larger standard. For example, CRSI has become American National Standards Institute (ANSI) accredited so they have the ISO based qualities in their program, ensuring they are open and balanced. ANSI oversees the creation, promulgation and use of thousands of norms and guidelines and is also actively engaged in accrediting programs that assess conformance to standards—including globally-recognized cross-sector programs such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9000 (quality) and ISO 14000 (environmental) management systems.

“In the construction industry, only the technical institute serving the corresponding industry segment provides all of the necessary functional elements of a comprehensive quality system and therefore currently serves as a singular, standardized, and accredited certification organization,” says Risser.

Neff concurs, noting that ANSI may not apply to all concrete organizations, but following the principles outlined in an ISO based program ensures the transparency required in today’s marketplace. PCI’s Frank also finds that having a program tied to an internationally-accepted standard when possible helps ensure impartiality, while limiting conflict of interest.

Localizing the Industry Standard

PCI’s Becker notes that there are times when it does make sense for an agency to develop their own certification program, though he encourages those entities to partner with industry institutions whenever possible. For example, the Illinois Department of Transportation desired to expand the existing PCI Plant certification program because of very specific factors that they wanted addressed in plants, such as dimensional tolerances related to their beam designs and how non-conformances were addressed. PCI worked with the state to create additional requirements. Becker saw that this approach worked for both PCI and the state, and believes this model works for other jurisdictions as well.

“If a state is interested in a modification to the certification programs we’ve developed, we are more than interested in working with them,” he affirms. “It doesn’t make any sense for them to reinvent the wheel. Further, once you move away from that industry body of knowledge, it can be dangerous. In contrast, the industry institution will have the interest in serving that group as well as support the certification with the knowledge and experience to address specific needs. A certification program not backed by the industry will be challenged by the request to modify their programs, nor do they have the credibility to make such changes.”

According to Frank, key to success is modifying any standard or specification in such a manner that the owner or end-user is satisfied with the outcome, while providing clear direction to the individual or manufacturer resulting in fewer instances of non-conformances. This involves: a) establishing objective, specific criteria for quality and performance; b) creating an oversight group that is balanced and represents all major stakeholders; c) having a dynamic program that strives for continual improvement to reflect advances in the state-of-the art; and, d) ensuring that the program is impartial.

Moving Ahead

All interviewed report that certification programs are an essential part of ensuring quality, and as such, should be a requirement on most projects. However, key to success is an insistence that certification programs are objective, technically-based and impartial. Frank urges contractors to keep, not waive certification requirements as a means to find a lower price as it greatly impacts quality assurance. Further, acceptance of certification programs for Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and other owners is key. DOTs can utilize the certification programs to reduce their inspection workload, provided the program specifically addresses any special requirements that they may have.

“When low price becomes the driving factor, quality is usually the first thing to suffer,” Frank contends. “Certification should be required to ensure a level playing field and consistent quality in the industry.” 

Recognizing that certification programs are best if they are developed and/or involve the relevant industry trade associations, it is essential to get involved. This is especially important if there is an aspect of the program or standard with which you disagree. It is likely that others may have the same sentiment and the program can be only be improved when more stakeholders embrace it.

Kimberly Kayler, CPSM, is president of Constructive Communication, Inc. in Dublin, Ohio. She is an active member of the American Concrete Institute and has covered the construction industry for the last 20 years.