Manufacturers, NECA, and IBEW work on certification

Since C-STAR is set to make its debut soon, it is time to take another look at the comprehensive certification for low-voltage systems installers. All electrical contractors interested or involved in telecomm, sound, video, life safety, building automation and related systems should know what kind of an effect C-STAR (Certified Systems Technician, Accredited, Registered) will have on their business and what is needed for workers who wish to take the certification exam.

For almost four years, trade groups and manufacturers such as NECA, IBEW, Independent Electrical Contractors, 3M and Leviton have been working on C-STAR, which is unlike any other industry certification.

C-STAR’s simple goal is to provide manufacturers, contractors and end-users with a universally recognizable certification for low-voltage installations. The allure of C-STAR is easy to understand: It ensures a quality installation without the need for separate (and often costly) certifications from each manufacturer. It is also a union and nonunion program, making it available for all low-voltage installers.

To take the C-STAR examination, which should be available online in January 2005, workers must have fulfilled one of three prerequisites:

• Successful completion of a U.S. Department of Labor Approved Apprenticeship Training program (DOT Code 823.281.720/SOC 49.2022.03) plus 6,000 hours of on-the-job training • 8,000 hours of documented experience installing and testing low-voltage systems plus 200 hours of C-STAR board-approved training • 12,000 hours of documented experience installing and testing low-voltage systems.

C-STAR board members have advocated that no one be “grandfathered” into the certification. But many low-voltage workers will be already well prepared for the exam since the “board-approved training” mentioned in the prerequisites covers these and other programs:

• Manufacturers’ in-house training • Dedicated commercial training (such as BICSI) • Apprenticeship training (National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), Home Builders Association, Electronic Systems Technician and others) • Community and technical college, college and university studies and training • Secondary and post-secondary vocational/technical programs.

Once the aspiring C-STAR technician meets these requirements, he or she is ready for the test. That entails the following:

• Completing an application form documenting requirements. (The form will soon to be available on the still-under-construction C-STAR Web site.) • Paying a $50 application fee and $200 examination fee • Passing the written exam • Completing continuing education and installation requirements within the prescribed recertification period.

Terry Coleman, NJATC’s director of telecommunications curriculum development and training for the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee and C-STAR president, said the certification was born out of a need for an industrywide test that would encompass union and nonunion workers. Licensing and certification are important, Coleman said, but the required training is C-STAR’s hallmark because owners demand skilled workers who can do the often-complicated low-voltage installations.

“With the C-STAR certification, we can prove to the end-user that a contractor has the basic knowledge, ability and skills that come from that knowledge,” he said.

The knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) were determined with the help of studies done by the American Institutes of Research along with input from the trade organizations (which also included the Fiber Optic Association, Cabling Standards Update, and ETL/SEMKO among others) and resulted in a “baseline job description for the installer/technician.”

The job description alleviates situations in which a contractor may have an installer with certification from one cabling manufacturer and another worker certificated from another cable company. While the fundamental training each installer underwent may be similar, both certification programs may not to be recognized nationwide.

“C-STAR is an open and affirmative certification that does not have a lot of restrictions. A technician does not have to belong to a certain organization to participate,” Coleman said. “Eventually, we would like C-STAR to be as widely recognized as the Cisco and Microsoft certifications are.”

The C-STAR Board’s mission—develop a standardized testing of knowledge, skills and abilities for technicians—comes at a time when the need for competent workers installing low-voltage systems has become a focal point for manufacturers, contractors and end-users.

“We have been motivating craft workers to get trained in C-STAR just like they would with Microsoft,” Coleman said. “You could have a guy with a knowledge of routers but not have any certifications. Our hope is to have C-STAR embrace these technicians and enable the end-user to get quality people on their job sites, which will eventually drive the craft workers to obtain this certification. There are many different certifications out there.

“Contractors don’t want to have to come to a job with 12 different certifications because that means they have to take the time to get certified. Who has the time to receive several different certifications?” Coleman said. “That’s been the biggest hurdle for a lot of contractors because many of these courses require a significant investment of time and money. We will attempt to be the resource that people want to measure their skill set.”

Because of the many types of installations involved—everything low-voltage from closed-circuit TV to fire alarms and home theater—developing what the C-STAR technician would be tested on has been a long, involved process. Coleman said it took almost as long as hashing out the testing prerequisites.

“We wanted to come up with a skill standard, decide how to implement it and come together with a general consensus for an idea on testing,” he said.

In August 2003, the C-STAR board approved Pearson VUE, which assisted in the launch of C-STAR, to provide testing and some administrative services with an Internet-based testing. Coleman said that after some beta testing, they hope to have a final certification test ready by this month or November. Yet Coleman said he hopes the exam will remain an “evolving process,” something to be revisited and refined as low-voltage technology changes, too.

And he sees C-STAR as a money-saving not a money-making venture, one that demands not only good installations but can prevent the side-effects of poor installations, such as litigation.

“Our hope is to improve the quality of work on the job site,” Coleman said. EC

SPEED is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or kkspeed@aol.com.