Even as computerized and cloud-based as our lives have become, paper still means something in the world of work. Certifications, credentials, diplomas, licenses — earned only after classwork, hard study and passing detailed exams — can make a major difference for contractors. Much more than mere pieces of paper, these documents signify that the individual holding them is a professional practitioner of that discipline. It’s shorthand for “I’m not only experienced, I’m qualified.”
Back in the early 1980s, the Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia, created the IA certification program to document the professionalism of the people who design, install, service, evaluate and manage irrigation systems for a living. The aim was to raise the level of expertise for irrigation professionals, according to Ronald Sneed, PhD, PE, CID, CIC, CAIS, CLIA, one of the original designers of the program.
“From the very beginning, we had a goal of having better-educated irrigation professionals,” Sneed said in his written acceptance speech remarks for the Certification Board’s 2018 Commitment to Certification Excellence Award. “It was always more about education than about certification.”
The goal was to increase the professionalism in the industry and eventually have those who had become certified teach the classes to others, says Don Franklin, CID, CLIA, ASLA, specification manager at Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California. Franklin also had a hand in building the certification program. Another major goal was to raise the “comfort level” among employers and clients. He compared it to a physician, who has a diploma and board certification testifying to their skill and knowledge.
“IA certification is similar, in that it shows that someone has gone through a class, passed a test and is now competent in a specified area. The person doing the hiring can have confidence in the certified person’s abilities,” says Franklin.
The program was developed from the ground up, from study materials to certification guidelines and course exams. Some agricultural engineers who already had professional registrations pushed back, according to Sneed. But over the years, some agricultural engineers and licensed professional engineers later served on the IA Certification Board.
“One of the strongest voices against the certification program was, I think, an associate dean of a college of agriculture and life science,” according to Sneed. “He later became an IA-certified individual.”
The first landscape certification offered by the IA was certified irrigation designer-landscape/turf, with specialty exams in residential, commercial and golf course. A CID-agriculture exam was also offered. Today, there are five different landscape certifications offered by the IA: certified irrigation technician (CIT), certified landscape irrigation auditor (CLIA), certified golf irrigation auditor (CGIA), certified irrigation contractor (CIC) and certified irrigation designer (CID).
The certification exams, like the industry itself, are dynamic and always changing. Michael Pippen, PE, CAIS, CID, director of business development at Jain Irrigation Inc., Lakeland, Florida, spent several years on the Certification Board. “We took those exams out into the field and did a job analysis, getting feedback from hundreds of certified professionals in the field,” he says. “We created a survey that asked what’s important and how frequently do you do it. And we refined the exam questions based on that job analysis.”
Pippen says this process, which the board still conducts regularly for every certification, tightens up the types of questions asked and their difficulty. For instance, if a CIT only does some job function only once a year, it’s not important to include questions about it on the exam. But if 100 people do that task once a week, then it should probably be tested very thoroughly.
There are at least three good reasons for any technician or contractor to consider certification, according to IA CEO Deborah M. Hamlin, CAE, FASAE. “Number one, to prove your knowledge,” she says. “Number two, to differentiate yourself from your competition. And number three, for personal improvement.”
“Certification is this extra step,” Hamlin adds. “It’s a way of showing that ‘I’m better than my competitor because a third party has endorsed me. I’ve passed a test and received tangible proof of my knowledge.’”
Differentiating himself from the competition is exactly what motivated Dale Aubertine, CIC, CLIA, owner of Northstar Water Services, Monroe, North Carolina, to get certified. “I did it for the simple fact that I wanted to be better than my competition. And I wanted to be knowledgeable in my field. I find it interesting working with the scheduling, the hydraulics, the electrical — I guess you could just say that I’m ‘into it.’ It’s what I do for a living, so I wanted to be the best at it, to separate myself from all the others.”
Certification set him apart and made his company’s name reputable in the Charlotte area, he says. Also, the courses taught him technical details he wouldn’t have picked up through experience.
“I learned so much about the plant/water relationship, about scheduling, about understanding slopes and angles and degrees, and all the hydraulics that come into play,” he says.
Art Elmers, CIC, CID, CLIA, area specification manager, Landscape and Turf Division at Netafim USA, Fresno, California, has held IA certifications for a long time — the oldest one dates back to March 11, 1984. “I was actually one of the very first certified irrigation designers in the country,” he says. He’s worked in irrigation since he was 14, helping his
father, a golf course superintendent with an irrigation company on the side. “The value of certification is it indicates that you have met a certain level of proficiency. My dad used my certifications to help sell the qualifications of our company.”
Michael Temple, CID, CIC, CLWM, CLIA, CGIA, LEED AP, now technical program director for the IA, remembers why he first sought certification. “As an irrigation consultant for 20 years, I’d dealt with a lot of certified contractors who expressed to me how much they’d learned just preparing to take the CIC exam, and how the knowledge they’d gained helped them a lot in their businesses,” he says. “One contractor said that even though he’d failed the exam, he’d learned so much that it took a lot of the sting out.”
Robert “Bobby” Alvarez, CLIA, a former irrigation contractor and now water conservation administrator in the Department of Environmental Utilities, Water Efficiency Division for the City of Roseville, California, got his CLIA a couple of years after becoming a a contractor. He says it helped him put together the puzzle of irrigation.
“Studying for the CLIA, I learned about distribution uniformity, precipitation rates, evapotranspiration, hydrozoning — all of these things turned a light bulb on in my head and started to make everything else make sense,” he says.
Once Alvarez understood all of that, he began shifting his business model. “I changed from being a landscape irrigation specialist to a water-efficient landscape irrigation specialist,” he says. “That wasn’t the usual thing back then. What I’d learned previously was ‘just put a lot of water on this thing and it’ll grow.’ That was the mentality.”
Walter Mugavin, CIC, CLIA, founder and managing member of Aqua Mist Irrigation of New Jersey LLC, in South Hackensack, does a lot of commercial irrigation work including designing systems. He says being certified has, without a doubt, helped his career and his business.
“When you get into doing commercial work, bigger housing developments and stuff like that, dealing with engineers, having a certification lets them know that they’re dealing with a fellow professional,” says Mugavin. “I deal mostly with engineers and land development managers. Once I got the certifications, I noticed the change — they have a little bit more respect for you, pay more attention to you when you say you’re a nationally certified contractor or irrigation auditor. It lends credence to what you do and say.”
Want to get certified?
If you’ve decided it’s time for you to obtain one or more IA certifications, go to the
www.irrigation.org website and click on the “Certification” tab. You’ll see drop-
down menus for the various certifications.
On the webpage for each one, you’ll find a description of the functions the
certified person performs, how much experience is recommended before you take the exam and how to register for it. It will also tell you how many questions will
be on the test, how much it’ll cost and what’s required after you pass.
• Certified Irrigation Technician (CIT)
• Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor (CLIA)
• Certified Golf Irrigation Auditor (CGIA)
• Certified Irrigation Contractor (CIC)
• Certified Irrigation Designer (CID)
How can I prepare to take an exam?
The IA offers a number of resources to help you prepare:
• Certification Candidate Handbook
• exam specification sheets
• equation sheets
• reference books
• educational courses
Go to www.irrigation.org/prepare-for-exams for more information.
The bottom line
The big question is, of course, does getting certified help you make more money? Does having initials like CID or CIT after your name make you more hirable and promotable as an employee or bring more business to you as a contractor?
The IA has conducted numerous surveys to discover just that and has been charged with promoting the program to those who might hire industry experts, says Hamlin.
Around 2009, the IA began reaching out to building owners and property managers’ associations, advertising with them and telling them that these certifications exist, and recommending that they hire certified people for their irrigation projects, says Hamlin. That effort continues because the IA has a vested interest in increasing the demand for certified individuals.
It has paid off, says Elmers, as IA certification is recognized inside and outside the irrigation industry. He says a lot of big corporations and government entities with facilities throughout the country won’t hire you unless you can demonstrate a certain level of proficiency — “and IA certification has always been the gold standard for that.
“For instance, the National Park Service requires that only a CID can design their irrigation systems,” Elmers continues. “Years ago, I designed a system for Wolf Trap in Washington, D.C., and it was written into the proposal that a CID had to do the design.”
Becoming IA certified has opened up new opportunities for Stephen Dobossy, CIC, CID, president of RR Irrigation Company Inc., Middlesex, New Jersey. Many of the contracting jobs he’s landed required a CIC, and the same was true for many of his design assignments, which only went to CIDs.
“Getting certified as a designer elevated my design ability and actually did pay off quite well for me,” says Dobossy.
Aubertine says that the work he’s doing now — high-level troubleshooting for commercial accounts as a consultant for Union Grove Landscape Development, a large irrigation and landscaping company in Marshville, North Carolina, and for another company — came about as a direct result of his certifications, as did the recent job he completed for Rain Bird on the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina.
“The manufacturers recognize my knowledge,” Aubertine says. “But I wouldn’t have it if I hadn’t obtained the certifications.”
Would any of these individuals recommend certification to a fellow irrigation professional or contractor? All of them said yes, unequivocally. John Butters, CIC, CID, CIT, CLIA, CLWM, irrigation manager at Timberline Landscaping, Colorado Springs, Colorado, says his 30-year career at Timberline has advanced continually with each certification, and preparing for the exams taught him things he uses every day on the job.
Now he mentors the more junior irrigation people at Timberline to seek certification, and many of them have taken his advice. “Even if they don’t pass the exam the first time, they always say they learned so much just studying for it,” he says.
Are you certified? Isn’t it time you were?
The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.