Nov. 10 2021 11:39 AM

Pick up the best projects available by getting certified.


On a recent business trip to Florida, Kurt Thompson, president of K. Thompson & Associates in Charlotte, North Carolina, was asked by a county government official if he had credentials.

In years past, whether or not an irrigation contractor was credentialed didn’t seem to be much on the radar.

But Thompson says his experience could be part of a trend for the demand for more credentialed contractors as clients investing money in a project are seeking the best outcome for that investment.

There are myriad benefits to getting certified, and the Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia, offers six individual programs that can elevate a contractor’s career, including becoming a certified irrigation contractor.

“Having an Irrigation Association certification following your name adds instant credibility in the eyes of prospective clients,” says Deborah Hamlin, CAE, FASAE, IA CEO. “It shows a commitment to take that extra step to advance your own professional development and improve your skill level.”

Credentials are mutually beneficial to both irrigation contractors and the companies for which they work. They not only set an individual contractor apart from others seeking jobs in the industry or getting to do higher value work for the company for which they work, but they also help a company stand out among the options for those seeking services.

The IA has been offering its certification program since 1983. “Being IA certified puts you in an elite group of professionals,” says Hamlin. “This program has set the bar for the industry and has helped many landscape contractors grow and expand their businesses.”

“I’m a huge believer in it,” notes Thompson, who not only has every credential the IA has to offer, but also is certified in a number of states and has national certifications that apply to irrigation and management. Thompson is a credentialed CIC, CID, CLWM, CLIA, CGIA and CIT. His CID designation includes residential, commercial and golf specialties, and his CLIA includes a drip specialty. These are exams above and beyond the general exam.

Thompson, who started earning certifications earlier in his career, also is director of educational programs for IrriTech Training.

Once a contractor earns a certification, it’s critical to start marketing it widely. “It is difficult to promote a certification if the consumer doesn’t easily recognize it,” points out Chris Pine, CID, CIC, CLWM, CLIA, CIT, MCLP, CLVLT, principal, IrriTech Training. “Contractors should market the value that the CIC certification brings to the consumer, such as the proven understanding of installing and managing their irrigation system, the commitment to best practices or the rigorous continuing education requirements.”

Thompson markets his own credentials extensively, even to the point that he alludes to them on his voicemail message, indicating to callers that he is either training someone for a credential or is in the field with a client doing the type of work commensurate with his level of training.

Certification is a step beyond state licensure, Thompson notes.

“State licensure is more about minimum standards and it differs from state to state,” he adds. “Depending on the credential, like the Irrigation Association credentials, those are national standards that are verifiable and put you on a very high level as a solid credential.”

Market your worth

Many contractors who get certified almost never market it. “They don’t do anything other than maybe put it on their email signature and business card,” Thompson adds. “They don’t parlay that into a position that is meaningful to their clients. If I were talking to the CFO of a development company that has water use problems on 500 acres of 15 industrial parks, my credentials are going to be meaningful to them in a different way than if I’m talking to a homeowner or general contractor.”

Peace of mind is the primary factor that underscores why a potential customer should care if a contractor has credentials, Thompson notes.

“Ask a customer if they’ve ever experienced hiring a contractor to fix a problem that didn’t get fixed,” he adds. “Credentialing helps you look for those problems.”

The best way to use certifications in the bidding or quote process is to prepare and include a fact sheet on the CIC program for the potential client, Pine notes.

It’s key to emphasize the significance of that certification to the potential client during the quote and bidding process.

“You’re going to have to educate them; otherwise, there won’t be any value,” Thompson says. “It’ll just be a bunch of acronyms after your name. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m a certified irrigation contractor,’ because they might not have any idea what that means. You’re going to have to include either your own write-up about what it means or direct people to websites to learn more about the certification, an overview of the program and what it means from the organization doing the certification. You show the client where they can go to verify you’re current and in good standing with the credential.”

Beyond promoting one’s own credentials, there is additional value in promoting the aggregate credentials of the company’s entire crew.

Contractors can best promote how much the company’s crew is certified by talking about the value of the continuing education program to the consumer, notes Pine.

“Use all the methods of market communication — social media, website, print media and truck lettering, to name a few,” he says.

Thompson says it’s important to get as many employees credentialed as possible and then let clients know that the crew members doing work on their site are certified.

There’s a chance that the irrigation company owner or salesperson who is credentialed may not be on the job at all times, so it’s critical not only to have crew members certified but to convey that to the customer to encourage their confidence in the job, he adds. A company’s growth becomes stronger with every certification that each employee earns.

Build stronger crews

In enhancing overall company growth, certification promotes continued personal and professional knowledge-based development and can increase the chances of retaining the best employees through a company’s investment in workers’ success, Pine points out.

Showing a path of professional development to a candidate coming to be hired at your company is almost essential, says Thompson. “It goes way beyond the paycheck. A company is going to want some type of training to get the best people to come and stay. It’s a critical piece in your whole human resources plan. To attract and retain people, you’ve got to invest in them or you’re never going to get them because the best people won’t come, let alone stay.”

IA University courses, which are offered every year during the annual Irrigation Show, teach the core fundamental and practical skills specific to landscape irrigation professionals. Many IA University courses are recommended for review prior to taking a certification exam.

Given the existing competition and additional jobs on the market, certification can be used as leverage. Thompson says he has always offered incentives to his employees to better their skills and knowledge, including underwriting their training costs.

As far as leveraging certification in the competitive market for high-value clients, “communicate the benefits to the consumer and also select the consumer who places value in a company that believes in the certification programs in our industry,” Pine says. Word of mouth regarding the best companies to hire and the best companies for which to work will go far as well.

Carol Brzozowski is a freelance writer with a specialty in environmental journalism based in Coral Springs, Florida. She can be reached at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.

Choose your course

The Irrigation Association offers several certifications covering multiple aspects of the industry. Making the choice to be trained and certified can open new project opportunities and make your company more attractive to potential employees.

These certifications are offered by the IA:

• Certified irrigation technicians (CITs) are entry-level technicians who install, maintain and repair irrigation systems.

• Certified landscape irrigation auditors (CLIAs) gather irrigation water-use data and test landscape irrigation systems.

• Certified golf irrigation auditors (CGIAs) gather irrigation water-use data and test golf irrigation systems.

• Certified irrigation contractors (CICs) are experienced business owners who execute irrigation projects to install, maintain and repair irrigation systems.

• Certified irrigation designers (CIDs) establish specifications and design drawings for landscape irrigation projects. The IA certifies irrigation designers in two landscape specialties: golf course and residential/commercial irrigation.

Ready to become certified?

Irrigation professionals interested in earning an IA certification have the option to take either a computer-based IA certification exam or an in-person paper-and-pencil exam. Certification exams are offered at hundreds of testing centers throughout North America and internationally throughout the year.

“With the computer-based exams, candidates can pick the date, time and location that works best for them,” says Deborah Hamlin, CAE, FASAE, IA CEO. “In fact, they even receive preliminary results immediately after finishing the exam.”

Paper-and-pencil exams are offered every year at the annual Irrigation Show and Education Week, as well as at times throughout the year.

To learn more about taking an exam at the 2021 Irrigation Show or to take IA University courses, go to www.irrigationshow.org. Information about computer-based exams is available at www.irrigation.org/certification.