I frequently speak at college campuses and trade apprenticeships. Whether it be to future engineers or contractors, my technical talks typically end up covering non-technical content, specifically career development. Typically, I’ll talk about the need to have a “learning” or “growth” mindset and illustrate that by talking about the stock market: 

“The stock market grows, on average, about 8% to 10% per year. That means, at a macro level, if a company doesn’t grow or improve by 10% every year, it will fall behind competitors and likely go out of business. It also means that if you, as an individual, don’t grow or improve at a 10% rate every year, you will also fall behind the market, possibly leaving yourself stagnant or jobless, especially in the event of a market downturn.” 

I then cover the multitude of ways to grow or improve, which include reading books, going to technical seminars and also getting additional technical certifications.  

Just going through the process of preparation to take an exam to gain a certification will improve your abilities. Even if you fail the test, you will still have improved your abilities based on the amount of effort you spent learning and studying. It is literally one of the best win-wins out there. Mind hack: Did you know that signing up for an exam will push most of us to begin the process of studying? So, don’t wait to become an expert; sign up and then watch your motivation to study grow.


A useful tool

Certifications in particular are a great tool for engineers and contractors to not only grow, but to also differentiate themselves and their employers in the market. Put simply, all other things being equal, who would pick someone without a certification over the certified candidate? I know I would pick the person with the certification 10 times out of 10 because they have proven a certain level of expertise.  When contractors or engineers go after a project, budget is definitely a big motivator, but to get a foot in the door, a company needs to show its qualifications. The same applies to individuals — getting that certification helps in gaining employment simply because it differentiates you based on quality. What a helpful tool to have.

I obtained my professional engineering license in 2012; however, I felt that my licensure did not show expertise in plumbing. (The closest examination to my field of expertise I could take was HVAC refrigeration, which I passed). So, I decided to develop some additional knowledge and add to the “alphabet soup” after my name. I first got the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) Certified-in-Plumbing-Design (CPD) certification. I felt that helped show my expertise in plumbing. But I also had a unique specialization within plumbing at the time: Health care systems. I noticed there were several senior plumbing designers in Phoenix who had their ASSE 6020 Medical Gas Inspector certification, and so, I decided to follow suit and began my preparations.    

The ASSE 6020 is the certification for medical gas inspectors. It requires more than 30 hours of in-class training and passing a closed-book examination, with a minimum score of 80% correct answers. I gave it my best shot and passed the exam on my first attempt. But in doing so, I did notice something — even if I had failed, the amount of knowledge I gained about medical gas systems far surpassed what I knew going in. Additionally, this allowed me as a young 30-something engineer to feel confident enough that I had the requisite technical knowledge and credentials to oversee the entire plumbing health care practice for a top-15 MEP engineering giant. For those aspiring to get into leadership roles, it is worth noting there are three types of power: Relationship, role and expertise. Credentials, like the ASSE 6000 series, are a great way to develop the third type of power.

In his book “On Management,” Peter Drucker wrote almost 50 years ago that “A knowledge-based economy (that is an economy that is directly based on production, distribution and use of knowledge and information) requires knowledge-based workers … and that knowledge work is effective only if it is highly specialized (e.g. what makes a brain surgeon effective is that he is highly specialized in brain surgery, but, by the same token, couldn’t repair a damaged knee and would probably be helpless if confronted with a tropical parasite in the blood). This is true for all knowledge work. Generalists … are of limited use in a knowledge economy. In fact, they are productive only if they themselves become specialists in managing knowledge and knowledge workers. The knowledge needed in any activity has become highly specialized. It is therefore increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain enough critical mass for every major task in an enterprise. And because knowledge rapidly deteriorates unless it is used constantly, maintaining within an organization an activity that is used only intermittently guarantees incompetence.”

This means that specialization is also key for contractors. We probably remember the saying from school geometry “Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.” Similarly, it could be argued that (almost) every medical gas installer (ASSE 6010) is a plumber, but not every plumber is a medical gas installer. The ASSE 6010 certification shows a level of competence when it comes to the installation of medical gas systems, and this matters quite a bit for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly one that drives us: Our families. Put simply, if it were you or your loved one on the operating room table, or in the patient bed on oxygen, wouldn’t you want the best designed and installed medical gas system for them? This is why certifications matter — they help reduce the risk of something being designed or installed incorrectly.

Likewise, I predict that in the future certifications like the ASSE 12080 (Legionella Risk Mitigation) will also be utilized to show further specialization and value that differentiate contractors and engineers from their competitors. The Legionella market appears to continue to increase, and rightfully so. Waterborne pathogens continue to pose a greater and greater threat and water quality issues are a growing concern. Building shutdown has increased water age, reduced disinfectant residuals and increased bacterial amplification. 

This isn’t the only sector within construction where training and proof of expertise will be needed moving forward, as many others are increasing in complexity. We are living in chaotic times due to the uncertainty, ambiguity and volatility. Take advantage of the chaos and differentiate yourself by getting certifications.