Events ranging from September 11 to the 2005 hurricane season to the Northeast blackout have transformed the perception of standby electrical power in recent years. Always extremely important, especially in some key applications, on-site power generation has nevertheless been out of sight and out of mind, at best. But as the risks for and consequences of mass power outages become more probable, standby power is emerging from the shadows.

“This industry is exploding because of more hurricanes, big blackouts, and terrorism threats,” says John Kelly, Jr., president of Kelly Generator and Equipment, Inc., an Upper Marlboro, Md.-based gen-set sales, service, and parts company. “Americans are becoming more and more dependent on electricity.”

Even more visible is the all-important human component of such systems so vital to ensuring that the power they produce can be tapped on a moment's notice. Indeed, among the newest signs recognizing the need for unquestioned reliability of standby power is a groundbreaking new rite of passage for those who service, maintain, and repair gen-sets: the Electrical Generating Systems Association's (EGSA) generator systems technician certification program. Unveiled last spring, it conveys official certification of knowledge and competence to those who pass a comprehensive exam.

Marking the first time generator techs have been able to secure association-sponsored national certification based on broadly recognized standards, the EGSA national certification is being hailed from many quarters. Techs and the dealer/distributor/service companies that employ them, as well as gen-set manufacturers and those who purchase them, cite few, if any, negatives about the new certification standard.

But that's not to say EGSA's program won't usher in some changes for those who maintain, manufacture, sell, and buy gen-sets. The advent of national certification may well impact a host of variables — from the size and wages of the future tech labor pool to how dealer/distributors market their services and train techs to how manufacturers conduct their own training and how end-users evaluate the credentials of generator and service suppliers.

Complexity grows

Aside from the potential impact, there's broad agreement that a certification program tailored to generator techs was long overdue. With gen-sets growing ever more complex and increased recognition that qualified techs need a special blend of knowledge and skills, there seems to be general consensus in the marketplace that the EGSA program shows the industry it's serious about promoting and rewarding expertise and training.

“Our industry is, like most others, getting pretty technical, and it's getting to the point where we need to make sure we have quality people working on this equipment,” says Joe Hafich, co-owner and president of operations at Emergency Systems Service Co., a Quakertown, Pa., distributor of Katolight gen-sets. “Techs need a wide base of knowledge covering mechanical, electrical, and control systems, and it's time our industry has a way to advertise itself in terms of a level of professionalism and expertise.”

Hafich, a member of the EGSA dealer/distributor council that helped spearhead initial efforts to explore certification in 2002, says the ability to certify techs will, over time, help ensure that customers are less likely to trust unqualified “backyard mechanics” to maintain mission-critical gen-sets.

For their part, techs may hail certification as a way to gain recognition and career advancement. One, Gene Gentile, a service tech with Buckeye Power Sales, a Columbus, Ohio dealer/distributor, says skilled techs now have a new opportunity to demonstrate their broad expertise and be rewarded for attaining a set of unique skills.

“After two years of schooling in the field, I've done this work for seven years,” says Gentile, who took the exam and passed it. “Now I have a way to classify myself as a generator technician. Every other industry seems to have standards and exams that classify people and let you know where you stand, but this industry has never had anything.”

Though that's technically not true — gen-set manufacturers train and certify dealer techs on their equipment and training companies do teach techs and offer certification — the EGSA program is the first generic option. An exam measuring broad knowledge of generator system basics and certification based on a single, consistent standard was needed to establish a benchmark for evaluating technician competency, says EGSA.

“This industry is growing, the need for competent personnel is growing, and the equipment is getting complicated, complex, and more expensive,” says George Rowley, EGSA director of education. “We wanted to establish a way to set qualified techs apart from those who may call themselves a generator tech but who may not have the real skills and knowledge.”

A complement to other training

Leo LeBlanc, chairman of EGSA's technician certification committee and managing director of Nixon Energy Solutions, a Charlotte, N.C.-based dealer for several gen-set manufacturers, says companies that service equipment needed a broader-based training and certification program to complement that offered by manufacturers.

“Manufacturer training often doesn't cover fuel, exhaust, and auxiliary systems operations that are essential to gen-sets, and we were growing concerned that the state-of-the-art systems technology was perhaps not being kept up with in other types of training programs,” LeBlanc says. “We saw a void in this area, and we wanted a program that would certify techs as being competent in maintaining and troubleshooting standby generator sets.”

EGSA sought input from manufacturers as it worked to institute a program. One, Cummins Power Generation, Minneapolis, supports the effort as a way to raise the level of technician expertise and views it as complementary to its own extensive training and certification.

“Cummins already trains its technicians to a high degree of skill, but this EGSA program will assure customers that they're getting top-quality service from all service providers who become certified,” says committee member Debra Laurents, Cummins' global functional leader for order management. “We may see a requirement for EGSA-certified techs written into a customer's maintenance/repair specifications.”

Instituting the program could impact everyone involved in the emergency power industry. While most of the fallout is likely to be positive — a new way to gauge tech skill, more certainty in hiring, the advent of another marketing tool — certification could ultimately prove to be a mixed blessing. Part of the downside could include yet another layer of red tape and associated recordkeeping, higher labor and training costs, training redundancy, and barriers to market entry for some businesses and techs.

Taking it to the bank

Now more than six months into the EGSA program, most in the industry are talking it up and predicting certification will prove a strong net plus for everyone. One of the most frequently cited positives is the image boost that certification stands to give to a field growing in importance and visibility.

Bob Piske, president of Arizona Generator Technology (Gen-Tech), a Glendale, Ariz.-based Generac dealer/distributor, says customers need more assurances than ever that those who keep standby generators in good working order are fully competent. As it becomes more challenging for service companies to keep techs ahead of the generator technology curve, a recognized certification program can help set tech competency standards that responsible service providers will be expected to meet, he says.

“I think it will be a selling point for us,” says Piske, who notes, like other service companies, that training can begin to reflect the EGSA exam's contents. “We need to continue educating and certifying our people so when they arrive on a jobsite there's no question of their ability to do the work. Customers want a high level of comfort. The way we look at it is what's untold is unsold, and this will help us market our competency.”

Kelly, of Kelly Generator, says a strong certification program reinforces the reality that the maintenance and repair function is elemental to standby power. As such, its delivery demands techs who have qualifications gained through specialized and intensive training and experience.

“This industry needed standards because there's a tremendous amount at stake for users of standby power, like nursing homes, hospitals, and mission-critical data centers,” he says. “Personally, I've grown tired of bidding on service jobs that any knucklehead with a pickup truck also can bid on. They're a scar on our industry. Now that we have a standard in place, it'll be easier to make people prove they're qualified.”

Competition may grow

Convincing end-users of the need for highly trained techs might be a looming challenge. As demand for standby generators grows, more firms may be vying for the opportunity to service and maintain their equipment. More significantly, some specialized contractors that don't bring all the needed skills to the table might be working to gain an inside track. For instance, without providing specifics, some generator service industry sources alluded to nascent efforts by electrical contracting companies to try to position themselves as capable of handling a broad range of generator installation and service work.

“We need licensed electricians in this business, but usually it's gen-set guys and OEM reps doing most of the critical maintenance of these units,” says Kelly. “All we do is work on emergency gen-sets. That's one of the factors that kicked this certification program into gear. It's time our industry started advertising its professionalism.”

But at least one electrical contracting industry source says generator users and generator service companies need to remember that electrical skills are indispensable when installing and servicing equipment. A generator service technician certification program may make sense for that industry, says Kevin Tighe, manager of the North Florida chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). But hooking up units and servicing key electrical components of the systems is a job for licensed electrical contractors. Indeed, standby generation work is a growth segment for many Florida contractors, he says.

Tighe adds that his group would likely oppose any effort by EGSA to have states license generator technicians. Florida, he says, doesn't even license electricians, though it does issue electrical contractor licenses. But EGSA's Rowley leaves the door open to the idea of using the EGSA certification program as a springboard to encouraging states to issue such licenses.

“We hope that down the line, as the program becomes more recognized, states will realize there are standards, and that this will lead to licensing laws,” he says.

A tech magnet

The opportunity for techs to become certified and possibly even licensed is seen as another strength of the EGSA program. Certification and licensing could help lure would-be techs by more firmly positioning the industry as specialized, cutting edge, and full of growth and earnings potential. That could be increasingly important as the demand for techs outstrips supply.

EGSA says the on-site power generation industry currently employs some 2,000 techs. LeBlanc says there are currently about 500 unfilled positions, a deficit that's likely to grow as more gen-sets are installed. Some say a certification program could draw people looking for a strong career growth path.

“One of the big choke points the industry faces is a lack of people to work on these units,” says Kelly. “With certification in place, we're hoping that it helps promote our industry as a profession that someone would be proud to enter.”

Even some experienced techs say they like the idea of certification. Bob Tirimacco, a technician with South Shore Generator Service, Inc., Wareham, Mass., says certification will help techs keep current on changing technology. Even though he's been servicing power generation equipment for 25 years in various capacities, Tirimacco says he was eager to take the certification exam, which he passed.

“If you're good at what you do, you have an interest in not having someone new to the business being able to tout the same level of experience,” he says.

While certification will help service companies better market skill and experience to customers, it also could end up impacting their labor costs. As EGSA certification expands, techs who attain it could be better positioned to demand a higher wage. That's fine by some service companies, who say they'd be willing to pay more for skill and experience, particularly as demand for techs increases. Certification could end up making techs more mobile, as well.

“I think certified techs should be in a position to earn more,” says Piske, who sent six techs to the initial EGSA exam. “We're going to be encouraging our 20 techs to become certified, and if they do we may put some incentives in place to allow them to earn a higher wage upon passing.”

Tweaking the program

That ability could even be enhanced if EGSA expands and broadens the certification program as planned. One enhancement being considered is instituting several tiers of certification. Currently, the exam is geared to someone with two to five years experience. Tougher exams that would certify someone of a higher skill could be developed.

EGSA also is planning to regularly update the exam to ensure it stays current with ever-advancing generator technology. The need to account for that is also addressed by the program's five-year recertification requirement.

But for now, EGSA is simply looking to get as many service technicians as possible to take the exam, test their level of skill and, hopefully, get as many as possible qualified to wear the new EGSA certification patch on their shirts. With some 45 certified as of the close of 2006 — roughly 80% of the 60 who took the initial test — EGSA believes it's designed a program that will reward truly knowledgeable and skilled techs and pay dividends to service companies, manufacturers, and end-users.

“We've crafted an exam based on the duties and responsibilities that a tech must have to be proficient, and we wanted it to serve as a measure of the ability of professionals with three or more years of experience. In our pilot exam, only a few with fewer years passed the test, but 65% of those with two to five years passed. So we think the exam is doing what we wanted it to do.”

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee's Summit, Mo.