Cover Story: The ABCs of Employee Certification and Credentials

March 12, 2013 No Comments
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They appear on email signatures, business cards and resumes—two or three letters at the end of someone’s name. Without spelling a word, they communicate a powerful message about that person’s education and experience. Yet some manufacturers have been slow to recognize the value of competency-based employee credentials—and the doors they can open for their organizations.

What are the main credentials or certifications available to manufacturing employees? And how, specifically, can they benefit employers?

toc_features50pxThe most common credentials in the manufacturing industry have been developed by three organizations: the American Society for Quality (ASQ), the American Welding Society (AWS), and the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS). Some are designed for entry-level workers and others are geared for experienced technicians and engineers. Though the requirements for each credential are different, most involve a certain level of training, testing, and hands-on demonstration to reflect core standards for that industry.

However, certification is about more than passing an exam or hanging a certificate on a wall. It’s a way for employers and employees to speak a common language—whether they are from the Midwest or the East Coast. More importantly, it’s a way for employees to prove they are capable of meeting industry standards, and a way for employers to leverage their knowledge and skills to remain competitive.

Got Quality?
The American Society for Quality (ASQ) oversees 17 different quality-related certifications ranging from certified quality inspectors (CQI) to certified quality engineers (CQE) to six sigma master black belts.

Certified quality engineers, for example, can be expected to develop and operate quality control systems, apply and analyze testing and inspection procedures, and use metrology and statistical methods to diagnose and correct improper quality control procedures.

“For employers, ASQ certification guarantees that employees understand basic or advanced tools of quality,” said Sally Harthun, manager of ASQ’s certification programs. “It also allows employees to speak the same language in terms of process improvements and quality terminology. Finally, it assures the quality of a company’s products or services.”

ASQ developed the standards for CQE and related certifications by surveying nearly 2,000 people in a wide range of sectors and geographic locations about which skills they use the most in their careers. Those standards are updated every 5 years.

Beyond an exam and a certain level of experience or education, additional training isn’t necessary to obtain certification. Theoretically, one could show up and take the exam without taking a single ASQ course. For those who need a refresher or a little extra help preparing for the exam, however, ASQ provides online courses, handbooks, and a link to local courses on its website.

The cost of the exams range from $189 to $419 depending on whether that person is a member of ASQ. The only exception is the master black belt exam, which costs $1,995 in addition to the cost of a portfolio review. Re-certification is necessary every 3 years.

Despite the costs and requirements associated with ASQ certifications, more and more people are obtaining them. Harthun said certifications are up at least 5 percent over last year.

“When we ask people why they decided to become certified, the majority say it is for their own personal and professional development,” Harthun said. “The second reason is that it is required or encouraged by their employers.”

Globally, more than 150,000 people have obtained certification through ASQ. In Minnesota, about 500 people per year take the exam. Most are interested in the CQE and six sigma black belt designations.

Show What You Know
At Anoka-based Meier Tool and Engineering, which does a fair amount of medical and aerospace work, several employees are pursuing certifications through ASQ. Two employees, for example, recently achieved their CQI and Certified Quality Technician (CQT) certifications; they now are pursuing their CQE certification.

Meier has been impressed with the standards of each certification. CQTs, for example, are introduced to statistical sampling in addition to the basics of how to read prints and set up programs.

“The biggest benefit to these certifications is that they’ve helped us win more business,” said Meier Operations Manager Jordan DeBilzan, CQE, who plans to pursue his six sigma black belt in the near future. “That’s because they’ve helped us make our quality systems very robust. When we have an OEM come in, they look at our quality processes and documentation and rarely make any changes.”

Though Meier doesn’t require new hires to be certified through ASQ, DeBilzan said that those who are definitely have an advantage over others.

“For hiring, CQE and CQT is definitely a plus because we need people who understand quality,” he said.

At Kurt Manufacturing, at least eight employees are ASQ-certified in the machining division alone. The company incents employees who achieve certification with a bonus. Jeff McIntosh, quality manager, said the training from these certifications leads to better quality planning on the front end, resulting in better shop floor quality.

“Our quality technicians are more technically sound for shop floor applications,” he said. “They help out in planning for shop floor improvements and quality improvements. This has helped win more business as well. Customers know our quality people are certified and are reassured that they’ll get good products.”

However, the process of certification hasn’t been a slam dunk for every employee.

“It’s a very tough exam that covers a broad body of knowledge,” McIntosh said. “Consequently, we’ve had several employees fail the exam and are still trying to pass. But it’s definitely worth it in the end.”

To learn more about ASQ certifications, visit

Welding Competencies Together
The American Welding Society (AWS) offers a number of certification programs to assist industry in identifying qualified welding personnel. Its premier certification is its internationally recognized Certified Welding Inspector (CWI) program. According to AWS, this certification has been a major contributor to improved weld quality and reduced costs of inspection. Additional certification programs exist for welders, welding supervisors, engineers, radiographic interpreters, educators, and more.

“Our certified welders are equipped for any type of welding work, whether it’s building a bridge, a ship or a building,” said Cindy Weihl, public relations manager at AWS. “In fact, many conscientious employers today will not hire anyone who’s not AWS certified.”

The Certified Welder (CW) program, for example, tests procedures used in the structural steel, petroleum pipelines, sheet metal, and chemical refinery industries. Testing involves depositing a sound weld that is inspected by a CWI for proper fit-up, assembly, and positioning.

Aside from passing an exam, there are no other requirements to obtain certification through AWS. The only exception is for a Certified Welding Engineer (CWE), which requires a 4-year degree. Exams can be taken at local sites and usually are preceded by a 2-day seminar that covers exam topics. Once a person passes the exam and becomes certified through AWS, he or she is always certified. The only exception is for CWIs, who need to be re-certified every 9 years due to changes in welding codes.

Minnesota’s technical colleges largely have embraced AWS standards. At least 10 colleges in the state teach to AWS standards, ensuring students are well-prepared for the exam.

Qualified to Certified
At Elk River Machine Company, which employs 70 people, all welders receive on-the-job training that aligns with AWS standards—but most welders don’t go on to become certified through AWS. After being trained on any number of more than 100 different welding procedures, employees undergo company-specific testing that tells them whether they are qualified to work on certain projects. Jim Barthel, president of Elk River Machine Company, said that while he recognizes and supports AWS standards, cost is the main reason why his employees don’t achieve official AWS certification.

“Few employees show up on your doorstep with the training you’re looking for,” he said. “Within our environment, AWS certification wouldn’t gain them anything more. It would cost them or the company money.”

Elk River Machine Company immediately puts newly hired welders through company-specific testing. They need to pass some level of weld testing before they can be brought on as full-time employees. Then, if the company happens to get a project from a customer that meets one of its weld procedures, it can look through a book and see all the people qualified at that level.

When it comes to CWIs, however, that’s a different story. Elk River Machine company has at least three CWIs who did achieve certification through AWS.

“We felt that the CWI designation would add to our credibility locally,” Barthel said. “We’re seeing more of a need from our customers to have that CWI credential. So we felt there was value in it.”

Hutchinson Manufacturing, Inc., is similar in that it qualifies its welding employees internally to many different codes, but its welders don’t achieve official certification through AWS or similar organizations. The only exception is the company’s CWI.

“We have no reason to achieve certification because our customers don’t demand it,” said Scott Bandas, vice president of health, safety, quality and environment.

Like Elk River Machine Company, all new hires undergo training and testing before becoming qualified to perform certain welding operations. The company’s 42 welders make up about one third of its workforce.

About 15 years ago when customers started demanding it, Hutchinson Manufacturing began requiring all new hires to be or become qualified.

“Our customers do a lot with the oil and gas industries, so they float down a lot of American Petroleum Institute (API) requirements to us,” said Scott Bandas, vice president of human resources and quality.

Yet, making sure every new welder is qualified is no easy task.

“I’d say 80 percent of the people we hire have no formal certification,” Bandas said. “So we spend 2 or 3 weeks training that individual and, even then, not everyone passes the final exam. We end up letting some people go. Training and testing is the only way we can have any sort of confidence that an individual can perform the weld we expect them to do.”

To learn more about AWS certifications, visit

Just-In-Time Machining Certifications
The National Institute for Metalworking Standards (NIMS) is the newest but perhaps fastest growing source of certification for employees in the manufacturing industry.

NIMS was formed in 1995, by a coalition of major trade associations looking to certify precision manufacturing workers—similar to what the automotive industry had been doing for years. They included the Association for Manufacturing Technology, the National Tooling and Machining Association, the Precision Machine Products Association, the Precision Metalforming Association and the Tooling and Manufacturing Association. Together, they invested over $7.5 million in private funds for the development of NIMS standards and its credentials.

The first several years were spent developing the foundation for various procedures, standards, and credentials. Today, the organization has a stakeholder base of over 6,000 manufacturing companies, oversees 52 credentialing programs, and issues 10,000 certifications each year. The standards cover a breadth of metalworking and machining operations, ranging from entry (Level I) to a master level (Level III). Like ASQ and AWS, all NIMS standards are industry-written, industry-validated, and subject to regular, periodic reviews by ANSI.

Support for NIMS standards is spreading across the country, according to James Wall, executive director of NIMS. General Dynamics in North Carolina, for example, requires all of its machinists to have at least two Level 1 or basic machining credentials. Many other companies are beginning to advertise that NIMS credentials are preferred.

“Over the last 5 years, the number of certifications we’ve issued has been growing at about 20 percent each year,” Wall said. “To date, we’ve issued over 40,000 certifications, with CNC programmers and CNC operators being the most popular certifications.”

These and other certifications require workers to demonstrate practical knowledge as well as hands-on skills. In addition to passing an exam, workers are assessed by how well they make a specific part or set up a machine. Their certifications never expire, but employers can view the date of their certification and recommend employees become re-certified, if necessary.

Though training is not required in order to take the exam, NIMS does have curriculum materials and guides available. In addition, the organization works with companies as well as technical colleges to align their training programs with NIMS standards.

“We’re seeing a real resurgence across the country of companies acknowledging that apprenticeship programs have worked very well in the past and can work just as well in the future,” Wall said.

Tapping Into Current Employees For Future Talent
At Eaton Corporation’s Eden Prairie plant, which employs about 250 people, employee training may be in the form of online classes or apprenticeship programs—but the end result is the same: NIMS certification. Since 1995, dozens of employees have become NIMS certified.

“Like many other companies, we’ve had trouble finding skilled machinists,” said Ron Krueger, training coordinator for Eaton Corporation. “So we decided to start training and promoting our current workforce and then hire new employees to fill the entry level jobs.”

First, the company provides online training to entry level employees through ToolingU, which gives them a basic understanding of the equipment and terminology they will be utilizing. Next, employees receive hands-on training with a mentor. Finally, they take the NIMS exam by making a part to print and passing a written exam.

“NIMS works well for us because it forces our employees to prove both knowledge and skills,” Krueger said. “Most people can do some type of classroom training and pass a written test. But, at the end of the day, they may or may not be able to run a piece of equipment.”

In addition to online training, Eaton Corporation began offering a NIMS apprenticeship program, which is competency-based rather than time-based. It also can be customized to fit the needs of any shop. “We have been pleased with the apprentices who have come out of the new apprenticeship programs and will continue to use NIMS to help train our workforce,” Krueger said.

On a job shop level, Haberman Machine is one local manufacturer that recently launched a NIMS-based apprenticeship program to train employees. Currently the company is training 11 employees through this model. Some already have become certified and are moving on to a higher level of certification.

“We see NIMS training as a way to raise the bar of our employees and ‘grow our own,’” said Kimberly Arrigoni, controller at Haberman Machine, Inc., and member of the NIMS board. “It’s been very successful at our company and I think a lot of other companies would benefit from NIMS training as well.”

Aside from apprenticeships and on-the-job training, NIMS training is available through several technical colleges in Minnesota. Hennepin Technical College’s M-Powered program, for example, allows students to graduate in about 9 months as a NIMS-certified CNC mill or lathe technician or precision metal stamping technician. Similarly, Dunwoody College of Technology and South Central Technical College have the Right Skills Now program for students to become NIMS-certified CNC operators.

Like other organizations, NIMS creates the standards for each certification through technical work groups before subjecting them to a national and international validation process. The standards are ANSI-approved and updated every 5 years.

Although skilled workers remain in short supply, manufacturers do have options. ASQ, AWS, and NIMS certifications can be helpful tools for recruiting, hiring, placing, and promoting individual workers.

After all, a company is only as good as its employees.pm_endmarkblue-e1320337140493

Melissa DeBilzan is a contributing writer for IntrinXec Management, Inc. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2013 Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. For permission to use or reprint this article please contact Amy Slettum, publications manager for Precision Manufacturing journal.

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