Certification Matters ... Really!

Separate yourself from the faceless crowd
By Mike Ingles

It may be impossible to quantify how becoming "certified" in the landscape industry will affect your bottom line, but what is certain is that more commercial and government accounts demand certifications by established service providers. Certification is a positive force in elevating service levels within the various segments of the green industry.

While industry professionals understand the value of continuing education that leads to credentials that advertise their expertise, work remains to be done to "educate" property owners and property managers to the value of hiring individuals who have gone the extra mile.

"Without a doubt, certification elevates our industry on the whole," says Shayne Newman, founder and president, YardApes, New Milford, Conn. "It is the means by which we become landscape professionals."

Newman says, "We've had several employees achieve certification through a rigorous program administered by PLANET. To be certified means unequivocally that we are safer, more knowledgeable, more efficient and more productive."

One of the main goals of the green industry's national trade associations is to promote professionalism and build the public's confidence in the industry. Offering industry certification are: the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), International Society of Arborists (ISA), Irrigation Association (IA), Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) and Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA)

Sheri and Joe Russell own and operate Russell Tree Experts, Westerville, Ohio, and boast of having several certified ISA tree service associates. Russell attained her certification in 2008.

"I'm proud to be one of the few female certified arborists. I was the only female in a room of over 100 people when I took my exam at Dawes Arboretum, Newark, Ohio, and am excited to see more and more women seeking certification," she relates.

"I sought after the title because it serves as proof of my understanding and dedication to professional tree care," Russell says. "I'm happy to see that the public is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the title when hiring tree care professionals. I encourage potential customers to compare our services to other businesses with certified arborists for an 'apples to apples' comparison, for it has been my experience that companies that seek certified individuals operate with high standards and truly value healthy trees."

It is equally important that service providers attain and retain certifications in their particular fields. Many industry standards have evolved into baseline criteria that state and local agencies utilize to establish requirements when considering new regulations and laws. Sometimes, these voluntary rules and regulations become standards for state licensing.

"Certification as a recognition of a level of professionalism is gaining momentum within all sectors of the green industry," adds Joel Hafner, CLT, CLP, Poolesville, Md.

"Our customers are becoming more aware of its significance and, one day soon, will hopefully demand certification as a requisite for being on their property."

Not that earning a certification is easy. Not by a long shot.

"I think the test has five sections and you must pass all sections in order to pass the test," says Michael Joseph, co-owner, Joseph Tree Service, Columbus, Ohio, of the ISA certification test. "I recommend to those thinking about taking the exam that they take the test seriously and buy the study materials and really study hard."

A serious effort

Wendy Connair, president, Garden Girls, Inc., Mantua, Ohio, says passing the PLANET exam is no picnic either. "It's not just an easy test that you walk in and walk out of; there is a level of skills and knowledge that is required to master in order to acquire a certification."

Connair says her certifications assure the public that she knows her business inside and out and that her company is not just a fly-by-night operation.

"I feel that PLANET understood years ago the importance in setting a higher quality standard in the green industry needed to be established to set the professionals above those who are out to make a quick buck," she says. "Just like a plumber is looked upon as a professional occupation and learned skill so should the landscape occupation."

Joseph concurs with Hafner, Newman, Russell and Connair about the need for certification in the green industry.

"Arborist certification is very important for our industry. It demonstrates a level of education about arboriculture and a level of commitment to the industry," says Joseph. "There is a continuing education requirement which helps arborist to stay up to date with the advancements and science of arboriculture," says Joseph.

Anne Olmstead, ISA's marketing communications manager, says that obtaining an ISA certification demonstrates that members have the proper knowledge and skills, as well as a high level of dedication to our profession and community.

"ISA credentials build expert knowledge and reflect the professional skills sought by leaders from the public and private sectors, including training, academia and government organizations," insists Olmstead.

Olmstead advanced several advantages to becoming certified by ISA that also applies to each discipline in the green industry: increasing income, efficiencies in hiring and training, allowing the public to make informed selection for the services, building upon self-image and certifications might become a deciding factor when bids are similar in cost and application, especially to those businesses seeking LEED certifications.

Karen Barnett, PLANET's director of programs and services, says that certification allows the public to review credentials and make a decision based on each service provider's level of training and education. PLANET offers multiple certifications (see sidebar). Professional growth strategies, and helping the public identify competent service providers are among the association's goals.

"Individuals who become certified increase their value to employers, provide a higher standard of service to clients and help raise the professionalism of the entire industry," insists Barnett.

PLANET, in addition to helping members earn certifications, is working to get the word out to the public.

"We are also focused on educating the public about certification. The first thing to know about landscape industry certified (LIC) is that it is an individual certification, not a company accreditation," says Barnett. "Professionals who are interested in becoming certified should first choose one of the seven designations and then register. All programs are self-study and suggested study materials are available for purchase."

Certifications and Requirements

PLANET Professional Landcare Network (PLANET)

Contact Info: 703-736-9666, 800-395-2522, certification@landcarenetwork.org

Website: http://www.landcarenetwork.org

Certifications: LIC Manager, LIC Technician, LIC Interior Technician, LIC Horticultural Technician, LIC Lawn Care Manager, LIC Lawn Care Technician, LIC Lawn Care Technician (National)

Cost: $150 to $400

Course: Self-study; study materials available through PLANET

Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS)

Contact Info: 410-223-2861, pgms@asshqtrs.com

Website: http://pgms.org/

Certifications: Certified Grounds Manager (CGM); Certifications Grounds Technician (CGT); School of Grounds Management (SGM) Certificate Program

Cost: $150 members, $300 nonmembers; $325 to join PGMS includes course fees

Course: The CGT exam consists of 40 questions based on the overall grounds maintenance field and 10 questions (multiple choice) based on client's geographic region; SGM exam requires a Bachelor of Science or a two-year technical degree, or eight years of experience to take the exam. SGM requires obtaining 24 core credits in a four-year period, of which 18 credits must be completed at the SGM school in core competencies.

Test: Two methods of taking the test; the first covering grounds management is a closed-book exam and consists of 100 true/false questions and administered by a proctor; the second part is open book, essay and can be completed at home-study.

Irrigation Association (IA)

Contact Info: 703-536-7080, info@irrigation.org

Website: http://www.irrigation.org

Certifications: Certified Irrigation Contractor (CIC); Certified Irrigation Designer (CID); Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor (CLIA); Certified Golf Irrigation Auditor (CGIA); Certified Landscape Irrigation Managers (CLWM); Certified Agricultural Irrigation Specialist (CAIS); Certified Irrigation Technician (CIT)

Cost: $200 members, $495 nonmembers

Course: Self-study, some materials available for purchase from IA. Minimum six months to three years of experience or related education to take exam, dependent upon type of certification.

Test: Online at locations provided by Kyrterion. Paper pencil exam available at various locations.

Snow & Ice Management Association (SIMA)

Contact Info: 414-375-1940, info@sima.org

Website: http://www.sima.org

Certifications: CSP, Certified Snow Professional

Cost: $650 to $750 members (study materials and exam fee); $900 to $1,050 nonmembers (study materials and exam fee)

Course: Option 1: Minimum three years of experience as an owner/CEO in last five seasons of snow management or five years consecutive in supervision/management of direct snow- specific experience. Option 2: Minimum two years of experience as a supervisor/manager, post-secondary degree and letter of references with additional 15 hours of SIMA-approved, snow-specific education credits within a two-year-period, prior to application.

Test: Administered at proctored sites throughout the country and consists of 200 true/false or multiple-choice questions

International Society of Arborists (ISA)

Contact Info: 217-355-9411, isa@isa-arbor.com

Website: http://www.isa-arbor.com/certification/

Certifications: ISA Certified Arborists, ISA Certified Utility Specialist, ISA Certified Arborist Municipal Specialist, ISA Certified Tree Worker Climber Specialist, ISA Certified Tree Worker Aerial Lift Specialist, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist

Cost: ISA offers a member discount to those holding an ISA Membership. The ISA Certified Arborist credential, the most recognized certification, with over 30,000 credential holders, costs $150 for a member and $250 for a nonmember. The most elite certification, the ISA Board Certified Master Arborist, costs $450 for a member and $550 for a nonmember. There is an additional $100 fee for taking exams at Pearson VUE facilities.

Course: Requires a minimum of three years of full-time experience in arboriculture. Acceptable experience includes the practical use of knowledge involved in pruning, fertilization, installation and establishment, diagnosis and treatment of tree problems, cabling and bracing, climbing or other services that directly relate to arboriculture, or a two-year degree in arboriculture and two years of practical experience or a four-year degree in a related field and one year of practical experience.

Test: Paper-based exams done at pre-scheduled locations and times. Computer-based exams done at Pearson VUE testing facilities.

Continuing education

Recertification is important and stressed in the green industry because of ever-changing laws and almost daily technical advancement in the various fields. Each discipline has a stringent recertification program designed to ensure their members are up-to-date with changes in their industry.

"Landscape industry certified individuals stay on top of their profession and credentials by recertifying every two years," says Barnett.

The required continuing education and optional service needed to maintain the active status of PLANET certification is measured in continuing education units (CEUs). Members are required to report 24 CEUs earned during the two-year cycle to maintain the active status of certification. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) standards state that certification programs must include recertification provisions.

Earning the right to be a PGMS Certified Grounds Manager (CGM) involves acquiring both technical knowledge and in-the-field skills.
Photo courtesy the PGMS.

Sherrie Schulte, CLIA, certification and operations director, Irrigation Association, also insists that certifications elevate green industry professionals over those that have not achieved the same proven level of competency. "Becoming certified gives individuals instant credibility with both customers and employers, provides additional job opportunities, demonstrates individuals' commitment to water management and distinguishes them from their competition," she explains. "Certification also raises the bar within the industry, which helps the credibility for the industry in general."

Similar to PLANET, the IA also offers multiple certification programs. Each certification program has different requirements in order to qualify to sit for an exam, says Schulte.

Kelly Mesaris, associate executive director, Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS), says that the certifications that her association offers to grounds professionals offers tangible benefits. "With certification, your presentations, requests for funds and equipment and recommendations carry more weight," she points out. PGMS members are primarily institutional grounds managers and their association offers three certification programs.

"The Certified Grounds Manager program, developed and offered by PGMS, is the premiere program of its type in the green industry," Mesaris adds. "To earn the certificate of completion for the School of Grounds Management (SGM), the student must complete a total of 24 credits within four years. Eighteen of these credits must be completed at the SGM in the core competencies. "

Ellen Kobach, certification and communications manager, Snow Ice Management Association, says that SIMA's certified snow professional (CSP) certification is the recognized standard for professionalism and excellence in snow and ice management services.

"Getting the CSP designation can build a broader base of knowledge to deliver excellence to customers. CSPs value consistent service and communication, are focused on partnership, safety and risk management and are aligned with industry best practices," says Kobach.

To become CSP certified the student is tested in six areas of competence: business, human resources, marketing, subcontractors, snow and ice science, and snow and ice operations and techniques.

Kobach explains that at SIMA they renew yearly. Once an individual passes the exam, they must renew yearly and obtain continuing education credits through SIMA's annual Snow and Ice Symposium, industry trade show attendance, writing content for SIMA, webinars and more, she adds.

At ISA there are two options in maintaining certification: members can obtain the required number of CEUs in their three-year certification period (ie. ISA certified arborist 30 CEUs) and pay a recertification fee, or choose to retake the exam and successfully pass in order to maintain credentials.

Schulte explains the IA's recertification process. "All certified professionals are required to submit 20 CEUs per two-year cycle to remain in good standing. Newly certified professionals will be assigned a CEU cycle. This cycle will begin the year following when the designation was earned."

AT PGMS, after becoming a CGM, members must keep up accreditation by earning 25 CEUs every three years.

Along with industry certifications, many colleges and universities offer curriculums of specialization into every facet of green industry services. Two-year technical certifications, in a variety of disciplines, as well as four-year bachelor programs in turf science, horticulture and related sciences, are becoming the norm for many contractors; advanced degrees, or comparable experience, is often required for executive positions with larger turf management companies and is a necessity in many start-up companies and often become requisites for advanced certifications in many trade associations.

The International Society of Arborists (ISA) offers several certifications.
Photo courtesy Russell Tree Experts.

Many states also have landscape associations and some of those also offer strong educational opportunities along with certification programs.

Trade association certifications offer valuable learning opportunities, are key in continuing education and provide the public the assurances that each science is being performed by knowledgeable and reliable professionals.

Mike Ingles is a freelancer writer living in Columbus, Ohio, who writes articles about business and the green industry. Contact him at duckrun22@gmail.com.