For quite some time, building service contractors have used professional certification to help distinguish themselves from less sophisticated competition, but today there is a growing need for industry designations that goes well beyond prestige. Business growth, improved technology and a growing focus on cleaning for health all place many cleaning professionals on unfamiliar turf. Some find themselves in new situations with different technical requirements, while others are stepping into management roles for the first time.

Now, cleaning professionals need the added industry training to stay abreast of the latest issues and techniques, as well as to help elevate the entire field to a higher level of professionalism in customer’s minds, says Tedya Cooper, deputy director of the International Executive Housekeeper’s Association

Many professional cleaning organizations offer training and education. While their methods vary widely, their intent is pretty much the same: improve technical expertise, improve customer service and boost the image of the industry as a whole. But, certification requires time, effort and a varying degree of financial commitment. Contractors in the industry say each company needs to weigh its certification needs and determine what benefits they are most interested in.

Standing apart still matters
Certification adds tremendous credibility to our company when compared to the competition,” says Patti Bishop Savelle, president of Leesburg, Ga.-based Bishop Clean Care, Inc. regarding her choice to gain professional designations.

“We are definitely not the ‘cheap’ carpet cleaner in town,” she says. “Education and training through certification helps to justify higher prices. Of course, this also brings higher expectations for our service as compared to others.”

Savelle’s company began as a laundry and dry cleaning business in 1952 and gradually evolved to focus on contract cleaning. Savelle was the first woman in the United States to receive the Master Cleaner certification from the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC).

“It provides proof of professionalism that they can depend on and establishes us as the expert,” says Savelle. Her company often receives calls from people referred to her by other cleaners who don’t have as much experience as her company does with specialty cleaning.

“If you’re selling services, one of the things you have to do is convince your client that you know what you are doing,” adds Larry Jacobson, executive director of Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration (ASCR). “You are worth the money you are charging. To come in with a roster of people with some measurable credentials and say, ‘These are the people we’re going to send on this job,’ it’s like taking your car to a certified mechanic. You feel better about it.”

Plus, many customers also belong to professional organizations for their industries, and they recognize the value and importance of BSCs making similar investments, says John Ezzo, president of New Image Building Services in Detroit. Ezzo is a Certified Building Service Executive (CBSE), a designation awarded by the Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI).

Bill Friske, president of Friske Building Maintenance Co., Livonia, Mich., also is a CBSE. He decided to gain certification after working closely with BSCAI board members who already had the designation.

“I realized these people are successful. That is one of the things that set them apart,” Friske says. “The more serious companies were really proud of what they did and wanted to grow.”

Employee improvement
In addition to the credibility that comes with management certification, enrolling front-line employees also can enhance service, says Dale Allen, president of Sic-Tech Engineered Chemicals, Spruce Grove, Alberta. Allen is president of the Canadian chapter of IEHA, which offers front-line certification, and he formerly worked in sales and marketing for a contract cleaning company.

“I can tell my employees what to say and they can mimic it. When you go through a certification program, instead of mimicking, they actually understand why. They get more background and more confidence in the way they behave,” adds Armen Dohanian, president of Bon Ton Rug Cleansers, Watertown, Mass.

Bon Ton specializes in oriental rug cleaning and has been in business for 101 years. All of Dohanian’s employees are certified by the Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration.

Many contractors believe investing in certification helps improve employee retention by sending a message that the worker matters.

“Job satisfaction and communication are the two key factors in retaining employees,” adds Allen. “Education helps both of those.”

Another benefit of certification is that it provides training documentation that U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations already require from companies, says Stefan Bright, secretary of International Window Cleaner Certification Institute (IWCCI). This existing training and documentation especially is useful for smaller companies that might not be able to put together such comprehensive programs on their own, he adds.

Selecting a course
With many different courses available, contractors need to carefully consider which certifications they pursue. There are some things to watch out for, says Cooper.

“If it’s just an exam, be worried. It’s easy to pass a test for a one time shot,” she says. Instead, continuing education credit requirements force people to constantly update their expertise to stay certified.

Also, examine course requirements carefully. It’s possible that certification from just one organization won’t meet your needs. Contractors may want to take classes from several sources. And sometimes, certification requirements from one organization can be transferred to another, making the pursuit of more than one certification an economical option.

The following are some of the cleaning industry’s certifying bodies, and their requirements. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and new designations are popping up regularly. Some of these organizations are general cleaning associations, while others focus on a chosen specialty. Contractors can mix and match to find the best combination for their company.

International Executive Housekeepers Association (IEHA)
Founded in 1930, Westerville, Ohio-based IEHA has been offering training programs since the 1950s. Both the Certified Executive Housekeeper (CEH) and Registered Executive Housekeeper (REH) certificates are directed toward supervisors and managers. Cooper says a new program for cleaning workers, Frontline, also was added to the curriculum recently.

As the industry evolved, IEHA saw more people entering cleaning management roles who already had bachelor’s degrees. So, the REH program is tailored to these types of individuals.

IEHA has developed a list of basic science and management courses that a bachelor’s degree must have included. Once a contractor provides proof of taking these college-level courses, he or she can take a test to become certified. To retain this designation, an individual must take 2 continuing education credits every two years and pay a renewal fee.

There also is a CEH program, that requires 330 hours of classroom training or an associate’s degree that includes specific science and management courses. This self-study course is available for $800, which includes the exam fee.

Cooper says the learning tools are primarily text materials that discuss staffing, continuous improvement, planning and communication. There also are 11 technical subjects, including pest control, waste management, purchasing, accounting, microbiology, laundry and security and safety.

As for the Frontline program for entry-level cleaning workers, Cooper describes it as a two-day course explaining the basics of safety, equipment and chemical use. The program includes sixteen hours of combined classroom and hands-on training. The cost is $99 per student.

To certify, students must attend an approved course and pass the appropriate exam with a 75-percent grade or higher. Then they must maintain two continuing education credits every four years.

All IEHA certified workers are required to obey a code of ethics that outlines appropriate on-the-job behavior. Cooper believes that is an added comfort for cleaning clients.

International Window Cleaner Certification Institute (IWCCI)
A relative newcomer to the cleaning industry, the IWCCI was formed two years ago and introduced its certification program in September of 2002.

“It only made sense to help customers ensure the people they are hiring are trained and educated in this occupation,” says, Bright, secretary of the International Window Cleaning Association, from which the Institute spun off.

He says the Institute spun off following the development of a national standard for window cleaning safety.

“One of the difficult things about developing safety training is having a consistent guideline,” Bright adds. “There was a lot of guesswork going on. The industry knew it needed a specific set of guidelines. Then they could develop a training program.”

Training reflects the new ANSI/IWCA 1-14.1 Window Cleaning Safety Standard, which was published last year, says Bright. Students learn by downloading one of four different workbooks from the Institute’s web site.

Course work has been divided into four categories: route and residential specialist; commercial ground (using all equipment accessed from the ground); high-rise rope descent (RDS); and suspended-scaffold high rise courses.

Bright says students may test at any time but they must log a prerequisite number of work hours before any certification will be granted. For route and residential cleaners, 550 hours are required; also required are 580 hours for commercial ground crews, 1,155 for RDS cleaners and 1,155 hours for suspended-scaffold high rise workers.

For Institute members, three-year tuition is $200 per person. At the end of that time, students will have to retest at half the initial cost. Nonmembers pay substantially more for the course: $1,750. Bright says the Institute is just launching the program and doesn’t expect the first applicants until December or January.

Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration (ASCR)
The ASCR has been offering training programs for more than a decade. The association’s first programs concentrated on cleaning. Restoration specialities followed.

“Both industries are highly fragmented,” Jacobson says. “They are, generally speaking, local companies that are insulated from each other. There isn’t a lot of transference of knowledge from company to company because they are competitors. There was a need to come up with some unifying standard.”

Members of the association also wanted to offer useful education on cleaning and restoration techniques so that people wouldn’t have to learn by making potentially dangerous mistakes on the job.

Training currently is available worldwide, with the strongest emphasis in North America. ASCR’s foundation does the education and another arm of the organization does the certification. With 1,300 member companies, Jacobson says ASCR has programs to serve every level, from executives to the newest employee. The first level is for front-line workers, the second is for supervisors and the third is for upper management. Jacobson says the system is part of a seven-level master design.

Training is done in a variety of locations, including hotels, at the job site or with a participating distributor. One-day cleaning seminars run about $100. Five- to six-day programs can cost as much as $2,000.

“We want to have a program that advances not only the industry but advances the people. It’s important for any industry to have a pool of very alert, aware, educated people who can work efficiently,” he says.

The organization also performs background checks on everyone that applies, and rules out anyone with a felony conviction.

“If you’ve been in trouble with the law you can’t become a member or get a certification,” he says. “That’s especially important with all the mold fraud that’s been going on now.”

American Bio-Recovery Association (ABRA)
Founded in 1996, the Ipswich, Mass.-based association is dedicated to promoting education, ethics and technology in this cleaning niche. ABRA represents about 50 of the estimated 300 companies currently specializing in this type of cleaning.

Founder Kent Berg says the focus is much broader than crime- and trauma-scene clean-up.

“The industry has expanded to include disease outbreaks, clandestine drug lab clean up, animal-waste-related diseases, all types of bacteria and fungi related odors, and other forensic related chemicals,” Berg says.

When he got started in the industry, there were few companies and many learned by trial and error. There was no sharing of information, and work was not being performed uniformly, says Berg. In many cases there was a lot of misconception about disease and how to effectively decontaminate.

“There are companies out there starting all the time and they say, ‘That doesn’t seem hard. I’ve done a cleaning service.’ What they find is they don’t use the right equipment and they don’t protect themselves or their employees properly. They don’t realize or they fail to comply with state and federal regulations. They don’t anticipate what they are going to deal with,” he says.

Before contractors can become certified bio-recovery technicians, they first must prove they meet the minimum criteria to belong to the organization. That includes working for at least six months in the field, carrying at least $1 million in liability insurance, providing evidence all of government compliance plans in place, and being a registered infectious-waste transporter or showing evidence of contract with a registered infectious waste transporter.

“The rationale is if you are a member you meet a very high standard and have already proven yourself in the industry,” Berg says.

Training courses last four days and cover topics such as confined space operations, specialty equipment and chemicals for bio-recovery, containment of sharps and hazardous waste, decomposition and related odors, and even building construction.

“In a lot of cases we have to dismantle walls, floors, vehicles, even industrial machinery,” Berg notes.

The courses are primarily text-based using a training manual Kent authored, but they do use some video and CD components as well. Tuition is approximately $500 and classes are taught at various locations throughout the United States. The association gave its first certification tests in October, 2002.

Equally important is learning how to handle the psychological stress that comes with the job, as well as dealing with trauma survivors.

Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC)
Based in Vancouver, Wash., the IICRC has been around for three decades. The agency offers certification training in 18 categories, including carpet cleaning, upholstery and fabric cleaning, odor control, fire, smoke and water restoration, and wood flooring inspection, says Ruth Travis, marketing chairman and vice chair of the IICRC Board of Directors.

The organization also is developing a rug cleaning certification and Master and Journeyman designations are available in most of the IICRC’s areas of emphasis.

These courses are aimed primarily at front-line cleaning workers. Beginning courses average $30 with an annual membership fee of $80. Courses are offered throughout the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and more than 21 other countries.

The IICRC doesn’t offer the courses directly, but approves independent instructors to teach the classes. More than 100 instructors offer classes continuously throughout the year, says Travis.

Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI)
BSCAI has been offering certification programs since 1975. The programs include Certified Building Service Executive (CBSE), Registered Building Service Manager (RBSM) and Certified Sanitary Supply Professional (CSSP), says Carol Dean, executive director. And all certification candidates must pledge to adhere to the association’s code of ethics.

The RBSM designation requires a person be in a supervisory role in the industry for at least one year before taking the necessary test. The CBSE certification requires a contractor have a minimum of three years managerial experience in the industry and currently be in a policy-making role prior to taking the test.

Students take the self-study courses and then must pass an exam with a minimum of 70 percent on each of four sections. Course materials are primarily text and video cassettes. Tuition ranges from $175 for members wishing to certify as RBSMs to $350 for the CBSE designation. Fees are higher for nonmembers.

Looking Toward the Future
Bright believes growing emphasis on certification will change the way the cleaning industry works.

“In the past,” he says, “it was just hire a cleaner and get the cheapest price. Once people realize they can get a certified professional it means the expertise of the people in the industry is going to improve. When consumers realize there is a certification available, they’ll start asking for it.”

Jennifer C. Jones is an industry writer based in Salt Lake CIty.