The Ideal Quality Control Inspector

February 26, 2016
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March/April 2016
This online-only article is a supplement to the March/April 2016 print edition of Home Energy Magazine.
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Many years ago I had the privilege of knowing Hector Romulus Demmel, a French Canadian backwoods guide who could do just about everything. He was an extraordinary fisherman, even though he didn’t like eating fish. He could silently paddle a canoe while rolling a cigarette. He could shoot and skin a bear, repair an outboard engine, drop a 100-foot pine tree on a dime, and cook crêpes suzette on a woodstove. He was an extraordinary teacher, using only the few words necessary to get his point across. He never wrote anything down.

It is not unusual for some of the best technicians in the weatherization world to have an aversion to writing, reporting, and paperwork. Like Demmel, they just want to get the job done. In the wonderful world of programs and standards, documentation plays a major role. In terms of programs, codes, and standards, the ideal quality control inspector (QCI) documents everything. And the BPI QCI certification exam is designed to qualify ideal QCIs.

The Exam

The QCI certification exam is not easy. And it shouldn’t be. It is a certification exam for home energy professionals with a great deal of practical experience. It is also not easy to create such an exam, because it is necessary to create both technical and experiential, or soft-skill, questions.

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(©Fotolia/highwaystarz)

Technical questions can be relatively easy to create. They can be factual: How many BTU are there in 1 kWh of electricity? That’s a matter of memorization. Even better technical questions can be used to demonstrate a logical process: How many bags of cellulose are required fill a wall cavity of certain dimensions at a standard density? This sort of question combines information that the candidate has memorized with the kind of logical problem solving that is applicable in the daily life of a home energy contractor.

Experiential, or soft-skill, questions require an understanding and implementation of human interaction skills: What should you do about an employee who arrives at the job late and behaves in an unruly manner? An attorney might answer a question like this with “It depends!” The multiple-choice answer to a question like this, however, requires having just one answer that is correct.

Hard as this might be for both the exam creators and the exam takers, it is necessary to test the QCI’s human interaction skills. The ideal QCI must know how to deal with people in order to verify that work is being done properly. The QCI should be able to enhance the knowledge, skills, and attitude of the crew, and somehow the certification exam must evaluate that ability. Add to this the fact that skilled people often hate paperwork and that the certification is national, and a candidate may reason through a problem differently than the people who created the exam.

A significant number of candidates fail the exam on their first try. It is not unusual for candidates to take three or four runs at it. BPI was asked by DOE to evaluate whether it was the experiential or the technical questions that were causing the problem. Despite the anecdotal evidence that it was the soft-skills questions that were tripping people up, it turned out that candidates were having equal trouble with both. BPI also found that it was common for candidates to miss the mark by only a few questions.

Exam Hints

So here are a few hints that I have discovered in talking to candidates, trainers, and the powers that be at BPI.

  • This is a national exam. Make sure you understand at least the basics of systems that may not be familiar to you in your part of the country, such as air-conditioning systems or oil burners.

  • This exam is seeking to qualify the ideal QCI. Just because you don’t like documenting the things you do doesn’t mean that the ideal QCI wouldn’t. You have to take the exam from the ideal, not necessarily the practical, standpoint.

  • Don’t argue the above point in your head. Once you start thinking, “This question is stupid,” you will go off the rails. Just keep thinking bureaucrat, International Standards Organization (ISO)…“Do what you say and say what you do—and write it down.”

  • The test isn’t trying to get to know you. Don’t answer in terms of what you do at your agency. In an ideal world, what would a QCI do?

  • Learn to parse the questions. Separate out what is truly being asked.
  • Get to know the weatherization program notices and the Standard Work Specifications.

  • Use your scratch paper
    .
  • Check out Social Psychology Network's "Tips on Taking Multiple-Choice Tests."

  • There is a section at the end of the Residential QCI Handbook called “Taking Multiple Choice Tests” that provides further tips.

It is really important for program leaders to encourage candidates to take the QCI exam only if they have the ideal QCI attitude. If they don’t have the right attitude, they can’t pass the test no matter how much they know.

An Industry in Need

The fact is that we still need more qualified QCIs. The numbers have been growing, but not evenly throughout the United States (see Figure 1). If we estimate that at the bare minimum, one certified QCI is needed at each community action agency that delivers weatherization, and just one more at each state weatherization office, there are over a dozen states that still need certified individuals. And that’s assuming everyone who’s passed so far works at an agency or state office conducting weatherization. Unlikely, given that utility and other home energy performance programs have begun showing an interest in the certifications. Anecdotally, one agency reported that it can’t keep a certified QCI on staff, because the local utility program lures these highly qualified individuals away as soon as they’re certified.

learn more

Raymer, Paul H. Residential QCI Handbook. Paul H. Raymer, July 30, 2015.

So what is the ideal QCI attitude? They need to be willing to do the paperwork. Demmel once watched me build a raft out of logs to paddle around on. He didn’t say anything. He just helped me do what I thought I wanted to do. The next time I saw him, he had created a boat for me out of logs with a deck, a sail, a rudder, and a centerboard. He just did it. But if you want to pass this exam, you’re going to have to do the paperwork. Demmel was truly an amazing man, but he was definitely not a bureaucrat!

Paul H. Raymer is the author of the Residential QCI Handbook.

Kelly Cutchin, senior analyst at Simonson Management Services, and Josh Olsen, lead policy advisor for training and technical assistance to DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program, also contributed to this article.

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