How to Set Up a Cost-Effective Company Training Program: Part II

July 1, 2004

How much does it cost for a construction company to launch a training program? Typically, estimates the National Center for Construction and Research’s (NCCER) Scott Fisher, it would cost less than $3,000 to get going. Here are the key steps Fisher recommends to get started:

  1. A management-level person in the company needs to be appointed as training manager. He or she must be charged with the responsibility for developing the company’s training program—and be given the backing and resources to get the job done.
  2. Next, the construction company should contact NCCER in Gainesville, FL (call 888/622-3720 or visit
  3. A staffer at NCCER will then advise the construction company to contact an existing NCCER sponsor in its region. This may be a local trade-association chapter, such as the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) or the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), or a good-sized construction company offering NCCER-approved courses in-house.
  4. If a construction company desires to offer NCCER-approved courses in-house, NCCER staff will gladly provide guidance—without charge. It is wiser for a company new to formal training, Fisher suggests, to work with an existing NCCER sponsor first, thereby providing an opportunity to observe how to run an NCCER-based course.
  5. To become an NCCER sponsor, a contractor must sign an agreement with NCCER promising to use NCCER-certified craft instructors and NCCER textbooks, tests, and other training materials—and agreeing to periodic NCCER audits. The only fee is $1,200 for the one-time application. There is no formal membership or annual dues, as NCCER is funded by textbook sales and corporate contributions. A contractor can call on NCCER staff anytime for free training advice and consultation.
  6. The next step is to select a highly experienced person and send him or her to NCCER headquarters to become an NCCER-certified master trainer. Such involves a five-day course and costs $429—not including travel expenses, hotel, and food. NCCER offers this course six times a year.
  7. Once NCCER-certified, master trainers are authorized to train appropriate journeymen to become NCCER-certified craft instructors. They do such by conducting a three-day train-the-trainer course. Textbooks are available through Prentice Hall. Upon successful course completion, journeymen officially become NCCER-certified craft instructors, an honor that is officially recorded on their transcripts in the NCCER National Registry.
  8. Having a master trainer and NCCER-certified craft instructors positions construction firms to offer various craft courses in-house.
  9. The next step is to carefully study the list of more than 35 NCCER craft curricula available. NCCER has broken down each of these craft areas into three or four levels. Each level is then broken down into course modules. For each level, there is a training textbook, and each book chapter comprises a course module.
    The training staff of a construction firm can view this complete listing of craft areas on the NCCER Web site ( In planning a company training program, trainers should first carefully study NCCER’s online Contren Catalog. For each of the 35 construction crafts, this catalog lists the major levels of training: level 1, level 2, level 3, and so on. Under each level the course modules are listed. Each module has a title and a brief paragraph describing its content. See the catalog at (
  10. A construction firm launching a training program—or upgrading an existing one—should take full advantage of NCCER’s free consulting services.Consultants will advise a firm on NCCER craft assessment tests, training courses, modules, and other materials relevant to its training needs.
  11. Any construction company or individual is free to buy from Prentice Hall any NCCER course textbooks or modules. Industry experts maintain that NCCER textbooks are excellent, embodying the best expertise on any given craft specialty available anywhere. These textbooks are the heart of NCCER courses. Textbooks cost between $35 and $85 each; modules cost $12 to $15 each. In most cases, the construction company offering the training pays for these materials—not the employee-student.           
  12. Enterprising construction workers eager to enhance their craft knowledge and skills are encouraged to buy relevant textbooks and study them on their own. But to get credit for a course through NCCER’s National Registry, a worker must take the course from an NCCER-certified craft instructor or take both written and practice tests from an NCCER sponsor.
  13. Once a worker has completed a course module—through an NCCER course taken either in his company, at a local trade association, or through a community college—the scores for both written and performance tests are sent to NCCER’s National Registry. The student then receives an official transcript and a wallet card indicating modules completed and dates passed.

The Starting Point for Effective Training: Assessment Testing

The first step in setting up an effective training program, NCCER staffer Danielle Dixon believes, is to assess the skill level of the construction company’s workers—both apprentices and journeymen. Before a company can train, it needs to know its training needs. Those, of course, depend on what the existing knowledge and skill levels of individual workers are—and what they need to be for workers to perform their assigned tasks safely, efficiently, and with high quality. A company needs to discover what its workers’ strengths and weaknesses are and then create individualized training programs that will enhance each worker’s knowledge and skills in his weak areas.

Most of NCCER’s craft-skill assessment tests are for evaluating journeymen—not novices—in particular craft areas, such as carpentry, plumbing, and electrical. But NCCER also has a core assessment test for assessing the knowledge and skills of job applicants, apprentices, and other newcomers to the construction field.

The first thing a construction company should do in setting up a training program, Dixon believes, is give this core assessment test to job applicants and relative newcomers in the company.

As mentioned, NCCER has assessment tests for a wide range of construction crafts. Their purpose is not to expose or embarrass a worker but to determine his strengths and weaknesses. Both NCCER and AGC offer free assistance to contractors in doing assessments.

If a journeyman does not pass an assessment test, explains NCCER’s Fisher, he will not be told that he has failed. Rather, he will be given a training prescription to fill in the gaps in his knowledge and skills. The company trainer will recommend a very specific prescription for the journeyman, urging him to take certain course modules from various NCCER courses.

If a worker scores poorly in carpentry, for instance, the company should offer him a prescription to fix that weakness. A prescription could be an entire craft course—or a set of selected modules from that and other courses.

These NCCER assessment tests, Fisher explains, help a construction company pinpoint its training needs. They help a contractor first identify the knowledge and skill deficiencies in his workforce and then intelligently plan a training program that focuses on workers’ deficiencies.

Yet won’t an experienced journeyman be insulted if asked to take an assessment test in his craft specialty? No, insists Fisher, for he will receive either a credential; a notice saying he has passed the test, the results becoming a part of his NCCER National Registry transcript; or a prescription, which will help him strengthen his skills where they need it.

Further, there are many ways a training manager could have a journeyman deal with his assessment deficiencies. He could suggest the worker take a formal NCCER course from the company or a local trade association. Or the trainer might say to the journeyman, “OK, you are weak in these areas. Here are the relevant textbook and modules. Study them at home and then come back and take the assessment test again.”

Yet Fisher does not agree that assessment testing of journeymen should always be the first step in a company training program. A company, he explains, might already have a good handle on its most-pressing training needs. For instance, it might realize quite well—without assessment testing—that many of its workers could benefit greatly from a course module on pipe bending. Accordingly, the company should press ahead without delay on that.

The Future

How extensively used are NCCER courses in the US construction industry? NCCER has been selling course textbooks and modules since the mid-1990s. And currently there are more than 1.5 million entries in NCCER’s National Registry (there may be several entries for a single person).

Yet the consensus is that training in the construction industry is still in its infancy and that many construction companies are totally unaware of NCCER’s existence or of the wide spectrum of excellent training materials it has available at low cost.

Looking down the road several years, NCCER’s Fisher makes this prediction: “Operating only since 1995, NCCER so far has only barely scratched the surface concerning training in the construction industry. There are still thousands of construction companies that have not as yet begun to tap the great NCCER training resources. Use of NCCER courses should soar in the years ahead as word continues to spread about the training courses available. NCCER is a snowball rolling downhill.”

Behind the Founding of NCCER

Back in the early 1990s, the leadership of the US construction industry was grappling with a number of major problems, including a dearth of well-trained construction workers, a need to improve quality in construction, and a need to increase construction productivity.

Leading construction companies realized that a key to solving these problems was to develop effective construction-craft training programs. Although many large construction companies had training programs, each was going its own way without any industrywide coordination.

Dan Bennet was then executive vice president of ABC (Washington, DC) and subsequently was to play a leading role in the creation of NCCER. He and construction-industry colleagues were concerned that every organization involved in training craftworkers—vocational high schools, community colleges, technical institutes, trade associations, unions, construction companies—had a different curriculum for training carpenters, training plumbers, training heavy-equipment operators, and so on.

Major construction companies were spending millions of dollars to develop in-house craft training courses. Increasingly, training managers began to think, Why keep reinventing the wheel? Why continue spending millions to develop new in-house courses? Why not pool resources among major construction companies to create the highest-quality courses possible, with excellent textbooks and standardized exams? Why not standardize craft training courses so a carpenter or a heavy-equipment operator trained in Maine receives the same instruction as one trained in California? Why not also have a way to record the training that workers have taken via a National Registry, which could provide workers with an updated academic transcript on demand? Employers could then be more sure of what training a job-seeking construction worker had received. Nationally designed and recognized craft courses would also bring greater structure and quality to the careers of construction workers, enhancing the prestige of the field and attracting more able people to it.

“In creating [NCCER],” Bennet recalls, “a main aim was to standardize the construction-industry curricula for training various craftworkers and to make such training portable by creating a National Registry. Now, for instance, a carpenter applying for a job can show the prospective employer a copy of his course-training transcript from NCCER’s computerized National Registry. We also created a train-the-trainer program so all instructors would be carrying out the training in the same way.”

ABC began developing such standardized curricula for many construction craft specialties back in 1991. As the program grew, ABC had to spin it off as an independent association—if other construction-industry trade associations (which compete with one another and would not participate if ABC continued to be the sponsor) were to come onboard.

Accordingly, in 1996, NCCER was born and moved from Washington, DC, to the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. It now has a staff of 30 people. Crucially important was the strong financial and leadership backing of several major open-shop construction companies, including Fluor Daniel; BE&K; TIC; Zachry; Kellogg, Brown & Root; Austin Industrial; Becon; and Sundt Corporation.

Currently 20 construction-industry trade associations contribute financial support to NCCER and sponsor its courses. NCCER revenue comes from royalties from textbook sales, corporate and trade-association contributions, and an endowment fund. There is no membership and no dues.

NCCER is eager to provide its training consulting services—at no charge—to any construction company (large or small) striving to establish a training program or improve an existing one.

How Successful Has NCCER Been?

To date, NCCER has created more than 200,000 training-textbook pages covering in excess of 35 crafts. The National Registry has more than 1.8 million entries, signifying either modules or courses completed by construction-industry workers. Further, greater than 27,000 trainers have graduated from the train-the-trainer program.

Today, according to Marketing Manager Rachel Smith, NCCER is by far the main source of construction-craft training textbooks and other training materials. Of course, it is not the only game in town. Numerous construction unions, for instance, have their own union training programs. Yet not a few unions make use of NCCER training curricula and textbooks; they are there for anyone to use.

How well-trained are workers in the US construction industry today? Answers Bennet, “Currently we are 10% of the way to our training goal. And I am hopeful that in the future the National Center training programs will continue to grow.” Bennet guesstimates that currently only 10% of construction companies have training programs.

Free NCCER Consulting Services and Construction Craft Courses

By far the biggest cost in developing a training program is the time, effort, and money that go into developing a craft curriculum. According to Bennet, it takes NCCER two years and at least $250,000 to develop the textbooks and other training materials for a four-year craft curriculum. In developing a course, NCCER assembles an NCCER staff person, a group of subject-matter experts, and a professional curriculum writer.

For a contractor interested in developing an in-house training program, Bennet observes, NCCER has already lifted the biggest cost off its shoulders: the cost of developing textbooks and other training materials. A construction company launching a training program should draw abundantly from NCCER course materials. There is no charge for using these excellent resources—only the cost of buying textbooks ($55 each) and modules ($12 each).

The only things a company has to pay for are sending selected journeymen to NCCER headquarters to become certified master trainers and the textbooks and/or modules to be used by their students in any given course. Typically a construction firm will buy one textbook per student, who usually keeps it at the end of the course for continuing study.

How can NCCER provide all these excellent training materials and consulting advice virtually free? It receives contributions from large contractors and major construction-industry trade associations, such as AGC and ABC. NCCER also receives royalties from Prentice Hall on sales of course textbooks and gets income from an endowment fund.

How to Contact an NCCER Sponsor

The first step for a construction company starting a training program, advises Smith, is to contact either NCCER or an NCCER sponsor (of which there are more than 400 in the United States). These are listed on the NCCER Web site ( and are broken down by state.

If a construction firm already belongs to a construction-industry trade association, it should contact that association and inquire about its training programs, including NCCER-based courses.

Advises Smith, “Don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t start creating training courses from scratch. NCCER would be willing to visit your firm and make training recommendations. Take advantage of the many NCCER training materials.”