Behind the scenes in an asphalt lab – NBTC

The National Binder Technician Certification (NBTC) program
A conversation with Asphalt Institute Technical Training Coordinator Mike Beavin 

By John Davis 

Q: What is the National Binder Technician Certification (NBTC) program all about? 

A: Officially, the NBTC program is designed to “…address a recognized national need to reduce variability in PG testing. The program provides a consistent means of ensuring that asphalt binder technicians are knowledgeable and fully qualified to produce valid specification compliance and quality assurance data. This will be accomplished by quantifying the proficiency of binder technicians in concept and practice.” Translation: Users and producers were getting frustrated when they compared interlaboratory test results and were seeking a way to correct the problem. After nearly two decades of the PG system, testing variability wasn’t improving at an acceptable rate so we were approached by our membership a decade ago to help with a solution. The upshot of these discussions was that we needed a consistent, quantifiable way to assure binder technicians were “on the same page.” The NBTC was the end result.

Q: Why is it important? 

A: Certification is important because a certified technician has demonstrated an understanding of the concept and reasonable outcome of each test and is able to determine good data from bad. An uncertified technician can generate a test report but is less likely to recognize or prevent poor quality results. I know from my experience as a new technician way back when cell phones were the size of a brick that I used to consider it “mission accomplished” when the printer did its job and produced a test report. Being certified, to me, implies that you actually pick up that report, evaluate the data and present it with the confidence that comes from a level of expertise.

Q: When did the NBTC program start? 

A: In 1992 the industry addressed quality control. They decreed that “Technicians that perform testing shall be qualified.” Well, from an international perspective, the word “qualified” meant “certified.” And that meant that technicians not only must be trained, but must be fully qualified or “certified.” The discussions started in 1992 and, in fact, the NorthEast Transportation Technician Certification Program (NETTCP) was one of the first programs developed to address this when they were formed in 1994. The NBTC took that message nationwide in 2008.

Q: Have you seen a change in the quality of asphalt technicians since the program began? 

A: Yes! I’m proud to say there’s been a positive change. Since NBTC began nine years ago, there has been a marked increase in the understanding of the concepts behind the tests. This is the only way I can explain the dramatic increase in the rate of technicians passing the NBTC exams.

Q: What made the difference? 

A: The first NBTC candidates may have not been aware that binder certification was much more than a rubber-stamp course. Many of the students in the first several classes failed the exams. The “pass” percentage in the “pass/fail” column was about 40 percent. To say I was concerned is an understatement.

When students realized that the NBTC, no joke, expected a certain level of knowledge and that many were failing, they began to study the review manual— MS-25—before they took the course. Eight years later, the “pass” percentage is about 80 percent. It has more than doubled since the beginning of the course. This is nothing but good news.

Q: What ingredients is the current NBTC composed of? 

A: The course is composed of one and one-half days of lecture, followed by an appointment with a lab evaluator. There is a written test and hands-on lab tests. The lecture provides a comprehensive review for the written exam. The lab exam confirms the technician’s ability to properly conduct the lab tests.

Q: What tools do they use to pass the NBTC exams? 

A: MS-25 is the review manual. It is a practical, hands-on book. It covers both concepts and procedures in detail. Also, some technicians choose to attend the AI Basic Binder Technician (BBT) training course prior to attempting certification. While not a requirement, the BBT has been shown to be an excellent way to reinforce concepts and skills before sitting for the exams.

Q: Who can be certified? 

A: Technicians that have done PG testing for at least six months or have spent 30 days of training under an NBTC or NETTCP technician will qualify to take the NBTC course.

Q: What is the difference between binder training and certification? 

A: There is a big difference between training and certification. Our training provides information about asphalt binder and we teach the student how to perform the tests. There is no expectation that the student has any level of proficiency prior to the training. With certification, the student reviews concepts and should arrive with a minimum level of proficiency in order to pass the exams.

Q: What difference do you see in the technicians that are certified? 

A: I see a general sense of pride and confidence in the individuals that achieve certification. Because they have demonstrated their competence, there seems to be an elevated respect in what they do.

Q: What’s the difference between NBTC and NETTCP? 

A: The PG binder certification is identical. They are reciprocal. The NETTCP, however, provides certifications in many other materials, such as soils, concrete, etc.

Q: What’s the difference between AASHTO re:source (formerly AMRL) accreditation and NBTC? 

A: AASHTO re:source accreditation certifies the lab and assures that all parts of the lab, from technicians to equipment to records are working together to produce quality, traceable data. They do not certify individuals, however. NBTC certifies the individual.

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