The 'Catch 22' in training in our industry

BY MIKE BERGEN SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR (Editor's note: The author of the following article contacted CONTRACTOR after reading the letter, "Some technical schools cheat our industry," by Miguel Barretto of Mike's Refrigeration on pg. 35 of the April issue.) THE PROBLEM OF recruiting and training people to work on equipment that is getting more sophisticated has got to be the greatest challenge facing

BY MIKE BERGEN
SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR

(Editor's note: The author of the following article contacted CONTRACTOR after reading the letter, "Some technical schools cheat our industry," by Miguel Barretto of Mike's Refrigeration on pg. 35 of the April issue.)

THE PROBLEM OF recruiting and training people to work on equipment that is getting more sophisticated has got to be the greatest challenge facing the industry.

The job of training falls mainly on secondary schools — vo-techs and community colleges.

These programs are meant to produce entry-level people with good, solid, basic skills. But isn't the expectation of most employers and students is that the person graduates from one of these programs on a Friday and gets the keys to the service van on the following Monday?

Let's assume that the goals of a vo-tech and community college HVAC program are essentially the same. (Am I already in trouble?) Can most people agree that basic, entry-level skill means that the new employees can deal safely with line voltage and high-pressure refrigerant?

We hope they arrive with their EPA certification to recover, evacuate and charge a system along with the skill to connect all the pipe and wires. Can we also hope they can properly start up the equipment? Most programs would say that graduating students should be able to do this and also trouble-shoot and repair the system. Right? Well this is where I see the problem.

Most people in this industry begin with installation. Very few have all the skills required to also perform unassisted service and trouble-shooting, much less have training in blueprint reading or ductwork sizing. Perhaps the curricula should be expanded.

An ocean runs deep
Expanding these program goals, however, might add to what may be the main problem of most HVAC training programs. We already take people with no prior experience and try to teach them too much in too little time. We have the opposite problem of the regular schools that are being criticized for teaching and expecting too little.

Wouldn't you agree that troubleshooting skills are the higher-level Master's coursework? In an attempt to reach this high-level skill, we are speeding past the basic installation material — the same material that entry-level people need the most even if they are moving toward a career of troubleshooting expertise.

We will eventually need to under-stand an ocean of information and knowledge to do a first-class job. If the curricula demand we visit that entire ocean, I am afraid we can only look about a half-inch deep. It would be a better, more enlightening voyage if we could look deeper into more focused areas.

All students must master the basic installation and start-up skills to experience how systems look, act and smell when they are operating properly. Possessing good installation skills really sets the stage for those who want to transition to service techs. Many of us don't have the patience to be a good service tech. In fact, the best installers usually are impatient.

Airflow and ductwork, where good blueprint reading skills are needed, are other areas that get passed up in an attempt to get to the higher-level service skills too quickly. A couple of years ago I heard Phil Rains, a top International Comfort Products trainer, remark, "Half the service calls are caused by low airflow, which give you a mechanical symptom, to which the tech tries to apply an electrical solution." In fact, improper installation, even if the design was correct, is the main reason for most service calls, according to another local factory technical support person who is asked to inspect a lot of "equipment problems."

As the industry moves forward with newly designed, more efficient equipment, perhaps we need to re-engineer our training programs as well. The first step might be to ask yourself if you agree that the basic installation skills need to be mastered before a student is allowed to continue in a program. If you see installation as the foundation, then blueprint reading, duct design and installation needs to be taught in a meaningful way along with the equipment, electrical and pipe skills. With limited time that means curricula choices with reasonable goals need to be identified. As a friend's dad once observed to his son, "You can have anything you want; but you can't have everything you want."

Get involved
Becoming involved with your local HVAC training programs could really make a difference. When you do so, try not to expand the existing program by piling on all the "nice-to-know" information that you would like a journeyman technician to possess. Rather, drill down into the "must-know" information that entry-level employees need to master so that they are prepared to contribute on their first day. The nice-to-know material is the enrichment material for the fast movers; accept the fact that they should be prepared to learn on the job.

As journeymen yourselves once, your real-life experience could keep these programs challenging and relevant. Can you still remember what it was like to be an 18- to 20-something, just getting into the business? You didn't really find out that other stuff until later, and you weren't really that good or fast when you first began either. Or were you?

Don't forget, these programs give us people with entry-level skills. We need a meaningful apprenticeship to continue the job that will be turned into a lifetime of learning and experience. By separating the installation, service and design material, it may also mean that community colleges need to offer 60 credit hours of information with greater depth and detail. Secondary vo-techs may need to make some content choices as well.

Get involved. You are not allowed to complain if you are not willing to contribute.

Mike Bergen is president of Air Handling Services in Philadelphia. He can be contacted at [email protected]