Inside a Kansas City, Mo., classroom, training coordinator Frank Murray watches his 10 students take apart four tankless water heaters resting on worktables.
At the head of the class, a white video screen projects the images of two technical trainers working on the same A. O. Smith tankless water heater on a workbench. The camera moves from close up shots of the unit’s components and sensors back to a wide shot where both trainers can be seen and heard explaining the inner workings of an on-demand water heater.
A student in Murray’s classroom then asks a question. In real time, one of the trainers on the video screen answers the question, and the lesson continues with best practices for maintaining tankless water heaters.
The training is live, broadcast from a “digital classroom” studio near Nashville, Tenn.
For more than a year, A. O. Smith, the largest water heater manufacturer in the world, has been webcasting live and recorded training classes for plumbing contractors as part of the company’s new training initiative called A. O. Smith University.
The University is a one-of-a-kind training in the water heater industry, and it was the first time Murray, a training coordinator with the Kansas City-based Local 8 Plumbers and Gasfitters, had ever participated in a live-online video training, but it definitely won’t be the last.
“The training made sense right away,” Murray said. “It’s very well put together and well-thought-out. The trainers, who were fed in through the Internet, were directing our guys who were tearing apart a unit.”
In its first full year of operation, A. O. Smith University saw nearly 42,000 plumbing contractors and their employees take online classes or certification tests—more than 10 times the number the manufacturer normally trains in traditional classroom settings.
“Three years ago, we started using live streaming video to train contractors, installers and service technicians,” said Henry James, technical training manager at the company. “The industry has been very quick to adopt this new technology, and the growth has been huge.”
Plumbers, installers and service technicians can view live or recorded classes on a PC, tablet, or a smartphone, and they can watch a short training video anytime—anywhere.
“We typically broadcast a live class at University.Hotwater.com several times each week,” said Jerry Winslett, a senior technical instructor who taught in traditional classrooms for 10 years before stepping in front of the cameras inside the specially designed contractor-training studio in Ashland City, Tennessee.
“We have basic classes for residential installers and advanced classes covering tankless, commercial water heaters and boilers,” Winslett said. “We record the live classes so that technicians can watch them whenever they want. Today, there are more than 100 pre-recorded technical training classes on A. O. Smith University and we add a video class about every week.”
Electronics for Plumbers
A. O. Smith’s online training began as a project to teach plumbers more about electronics. Every water heater made today uses an electronic control system of some type. But historically, plumbers often didn’t get much exposure to electronics through traditional trade school curriculum.
“Water heating technology has undergone enormous change in the past decade,” James said. “Many of these changes involve electronic control systems, and for this reason, much of our course material focuses on electronics and control system troubleshooting. That’s where technicians need the most training.”
Time is Money
“The key to running a profitable service company is being able to quickly identify the problem,” said Jason Leonard, a technical instructor with A. O. Smith. “Often the problem can be determined in just a few minutes with the right tools and the right training. Accuracy is important, too. If you have proper training, you can fix it quickly and accurately—you won’t get a call back.”
Providing plumbing contractors with the comprehensive training they need to be successful has a significant cost. The company estimates the cost of sending a single service technician to an off-site training class to be as much as $1,500 — a large expense for many plumbing contractor businesses.
“The training class is free, but there are costs associated with salary and travel for an employee to attend the class,” James said. “Given how much training plumbing contractors need, there had to be a better way. So over the past three years, we completely changed the way we train plumbing contractors.”
Internet Video Classes
A. O. Smith University started building its first “digital classroom” three years ago. Heather Walker was in charge of the online learning project.
“We’ve designed our online broadcast experience to be as close an approximation to a traditional classroom as possible,” Walker said. “Our instructors can present a PowerPoint and online materials, as well as demonstrate troubleshooting techniques on working units from a variety of vantage points. Our online system is easy to use, and no registration is required.”
Hands-On, Online Training
The heavy dose of hands-on training captured in the University training videos has even influenced the manufacturer’s traditional classroom curriculum, too. Since launching online training, A. O. Smith has converted most of its classroom training to hands-on instruction in a working lab, dropping traditional classroom lectures.
“Though it’s always available by request, we’re doing a lot less instructor-led classroom training,” said Kevin Binkley, a commercial technical instructor. “If you were to come to one of our on-site training classes today, it’s now 100 percent hands-on with live equipment. By focusing on hands-on training with live equipment in our fully functional wet labs, we can give a service technician about a year’s worth of troubleshooting and repair experience in two days.”
Live from A. O. Smith University…
“We provide live streaming video training on request from plumbing contractors,” James said. “The live training is typically 30 minutes to an hour and is tailored to cover the products and subjects the customer needs training on.”
According to James, as many as 300 locations have tuned in simultaneously to watch live video training.
“Last year alone, we trained more than 11,000 contractor employees using live streaming video training,” James said.
Murray, the training coordinator with the Kansas City plumbers, sees the potential for his students and apprentices.
“We’re building a new 5,000 square-foot training facility equipped with Internet-enabled cameras and live work stations to better facilitate the kind of training A. O. Smith is offering,” Murray said. “So, yes, we’re definitely going to be doing video training in future.”