Iowa Contractor Creates In-house Apprenticeship Program
Sometimes the best path to employing quality technicians is to train them yourself
In 2008, the state of Iowa passed statewide legislation requiring all HVAC technicians to be licensed. It’s a measure other states have taken, as well, with each state having unique criteria to determine the steps necessary to acquire such a license.
For Chuck Gassmann, president of Bell Brothers Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa, this meant ensuring his technicians were put into apprenticeship training and gaining U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) approval.
Per Bell Brothers, programs in Iowa require four years of training — 144 hours per year in the classroom and 2,000 hours per year on the job. Once completed, an apprentice takes the journeyman test, which, once passed, grants him or her a journeyman’s license in the state of Iowa. After five years, a journeyman can take the masters test. A master is the highest level of achievement.
“Since the law was put in place in 2008, we’ve been sending techs and young people into an association apprenticeship program,” said Gassmann. “The problem is, techs just weren’t being trained the way we really wanted them trained. They weren’t working on the equipment we work on, and we felt we could do a better job in-house.”
With enough apprentices on hand, Gassmann and Bell Brothers started their apprenticeship program in 2015.
Training apprentices on the same equipment they see every day as an employee at Bell Brothers was of the utmost importance to Gassmann, which was why he put the money and effort into creating a training facility.
“I made a substantial investment in a training facility that is second to none,” he said. “We have working equipment in our training facility, and the previous program didn’t have any of that. The equipment they were working on in that program was actually servicing the building they were in. We have real working equipment set up that features current models, including a geothermal heat pump, they can run. This allows us to constantly check on our employees’ progress more thoroughly.”
Steve Terry, a service manager at the company, said the facility’s smart touches make the center and its program outstanding.
“One example is that we have a small boiler system that uses clear tubing so you can see water moving through the boiler, which helps an individual see and learn exactly how the equipment works,” he said.
Bell Brothers’ program offers a relatively small class size of eight to 10 apprentices per level, which allows what Gassmann deems more specialized attention to each apprentice.
This specialized attention has helped make the program particularly effective for many apprentices, including Javon Kemp.
“I’m learning new stuff every single day,” said Kemp. “Coming into my second year, I have learned a lot. It’s been a smooth process. I came in very green, but now I can handle a lot of HVAC tasks in commercial, residential, and even the service department. Technicians are right there in the classroom teaching us.”
Kemp is certain the Bell Brothers’ training facility has helped him become a successful HVAC technician.
“The instructors are engaging and care about your concerns and questions, especially given the classroom’s small learning environment. Plus, we’re learning on top-of-the-line equipment, which is beneficial to us as we continue to learn the industry.”
With the technician shortage being a real concern in Iowa and across the country, Gassmann is readily aware of the benefits a program like this can have for contractors looking to ensure they are hiring qualified technicians rather than just whoever is willing to do the work.
“When we started this program, we announced to our employees that we were doing our own apprenticeship training,” he said. “They all recommended young people to come into program, and now, in year two, we are still doing well. We had 22 apprentices in the first year, and this year we have 21.”
As with any relatively new program, there are lessons to be learned and adjustments to be made over time. Bell Brothers’ program has made a few changes since its inception last year.
“At the end of year one, we did a survey of all apprentices,” said Gassmann. “The NCCER [founded as the National Center for Construction Education and Research] curriculum we use takes a blended approach that utilizes classroom hours, online training, and lab work.
“In regards to the online training part of it, not everyone has access to computers, so they can use classroom time for online training, if needed. Originally, we had four computers for the training department but added four more based on the apprentice’s feedback.”
Kevin Kutz, director of training and assistant service manager, said the company actually has students go through more classroom hours than the DOL requires.
“We need to fulfill that part of the agreement through the DOL,” he said. “We could have pared it down to 144 hours from the 156 hours we call for, but we made a decision to complete the entire NCCER curriculum. There was also a program we looked into that was completely online, but we opted against it because we wanted our hands on the education part more than the online education offered.”
Kutz mentioned that feedback thus far has been positive, with most of the apprentices especially enjoying the hands-on learning aspect.
A SPECIAL VISIT
Gassmann’s belief in the vitality of his company’s program was recently reaffirmed when Iowa’s Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds spent an afternoon at the training facility to learn more about the program and the HVAC industry at large.
“Having the lieutenant governor come by was important. She asked tons of questions and generally loved what we were doing,” said Gassmann. “I think what most educators need to understand is that not every student is a four-year, college-bound student. HVAC offers a great career. Here, they can come to work and go to school at the same time with no debt and still make pretty darn good money. The governor knows if the state doesn’t have infrastructure to grow the community, then no businesses will come in. That’s why the lieutenant governor visited and looked at our success.”
After the visit from Reynolds and after having other local HVAC companies ask if they can enroll their employees with the program, Bell Brothers’ apprenticeship program is certainly looking to continue its forward momentum and achieve even greater success in the coming years.
For more information, visit www.bellbrothers.com.
Publication date: 11/28/2016