ACCA's National Capital Chapter shares its answer to shortage of qualified techs

September 11, 2000
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Members of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America National Capital Chapter (ACCA-NCC) in Maryland worked out a solution to the labor crisis 11 years ago, by sponsoring an apprenticeship program.

This may not work everywhere — it took a great deal of planning and long-term commitment among the members (see sidebar article) — but the example NCC members have set for the industry could start the ball rolling in other chapters.

College Liaison

Warren B. Lupson, president of Beltway Heating and A/C Co., Inc., Beltsville, Md., is the long-time chairman of the NCC apprenticeship committee. Meetings with the committee and staff of Montgomery County Community College require his time and attention.

The program is well thought-out. Instructors, some of whom are contractors, are “not allowed to hire any apprentice for at least one year after [the instructor] stops teaching for us. So we’re not losing students to an instructor.”

Lupson has access to attendance information and grades. He also teaches, filling in when another qualified instructor cannot be found.

Some issues between the college and his committee usually have to be negotiated. One, for example, is money. “We can’t live with their budget constraints,” Lupson said.

Budget problems at one time would have prevented the college from meeting some chapter priorities. And this was unacceptable to the chapter, which feels that training is vital, especially with the labor shortages facing the industry.

To resolve the problem, NCC stepped in and contributed from its treasury to make up the budget shortfall. The chapter also allows instructors to borrow tapes from its extensive video library at no charge.

“Every year the chapter gives each instructor a notebook listing responsibilities of apprentices, employers, and the association,” said Lupson. “Included is a list of NCC tapes and other resources instructors may use.”

Student now runs a company

Brian Schindel is president of Glenmont A/C & Heating, Inc., Rockville. He sees the program from the inside out, having received his training through an earlier NCC program.

“The company I worked for sponsored me,” he said. “Then I started my own company and finished on my own.

“It’s tough to do, but you get out of it what you put into it. If there’s something you want to do as a trade, it’s worthwhile to learn all you can.

“I had to put everything else on hold,” he continued. “I used to play baseball; I had to give that up. But it’s worth it.”

After 15 years in business, he still finds every day a challenge. With 10 employees and eight trucks on the road, Glenmont is busy with new construction, additions, and service.

“We have three apprentices now, plus a recent graduate, Keith Johnson, who has become an asset to the company.”

To help apprentices succeed, Schindel places them with seasoned mechanics.

“We try to answer their questions and let them off at a reasonable hour, depending on what jobs we have going on,” he said. “They run into a piece of equipment they’ve never seen, they bring it in, and we take a look. You never know when you’ll see that equipment again.”

It's not cheap

Jim Hardin, president of Seasonair, Inc., Rockville, has had as many as 13 employees (out of 80) in the program at one time.

“I’ve been spending thousands of dollars a year on it, and I still support it,” he said. “You have to train and educate to get the quality that we expect from our people.”

But, as many successful people know, it takes money to make money. “Four of our senior technicians have been through the program; they generate thousands of dollars of revenue a year for the company.”

Bringing people out of high school into a full-time position, and having them attend school at night, can produce highly qualified technicians.

“One of our best techs was a parts runner when I put him into the program five years ago. He had a good attitude and wanted to learn,” Hardin said. “The service manager took this young man under his wing, and now he’s one of our top performers.

“The program works for us another way,” he added. “We have the son of one of our techs in the program now, and expect the younger son to graduate from high school and enter the program, too. It’s like we have our own farm team.”

Painless training?

Joe Turner, a sales engineer with Seasonair, is also a former contractor who sold his business to Seasonair. He calls its participation in the NCC-Montgomery County Community College program a “painless way” to educate apprentices.

“A lot of companies do in-house training; this is so much easier.”

Turner also is a member of the apprenticeship committee and is now in his first year as an instructor. “I’ve probably learned more than the students; it’s challenging and rewarding.”

One challenge: Students represent different segments of the industry. Some in the class are doing installations; others, service. Turner must structure the class so that more-experienced students aren’t bored, and less-experienced students are able to keep up.

Rewards include hearing students’ questions and seeing the light finally come on, showing that they understand.

“We study something and maybe someone will come to class the next night saying, ‘We saw one, and it worked just like you said.’ Or they come back with more questions about a control or something else we went over. They’ve reached a new level of understanding.”

Turner teaches advanced refrigeration. He’s had years of experience in the field; now it’s just a matter of conveying his knowledge to the students. Like him, they’ve had a full day of work before coming to class.

To maintain interest, he mixes a potentially boring topic, like sizing refrigerant piping, with a more interesting one, like taking pressure and temperature readings.

“We do problems on the board, too,” Turner said. “I give students vital signs of a system, pressures and temps taken at different points. Then I ask, ‘What’s wrong with this?’ They have fun working problems like that. We do that after the break.

“This is a painless way for employers to nurture well-trained technicians.”

Finishing School for technicians

Keith Johnson, a senior service technician with Glenmont AC & Heating, finished the apprenticeship program in April. When he started at Glenmont the company required program participation, even for experienced technicians.

Johnson knows hvacr theory is important. “You’ve got to know what’s going on. Without theory, you can’t really tell for sure.”

As a recent high school graduate, Johnson said he adjusted easily to once again hitting the books. Others in his class, who had been out of school for 10 years or so, found it tough.

Even on the job, Johnson occasionally refers to his notes from class.

It feels good, Johnson says, to put in a piece of equipment and know that he’s done the job to the best of his ability. “I take a lot of pride in my work. I want to make sure customers are getting their money’s worth.

“I like service work; it’s a challenge. I like to use my mind to solve problems. That’s something I’ve always done well.”

The program covers communication skills, customer relations, and even grammar. Students who are shy about approaching strangers benefit most.

Johnson said he has won customers’ respect. Some write to say they appreciate his service. Others say that if they buy a service contract, they want him to do the service. “It’s a real good feeling, knowing I’ve impressed someone that much.”

Call her Ms. Tech

Armed with a degree in Russian linguistics from the University of Maryland (UM) and a stint of military service behind her, Shanna Leeland made a decision that might surprise some people.

Challenging positions for Russian linguists are not easy to find, and Leeland always had a mechanical bent. When job opportunities failed to pique her interest, Leeland enrolled in the NCC program while a senior at UM.

While her parents had never discouraged her from doing anything, her dad, John Leeland, an hvac contractor, didn’t want her to become involved in the family business. “He didn’t want me to be pigeon-holed,” Leeland said. However, she currently is a service technician with W.E. Welch & Associates, Rockville.

Discrimination is one of the things she’s learned to cope with. While on a jobsite, she called a certain equipment manufacturer’s service representative for a compressor and gave him the wrong item number, citing a V instead of a U.

“He told me to put the service tech on the phone,” she said. “I had to tell him I was the service tech.

“Most people are surprised to open the door and see that a woman has come to fix their equipment. They tend to watch everything I do.”

Like many technicians, customers often tell her how the last repair person diagnosed the problem. When the story doesn’t hold up, she tells them, “That’s hogwash.”

When she’s project manager on a job, some construction superintendents give her a hard time. Maybe they just don’t know how to handle a skilled woman with her own hard hat.

Citing the good pay available in this industry, Leeland says, “After two years I’m making $40,000/year. That’s not because my boss is my father. He started me at $7/hour.”

She felt she was running circles around some other technicians. She threatened twice to leave before he finally starting paying her more money. She laid it on the line: “‘Dad, I’ve got bills, school loans, and a mortgage.’ Poor Dad; he finally had to take responsibility for raising an assertive daughter.”

Leeland studied hard and became one of the first participants who qualified to skip the first year of the program; she chose to join the class for the second semester of that year. When she ran into problems on the job, she’d call her dad. “I found out he knows just about everything.”

Someday a member state of the former Soviet Union may need an energy-management consultant. With her proficiency in Russian and solid hvac experience, Leeland should be a top candidate.

Meanwhile, she’s happy to be an hvac technician. She’s worked hard to get there, and continues to work.

Sidebar: How this chapter got the ball rolling

The apprenticeship program sponsored by ACCA’s National Capital Chapter was chartered by the State of Maryland 11 years ago. Getting it organized and keeping it going requires major commitments from members and chapter executive Patricia Lupson.

Establishing the program and curriculum involved meeting 31 pages of state standards. Decisions involving curriculum, textbooks, instructors, and other issues had to be made. The process required more than a year and many meetings.

For the chapter, an apprenticeship committee oversees the program, reviewing and modifying curricula, for example. Instructors are hired by Montgomery County Community College.

What makes this program unique is that it is registered with the State of Maryland Apprenticeship and Training Council, as well as with the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training.

Since the program is registered, it is recognized everywhere in the United States. Participating this year are 104 apprentices. Almost all must be employees of ACCA-NCC members. “In the first year we will take someone off the street,” says Lupson. “That is mandated by the state. However, by the second year, participants must be employed by member contractors.”

To facilitate full employment, Lupson offers candidates an introductory letter and a list of contractors who will interview them.

“One, now a third-year apprentice, actually arrived from a homeless shelter,” Lupson said. “He took a tram, then a bus from downtown D.C., and walked to the college his whole first year. He finally got a job and is a real success story.”

Apprentices go to class two nights a week, eight months a year for four years. The employer provides on-the-job training.

The payoff for members is a few hundred technicians in training and a few hundred more journeymen already getting the job done in their companies. The program pays off for the chapter by helping it attract and retain members.

This isn’t something that any association can decide on today and put into action tomorrow, Lupson said. Once established, the program will continue to require attention, time, and commitment from chapter members to keep it going smoothly.

On the other hand, any chapter can tailor its own version of the technical training program. And members can reap the benefits quickly.

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