South / Regional Reports

Alabama Power Leads The Way In Hvac Training

January 12, 2002
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VERBENA, AL — Tucked away in central Alabama is an inconspicuous facility, which is overshadowed by the mammoth Mitchell Dam Hydroelectric Plant next to it. The Hvac Training Center, owned and operated by Alabama Power, has been thriving in this picturesque setting for 15 years.

The training center has been an integral part of Alabama Power’s strategy to deliver high-quality continuing education and training to hvacr contractors, distributors, manufacturers, and their employees. Over 15,000 students have passed through the center’s doors since its inception.

The center had grown under the watchful eye of training manager Nance Lovvorn, who started his career with Alabama Power 35 years ago and convinced Alabama Power management of the need for the training center in the mid-80s. Lovvorn recently retired at the end of September 2001.

“The center is designed to provide top-notch heat pump training,” he said. “We offer it to dealers who participate in Alabama Power’s heat pump program, as well as any other dealers.

“We’ve had students from as far away as Istanbul, Turkey, although most are from the Southeast U.S.”

During a visit from The News, a group consisting of local contractors and distributors came to the center to talk about the curriculum and the successes they have enjoyed over the years. Senior training analyst John Parker briefed guests with a short video about the training center.

“We started in 1986 with one course,” he said. “Today we offer 24. Most courses are four days in length.” The center offers 15 computer classes as well.

Students come from all different backgrounds and experience, said Parker. “Some students already have a good foundation and want to move up to the next level. Others are new hires, getting their first exposure to the trade.”

He said students are not just employees of hvacr contractors.

“One distributor sent its counterpeople to the center because he wanted them to take an elementary course in hvacr terminology and electrical troubleshooting,” said Parker.

Marty McVicker, manager of training and service at Hinkle Metals & Supply, Birmingham, AL, uses the training he gets to educate his employees and customers in the company’s seven locations. “I offer training to the counterpeople in our company as well as our dealer customers,” he said.

Porter Hutto, service manager of Standard Heating and A/C Co./Comfort Systems USA, Birmingham, added, “I’ve had numerous employees come down here for training, including dispatchers.

“I’ve sent technicians down here who have been experienced in the field and I’ve also sent their helpers, to learn what the techs already know.”

A SAMPLING OF THE CLASSES

As soon as students settle into their seats, instructors ask each student to tell the others about themselves. “We will take a few minutes to introduce ourselves to identify each other’s backgrounds,” said Parker, who teaches 14 different courses. “Sometimes we may have to adjust our teaching techniques based on skill levels.

“We also do a pretest to find out what the students already know. The test brings them down to earth, making them realize that maybe they might not know as much as they think they do.”

Each training discipline, whether refrigeration, electrical, or application, involves three different “phases.” Phase One involves foundation and theory. Phase Two is troubleshooting, and Phase Three is service training. Parker added that if a student feels uncomfortable with any of the training, he tries to pair them up with a more experienced technician, who can act as a mentor.

Senior training analyst Mike Milwee, who specializes in refrigeration courses comes from a service technician background — “working in the trenches,” he said.

Students can apply what they have learned in some of the courses at the center’s “Demonstration House” — a 1,536-sq-ft home built by the center to simulate different types of construction and hvacr applications.

The center also offers a full range of computer training courses because of the close ties to technician training and because so many employees need to have basic computer skills to keep up with the changing hvacr world. Don Stewart teaches computer courses and customer service, and many of Alabama Power’s employees have learned their computer programming skills at the center.

“We emphasize the basic skills of computers, simply because people need to learn them,” said Milwee. Above anything else, the center stresses safety in all of it classes.

“The first things students see are our safety signs,” said Milwee. “We beat them up on safety, safety, safety. We want them going home to their families after a day at work.” Mike Avery, general manager of Mainline Heating & A/C, Inc., Birmingham, said his personal experience at the center has been an impetus for sending company employees here. “I’ve attended a number of classes here,” he said. “And our technicians have been to several of these classes.”

Avery added that there is a relaxed, easygoing atmosphere in the classrooms. “The classes are presented in a non-intimidating way,” he said. “It’s just like being on the job.”

Not surprisingly, the center’s busiest times are typically the slowest times for the hvacr trade — the mild weather seasons. It’s not unusual to find waiting lists for students during these periods.

Regardless of the time of year, companies like Standard Heating & A/C know the importance of paying techs to attend class. “Techs are paid while they are here because it has value to the company and we get the investment back ten-fold,” said Hutto. Classes can be customized for particular groups, and manufacturers can share the spotlight, too.

“Manufacturers and distributors are free to come down and use the facilities for specific training,” stated Lovvorn. “They’re just not allowed to compare their products with other manufacturers.”

It is not all work and no play at the center, though. The center also hosts its own form of entertainment each year. Businesses are invited for a fishing tournament and cookout as a way to build good public relations for the center.

“We invite dealers down for the fishing tournament and to show off the facility,” added Novvorn. “It is our way of doing a little advertising.” This year the fishing tournament had 46 two-man boats entered.

What’s the next step for the Hvac Training Center? It will continue to track new markets and continue to stress the basics. “The equipment we train on hasn’t changed much,’ said Milwee. “But this year we have had more calls requesting geothermal heat than ever before.”

Sounds like a 25th course may be brewing.

For more information, contact 800-634-0154; www.southernco.com/alpower/hvac (website).

Publication date: 01/14/2002

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