At This Firm, Technicians Earn While They Learn

January 11, 2001
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It is not uncommon for a contractor to hire a technician with minimal experience and allow him or her to receive training somewhere on the side. In some cases, contractors will even pay the tuition costs.

But Al Cornella, owner of Cornella Refrigeration Service in Rapid City, SD, has cut out the middleman by hiring his own in-house instructor. Cornella hires technicians willing to learn hvac and pays them to take classes at his business. New techs take courses in the morning and are then sent off later in the day with a licensed journeyman to work in the field.

Cornella’s business is now in its third year of training technicians on the job.

Although Cornella feels he has not yet “perfected” the idea, he states that it is another way of getting more technicians trained and providing them with incentive to stay with the business.



Filling A Need

Cornella said that his business usually operates at 15 employees and he is currently down to 11. This year alone he says he had enough work to keep 20 technicians busy.

Also, Cornella says that competing to find technicians can be extremely difficult. Technicians are so desperately needed in his area that the ones who are qualified “are snapped up and go to bigger companies. It is hard to compete.” He also points out that finding workers is even more difficult since the unemployment rate in South Dakota has dropped under 2%.

This is why Cornella decided to have his employees trained on the job. He reached the conclusion that if you can’t find qualified technicians, hire someone willing to learn.

“If you look strictly for people with a technician or journeyman background, you’re looking at a small number of people,” Cornella said.

Willis Wilson has been the man in charge of teaching Cornella’s technicians for the past few years. He says that the training begins in November and runs 36 to 40 weeks. By the time the technicians have finished training, they will be able to get to work on the year’s spring and summer jobs.

Willis also says that Cornella is pioneering a way to get more techs and make sure they are qualified.

“The biggest reason for doing this,” Willis said, “is because there are not nearly enough young people going into this field. The buzzword now is computers, but we still need people to change compressors and go into the field.”



Refining The Idea

Four individuals took part in Cornella’s first round of training. Since then, those individuals have left Cornella’s business and found employment elsewhere. On the upside, three are still in the hvacr field and one has gone into sheet metal.

The second class was not completed, according to Cornella. One of the students decided to become an electrician, while the other, a 19 year-old, went to work at a hospital. This was a low point for Cornella, since he had interviewed approximately 25 people for those two positions.

But Cornella is still confident his program can work, and this time around he has taken some different approaches.

This year’s course program was designed for four separate individuals, all over the age of 30. This time around, Cornella was looking for employees who would stay with the company for a long period of time, and he believes this is more likely with mature workers.

The move comes after many young employees left Cornella’s business because they were unsure about their career paths or thought they could make a little more money with another contractor.

Although he has not implemented it yet, Cornella is toying with the idea of exchanging the training for a commitment from each employee to stay with the company a certain amount of time.



Seeing Results

Dan Adams is one of the new workers. Adams has a degree in electronics and worked on office copiers and banking equipment. When the company he worked for had a merger, Adams was laid off. Later down the road, he found out about the opportunity Cornella was presenting.

“It seemed like a good field to get into,” Adams said. “And they are always looking for people in this field.”

Adams was hired because of his mechanical background and his interest and willingness to learn hvacr. But it was also very important to get individuals who could provide better company commitment.

“We’re a little more stable, versus younger individuals who are always looking for something better,” Adams said.

Young people are not necessarily excluded from Cornella’s program. In fact, Willis says that this situation is good for a lot of young adults because they do not have to pay for the training; they will actually get paid to be trained.

“Most young people now don’t know what they really want to do, and it’s going to cost a lot of money for vocational school,” Willis said. “This is an attempt to get people in the field and get them interested.”

Publication date: 01/15/2001

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