Best Instructor Refuses to Slow Down

November 5, 2007
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Bernie Merkel (left), voted 2007 Best Instructor by The NEWS and ARI, believes in providing hands-on training to his students.


ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Bernard J. Merkel is his full name, but he answers to Bernie. While that may qualify as a nickname, other options could include “Jack of all trades,” “Mr. Do-It-All,” and/or “Nothing can stop me.”

Such is Merkel, who won first place in the Best Instructor competition sponsored by The NEWS and the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute.

The last suggestion may be the best nickname for the ambitious man who, for the last six years, holds the title of director of HVAC Service Training at International Training Institute (iTi), the training arm of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) and Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).

Stop Bernie Merkel? Yeah, right.

“I’m not going to retire anytime soon,” he says with authority.

The proof is in the pudding. Only a few days prior to getting a phone call from a probing reporter, Merkel had to have emergency surgery. Because more than 50 percent of his femur bone was practically nonexistent, a steel rod had to be implanted, from his hipbone to his knee, to supply needed support. Proactive doctors performed the operation on Merkel so that the HVAC service instructor of 26 years would avoid experiencing a much-more-damaging - and hurtful - fracture.

Even though the one-time service tech (1968-78) and former service manager (1978-89) for Leo J. Roth Corp. of Rochester, N.Y., was supposed to be in recuperation mode, spread out before him on the floor and elsewhere in his cozy Rochester, N.Y., home office environment were papers, notes, and everything else a true teacher needs to create a lesson plan for students.

This was not your average lesson plan, either. Merkel was in the midst of formulating a complete pilot program, titled “School of Excellence,” which is scheduled to begin at the start of 2008 at the Local 15 facility in Orlando, Fla.

“It depends, in part, if we get the interior work done in time,” answers Merkel, his mind obviously zeroed in on his work.

Such is the ways and means of the ever-moving Merkel, who instructs the apprentices and journeypersons in the HVACR industry that participate in one of the 160 Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC) programs throughout the United States and Canada.

In other words, Merkel is all over the country, teaching an average of six courses per term. His other duties include assisting school coordinators in setting up and developing service labs for their own facilities, plus training future service instructors so that they can teach the “ins” and “outs” of HVACR service to students at their own respective union facility.

Merkel also takes it upon himself to bring coordinators and their respective committees up to speed with new ideas that the sheet metal industry has to offer and, as he put it, “what is happening in other areas of the country so we can keep our members informed.”

2007 Best Instructor Bernie Merkel (right) gives pointers to - and direction for - a student. “I’m not going to retire anytime soon,” said Merkel. He has been teaching for 26 years, and been involved in the HVACR industry for 40 years.

BUSY, BUSY, BUSY

There was a time not too long ago when Merkel, as service work specialist and director of certification for the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI; 1999-2001), was on the road 306 days a year instructing. His wife, Sharon, had to send fresh clothes by mail.

“I was bouncing all over the country,” he said.

Thankfully, travel is not as heavy nowadays under the iTi umbrella, but that does not mean the father of four sits on his hands. Not even after surgery.

“I’m doing what I love to do, and I get great satisfaction in helping others to get started in their careers so they can have a successful career in the HVACR service industry,” says the upbeat instructor, who has been in the industry for 40 years.

No surprise that his duties differ from most HVACR teachers who are employed by a vocational trade school. Merkel could be teaching a JATC class in Seattle on Monday, but then be in St. Louis on Tuesday heading a train-the-trainer service class.

While an apprentice checks gauges, Merkel (right) looks on. Teaching service to apprentices and journeypersons has always been his main mission, he said.

“I will instruct as the need arises or if an instructor is not comfortable with the subject matter,” said Merkel, who has experience in everything from basic refrigeration and electricity to residential systems and chiller operation; and from residential gas heating to oil, steam, and hydronic systems.

The majority of his time is spent in Las Vegas at the National Training Facility. Five years ago, Merkel was instrumental in getting the existing Sheet Metal Local 88 facility renovated with new, state-of-the-art teaching aids and equipment. The building contains electronic grease boards with projectors, stadium seating-style classrooms, HVAC lab with 15 work stations, an 18-station computer lab, drafting lab, and sheet metal shop.

“My baby is the HVAC lab,” he says. “We have 15 working split-system stations with all brands of equipment, as well as all types of fuel systems for heating, five rooftop stations that the students are able to work on. We also have many free-standing training aids. This gives the students the opportunity to experience theory and hands-on HVAC services training.”

The classes Merkel developed for Las Vegas and now instruct there include basic HVAC service (3-week intense course; two per year); advanced service (one week; two per year); direct-digital controls (one week; two per year); oil/hydronics (one week; one per year); and train-the-trainer (two-week class, one per year).

“I just didn’t want to knock tin all of my life,” says Merkel, which is why he attended night classes in high school to learn more about the service end of the business. “That’s why I enjoy teaching. It is very rewarding.”

Not one to shy away from helping students, Merkel (left) goes through the testing process with a future service technician.

...AND STILL GOING

Teaching service to apprentices and journeypersons has always been Merkel’s main mission. Going back 40 years, sheet metal contractors used to provide service work, but, in his estimation, that faded when times were good. Startups were more important at that time, so it was a matter of doing one install after another, not having enough time or employees to attend to service, too.

“They drifted away from service,” says Merkel, referring to sheet metal contractors. “Now they are branching out, again.”

It’s just one reason why SMWIA and SMACNA reeled in Merkel, who tries to provide equal amounts of theory and hands-on instruction. His students take the Industry Competency Exam (ICE) as a program requirement. He is always looking to recruit new students at trade shows and at open houses hosted at local union school facilities. For that matter, he is not shy at making presentations on career days at high schools.

“This is a great industry,” he says. “There are so many opportunities. It’s what I tell these green sheet metal apprentices.”

Merkel considers himself still learning. “It does not stop,” he confesses, noting that he still attends trade shows and seminars, reviews company catalogues and brochures, plus reads The NEWS to stay informed.

“You just have to stay on top of things. And, the best way to learn something is to teach it. I mean you have to do a lot of research on the subject, so you learn so you can teach it.”

When former students find out he is teaching a class at a local union facility, many will make the effort to stop in and visit with their mentor. “I see a few now and then at a show or at a local school,” he admits. “They tell me, ‘Boy, you changed my whole career.”

After a silent pause, he adds, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do.”

Just don’t ask him to slow down. He won’t listen. “I am constantly redeveloping PowerPoint presentations, reviewing content, and keeping up with the times,” he quickly confesses. “My free time is rebuilding lesson plans or implementing more PowerPoints.”

His spouse will agree.

“I get that all the time,” said Merkel. “My office is in my basement. It’s actually my son’s old bedroom. When it gets late, my wife will tell me to call it quits, but I’ll tell her, ‘Let me finish this one PowerPoint.’ Before you know it, another hour has gone by.”

After a moment of silence, he concludes, “I just want to give back to the industry that has been good to me.”

QUICK STATS

2007 BEST INSTRUCTOR WINNER

INSTRUCTOR: Bernard J. Merkel

COLLEGE OR SCHOOL: International Training Institute (iTi), training arm of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) and Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).

HEADQUARTER’S LOCATION: iTi headquarters: Alexandria, Va.

MERKEL’S HOME OFFICE: Rochester, N.Y.

YEARS TEACHING: 26

Sidebar: Surgery Needed

There is a reason why Bernie Merkel had to have his femur bone replaced recently. Last November, he was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma - kidney cancer. The 2007 Instructor of the Year had one kidney removed - and it appears that the disease has metastasized to the bone. Doctors informed him that cancer had chewed through 50 percent of his thigh bone, calling for the emergency surgery.

“I have had some treatment, at a well-known cancer hospital, but there has not been any improvement as of yet, but tomorrow is another day,” said the eternal optimist. “The two things that are giving myself a will to live and hoping for some regression in this terrible disease are my family and my involvement in the HVAC field and teaching.”

Merkel is bound and determined not to give up. At last report, he was scheduled to be in Philadelphia the last week of October to teach a one-week service class. He is also in the middle of preparing the national service test for the upcoming national union competition, to be held in Las Vegas.

“In a roundabout way, it’s keeping me going,” he says of his present condition. “The outlook doesn’t look good, but it [teaching] continues to be so rewarding. I will keep going for as long as I can.”

Publication date: 11/05/2007

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