Changes in Training: Technology Drives Learning

June 9, 2008
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Every day at Classic Air’s One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, Virginia Beach, Va., starts with some classroom training. (Photo by Stephen M. Katz.)


The increasing use of the Internet has changed many aspects of HVAC and refrigeration work - but when it comes to training, is that necessarily a good thing? Old-school thinking would seem to favor more hands-on instruction, but can old school work when trying to attract new talent to the industry?

This article looks at driving forces in HVAC and refrigeration training, what’s going on in classroom and online training, what provides the greatest benefits, and what the future holds.

DRIVING FORCES

The trends behind the trends, so to speak, are attrition of the work force, new entrants to the field, new technology, and the time commodity, said Larry Banas, director of Educational Services, Emerson Climate Services LLC, Sidney, Ohio.

Additional drivers are energy efficiencies, NATE (North American Technician Excellence) and ICE (Industry Certification Exam) certification, and “timely education,” said Chris Compton, project director, HVACReducation.net. That last one means “being able to provide education on a larger scale, in a more timely fashion, that is perhaps more accessible than a larger classroom. Energy companies, for example, educate on a more robust scale in a much more finite time,” he said.

The subject matter area (ACCA Manual J, for instance) and scheduling need to combine to meet contractors’ needs. “Contractors need for technicians to return to work quickly. It’s a balance that is allowing online training to prosper, increase, and grow.”

“The industry is changing,” he continued; “new technology, the green spirit, these are all up-and-coming trends. Keeping abreast is essential to any contractor’s business. Some contractors use certification to set them apart. We’re NATE-certified.”

Energy savings will continue to gain importance, as will quality installation assessments, Compton said. “We need to assess a technician’s knowledge on energy savings from an installation standpoint. You obtain energy savings through a quality installation. SEER levels aren’t enough. We use the ACCA [Air Conditioning Contractors of America] presence for that, incorporating different levels of ACCA Manual J8,” addressing airflow, equipment sizing, refrigerant charging, and duct sealing. “We offer assessments to see how they do on that.”

“Industry professionals want information that they can apply immediately to real-life situations,” said Kent W. Peterson, P.E., the 2007-08 president of ASHRAE and vice president of P2S Engineering Inc., Long Beach, Calif.

“Customers want the information they need in a timely fashion,” he said. “More and more building owners are requesting green, high-performing buildings, which is increasing the demand for more education in available technologies, integrated building design, and operations and maintenance training.”

“We focus our efforts on creating education programs that address our dealers’ need for information as revealed to us through interactions with those dealers, our distributors, and identified in industry-specific media,” said David Glenn, manager, education programs, Carrier brand team.

“We look at surveys sponsored by Carrier and others inside and outside our industry to discover trends in the marketplace that might be addressed through updates in our courses. We talk with our dealers at industry events to better understand their education needs.”

“Our program continues to evolve,” said Glenn. “We maintain our focus on meeting education needs and have committed to change as needed to provide the highest-quality programs to our dealers.”

“Our four-week BuildATech program is already sold out for 2008,” said Alicia Bradshaw, marketing programs manager, Lennox/HVAC Learning Solutions.

“This is a reflection of the technician shortage. On a positive note, the graduates of BuildATech have gone on to become top technicians and top sales producers in their companies. We attribute this to our dealers’ choice of hiring personable people and adding HVAC technical skills.”

According to Jerriann Massey, Residential Systems, Trane, learning resources leader, “Educational programs are being driven by a multitude of needs.” These include:

• Emerging technologies (clean air, new product lines, increasing efficiencies, etc.);

• Workforce needs (the increasingly difficult task of hiring competent installers and service technicians);

• Changing market conditions (i.e., shift to retail selling rather than new construction);

• “The continuing need of contractors in the areas of sales, marketing, and general business management.”

Carrier Corp. recently expanded its Carrier University training curriculum and added an online presence. This is in keeping with national training trends that show the benefits of blended training for some areas of study.

CLASSROOM TRAINING

Classroom training, either onsite or at an offsite location, is far from dead. “I don’t believe it is less common,” said Banas. However, “It is more difficult due to logistics, expense, and time out of field to make a commitment.”

“We continue to observe a need for classroom training, especially as it pertains to hands-on, technical training,” said Massey. “Additionally, we are seeing a slight increase year-over-year of classroom training.”

“ASHRAE offers more classroom-type training opportunities now than we ever have and enrollments are growing,” said Peterson. “Interestingly, participation in ASHRAE online seminars and eLearning, Web-based courses is also growing.” Content and other factors, such as convenience, interaction with others, and timeliness, affect student choices, he said.

“Classroom training remains a primary focus,” said Glenn. “Every dealer faces time constraints in juggling their business and personal life, and ours are no exception. Because of that, it is a challenge to fill classes at some times of the year and our education calendar reflects that seasonality. It makes having a diverse program even more important.

“We judge our program by one standard: The participant must walk away from our class knowing the value received was more than the time and money investment made to attend the class, or we didn’t measure up to the standard we set,” he said.

Utilization of eLearning is up year over year,” said Bradshaw; “however, classroom attendance is also greater than in years past. Overall we are seeing a recognition of the importance of training to the success of independent businesses.”

Advances in software also “enable us to offer a robust technical training experience via eLearning. While hands-on technical training is still the best, hands-on technical training supported by eLearning simulations is even more effective.

“Our dealers in the metro areas where we have an onsite training facility have shown an increased willingness to send their employees to instructor-led training during shoulder seasons,” she said.

“We are in an industry that learns best hands on,” he said. “A majority of our classes use physical assets during courses,” said Banas. “It is difficult to capture that in other delivery mechanisms. Having said that, distance learning (Internet) or self-paced (CD) are picking up in usage. It is a tool that enables a more focused classroom, by offering prerequisite education. ‘Blended learning’ is a concept that I believe is taking hold.”

The interest in eLearning is growing, but is it enough for mechanical trades, which would seem to benefit most from hands-on training? Many contend that eLearning works best when combined with a hands-on component, but others state that even on its own, online training at least provides something that increases industry knowledge.

ONLINE ACCEPTANCE, BLENDED TRAINING

“In our experience, eLearning is becoming more accepted than in past years as our dealers, and people in general, have greater access to broadband Internet access,” said Bradshaw.

“High-speed access allows the programs to load and play smoothly without the nonproductive delays that beset online users in the early years of the Internet.”

“Online training is becoming more common especially when focused on products, processes, and manufacturers’ program training,” said Massey. “NATE recertification courses are becoming increasingly popular, too.”

Using online sources as an educational delivery form “is getting more attention from our customer base,” said Banas.

“Personal computers and other industry uses of these has paved the way for greater acceptance. The younger technicians have grown up with PCs and Xbox. I believe this form of learning is a good thing for technical training. Many prerequisite topics can be covered very economically and to large audiences, paving the way for more thorough and focused instructor-led courses.”

Compton agreed that online and hands-on learning “are definitely complementary of each other. We offer a guide that refers a hands-on-based competency to match the theory that they are learning about.”

Students are advised to work on their competency hands on with a trusted industry person, such as a contractor’s service manager. “While we don’t provide that in the grading structure, it is a very highly recommended thing for them to do,” said Compton. “Most technicians are already working in the field, so they may already do that procedure, but they don’t know why they are doing it.” “Just because you can perform a competency,” Compton said, “it doesn’t mean you understand why.”

“For those students who are not currently employed in the HVACR field, we recommend contacting local employers for either employment or internships,” says HVACReducation.net on its Website.

“This can also be done through secondary school counselors in the ‘School to Work’ program, counselors in your state Labor/Unemployment Office through the ‘One Stop’ employment program, or Workforce Investment Act (WIA). … If for any reason, you are unable to find an employer for your hands-on experience, please feel free to contact us.”

HVACREducation.net only offers online instruction. “We have more than doubled in the last two years,” Compton said, part of which may be due to increased marketing, but part of which is due to “it’s becoming a more accepted practice to obtain the timely education that is needed.”

“No. 1, with our online training or education, we very much try to support the industry competencies,” said Compton. “We are working to meet the needs of the industry, not just our own mission agenda. We’re not manufacturer-focused.”

Getting older employees to participate is sometimes more difficult. “To get an understanding to allow themselves [to use] this educational arena, one of the things that we do is a little demo so they can visualize what a course looks like,” said Compton. “The older, almost retirement generation fears that.”

According to “Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning,” a report supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the College Board, virtually all (83 percent) of the institutions participating in their survey with online offerings expect their online enrollments to increase over the coming year. HVACReducation.net was started with an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant.

“A 2007 state-of-the-industry report from the American Society of Training and Development shows that technology-based training is growing at a rate of 18 percent per year, gaining a rapid share of the market,” said Peterson.

“ASHRAE continues to develop and present more online seminars and eLearning, Web-based courses, which are attracting larger and larger numbers of participants. Sound training in any medium or format is always good for the individual and for the industry. ASHRAE does its best to leverage the strengths of the various training delivery systems to make best use of what each does well.”

“I believe contractors have many factors to consider in making these training decisions,” he said. “There is a benefit to online training in that staff can proceed at their own rate. Offsite training allows staff to be immersed in the training program with other interested participants without the distractions of their day-to-day activities.”

Distance or online learning is not without its drawbacks. Equipment and hardware malfunctions can hinder its effectiveness. The teacher’s skills also need to be suitable for this medium; vocal dynamics are key to help keep students involved, and the teacher needs to be prepared to vamp on the spot in case a technical glitch disrupts the class agenda. Finally, not all students are suited to this type of learning. Some studies suggest that more mature students have greater success with distance learning than less mature students.

With the online delivery method of HVACR education, “you can study in your pajamas if you want,” states HVACREducation.net on its Website. “You won’t lose time at work to go to a class, or miss reading a story to your child at night because you must structure your time around class time. Class time is whenever you say class time is. It can be at 2 a.m. or 10 p.m.; class is open 24/7, 365 days a year.”

Xcel Energy and Great River Energy partnered with HVACR education.net to develop an online HVAC quality installation assessment for its 2007 Central A/C and/or Air-Source Heat Pump Rebate Program. The program focuses on proper HVAC system installation practices, which promote comfort and system efficiency.

Xcel Energy and Great River Energy sought to validate contractor understanding of the four main components of residential HVAC installation that affect comfort and energy consumption: proper equipment sizing, airflow, refrigerant charge, and duct sealing.

“Online training is becoming more widely accepted,” said Glenn. “We employ Web meetings to update our channel as it relates to product and program information. But, we have not used this as a replacement for classroom education. An online forum is convenient for scheduling, if it is a recorded program that can be viewed from archives. Unfortunately, it lacks the personal feedback mechanism available in a more traditional setting,” remarked Glenn.

PROGRAM CHANGES

The best training programs are continually re-evaluating their content and mode of delivery to meet students’ needs. “Our programs have changed in two areas: attention and focus to distance learning programs on the Internet has picked up; I am developing more courses for this medium,” said Banas.

“We have also focused and strengthened our instructor-led courses to cover more material in shorter time frames. We have a customer care group for Educational Services. We help our customers understand the course offerings, look for courses available in the customer’s market, help them register, and communicate thoroughly until the class date.”

“This is an industry that isn’t going offshore,” said Compton. “We need to attract people. We’re not tapping half of our resources out there, which are women. Certainly there are many ways women can fit into this field. It probably will always be male-dominated. However, the No. 1 area that the survey takers found is that there is a lack of knowledge of what women can do in the field.”

“For women and men, we need to do a better job of educating the career counselors. Contractors need to go to career fairs, places where people are informing our next generation, like career centers at junior high and high schools.”

“We’re in a weird place right now,” he added. “Upcoming retirements of the Baby Boomers, all of that is playing a big role. In some places, like Terre Haute, Ind., contractors have to be NATE-certified in order to be licensed. In the state of Idaho, we are now an approved apprenticeship source. If people live 80 miles away from a school, going there is not an option” - and the industry loses those potential workers. “Many other states are now looking at providing better resources for apprenticeship.”

Over at ASHRAE, the catalog of courses covers a wider variety of topics in a wider variety of formats and delivery systems, and that are designed for a wider variety of industry professionals, said Peterson. For example, the society offers seminars for both traditional and virtual classroom settings. “We offer eLearning, Web-based courses that are the equivalent of college-level, semester-long courses and eLearning, Web-based courses that take only a few hours to complete. In some regards, ASHRAE has been able to reach a broader audience overall by creating individual courses that are very targeted.”

“We are converting many years’ worth of video training to an interactive online format,” said Bradshaw, “to reach technicians and other dealer employees who do not have access to a training center or classroom. HVAC Learning Solutions launched a new eLearning portal in January 2008 that will enable people to study online, enroll for instructor-led classes, and track their educational progress.”

“We have added eLearning courses, partner with Strategic Training Allies, and are creating custom courses for distributors to use when teaching their dealers to reach the broadest possible audiences,” said Massey.

Publication date: 06/09/2008

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