Chickens, Eggs, & Technician Training

June 12, 2000
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Most hvacr contractors are still hiring technicians out of vo-tech schools and college-based programs. Many contractors also believe that technician training is moving toward total in-house training provided by manufacturers, suppliers, and the contractors themselves.

Meanwhile, the supply of technicians continues to hemorrhage.

This information is based on a limited survey of hvacr contractors from The News’ website (www.achrnews.com). The results support in general what contractors are reporting from the field:

  • Not enough techs are entering the industry.

  • Hvacr programs are being cancelled due to dwindling enrollment.

  • Those programs still afloat are having trouble finding qualified teachers.

    So, are the programs failing due to a lack of students — or are the students missing because good programs aren’t available? Like the age-old question of the chicken and the egg, the forces contributing to the shortage of available techs defy easy resolution.

    In the end, it might not matter which came first; what does seem clear is that the lack of teachers, students and programs is creating a downward spiral of employment that threatens the industry’s growth and stability.

    Analyzing the Problem

    First, a little background. Paul Arthur, an outstanding hvacr instructor at Charlotte Vocational Technical Center, Port Charlotte, FL, told The News that “My boss called me into her office and told me that the school district had to save $90K and because of that, they were closing my hvacr program and the electric shop.”

    The director, Judith Willis, cited decreasing enrollment and low entry-level pay for students who went through the program. Moreover, she stated that people who want to enter this trade “can go and get employment in these areas with no skills. Employers will train them on the job.”

    After the initial shock of realizing that some educators and contractors could possibly consider hvacr technical service a job with no prerequisites, those questions pop up again: Are more employers training on the job because there are no good tech school programs available in their area - or vice versa?

    The Need To Be Self-Sustaining

    “I have been aware of the coming crash for some years,” commented Don VanDemark, vice president of Pennco Tech, Blackwood, NJ. “I anticipate that stories like the one that Arthur has experienced will not be uncommon in the coming years.

    “Training partnerships between schools, manufacturers, and/or contractors are a very effective way to recruit young talent into the hvacr industry,” he said.

    “The students of today are very cynical; they want guarantees as to their future. If all parties would work together in a unified training partnership, I believe that it would not only help the quality of the training programs but would also, through education presentations in the high schools, help attract more high schoolers to post-secondary training programs, and subsequently more qualified technicians for industry.

    “Automobile and truck manufacturers are using this partnering concept very effectively in private, post-secondary schools,” he sums up.

    Universal Technical Institute (UTI), Phoenix, AZ, is one such school. Director of education Rick Jazwin is keenly aware of the efforts automotive manufacturers employ to maintain their own supply of service technicians.

    “The automotive manufacturer is creating a highly trained population of technicians available to their dealer networks across the country,” he commented earlier this year. These techs come from the same shrinking labor pool as hvacr technicians — and the automotive sector, according to Jazwin, is making a stronger, better orchestrated effort to reach them.

    The Search for Solutions

    The entire hvacr industry, top to bottom, seems to understand the seriousness of the situation. It does no good to keep repeating Labor Dept. statistics.

    One anonymous respondent to The News web survey summed it up this way: “I am a big believer in teaching them young; if only we could get into the high schools and have brief conversations with some students, preferably 10th graders, and tell them some wonderful stories of our trade, or your own experiences, even the truth.

    “Don’t be ashamed of what you do. Choose a job you love and you will never work another day in your life. I truly believe it works. Why? Because I do it now!

    “Once they are in the trade, then continue to teach them. Don’t ever be afraid to teach someone something you already know; how else do you expect to grow, if you do not pass on your knowledge. Learn! Do! Teach! It is the revolving door of our trade.”

    It makes sense. If word of mouth can boost a single contractor’s reputation, maybe the hvacr industry needs to create its own positive word-of-mouth advertising.

    The industry’s image is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome. And, as others have commented, the talk has to be supported by action. It does little good to wax enthusiastic about the great opportunities in hvacr service and installation work, if those opportunities do not exist broadly at the contractor level.

    The Shortage Of Schools And Teachers

    At this point, it is difficult to predict what direction hvacr technician training will take. Teachers need schools to teach in, and schools need teachers.

    Take the case of Ronnie Robert, Robert Corp., a contractor in New Orleans, LA: His company partnered with a local association (Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Dealers Assoc-iation) and Del Gato Community College, to open a “world-class” school for hvacr technicians.

    The project, in its seventh year, has all of its funding and the “latest and greatest high-tech equipment” donations, and is set to open the doors to 12,000 sq ft of teaching space at Del Gato. There’s a state grant available for an Encumbent Worker Training Program. The plans are to extend it state-wide.

    There’s just one small problem: They don’t have an instructor.

    It seems they had interviewed an out-of-work hvacr instructor who was featured in an editorial. The Louisiana school offered him a position, but it was outbid by a school in a different state.

    (If any instructors “looking to make a difference to the trade” are seeking a new hvacr program, please contact Robert at 504-282-0625; 800-768-2327.)

    Moreover, the Internet is changing the face of hvacr training. For those in a bind, a live instructor may not be necessary if a virtual one is available.

    “I am working on an industry-supported, instructor-led, web-based educational effort to train technicians anytime, anywhere,” writes VanDemark of Pennco Tech.

    “My concept is to provide high-quality technical courses to numerous levels of hvacr technicians, providing access to an ongoing educational effort online for the industry. The workplace will be the lab for the hands-on experience.”

    Others responding to the online survey mentioned inadequate compensation for entry-level people, and even the lower quality of students entering the vo-tech schools.

    But perhaps what the industry needs, first and foremost, is a concerted effort similar to the automotive industry’s. That industry’s training initiative is manufacturer-driven, and the certified training only comes with the blessing of the manufacturer and the industry’s main trade association, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

    Perhaps this is what a News survey respondent had in mind when he or she wrote that the solution is “National recognition of tech training, such as the ACCA program, [in addition to] career development at the primary education level.”

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