Contractors Educating Themselves in Arizona

June 8, 2009
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The Refrigeration School Inc. has been providing education services to Phoenix-area contractors for two generations. The school is owned by Elizabeth Loney-Cline and Jon Cline Sr.

There are book smarts. And, there are street smarts. What about an impressive collaboration of the two sets? Think about it: You’ve got your technicians studying for North American Technician Excellence (NATE) or similar advanced certification, and they are able to regurgitate facts and figures for a few days following the exam, and then what? Unless they are practicing what has been preached, so to speak, where does this knowledge base go? It might be going out the window, much like cool air escaping through an open clerestory on a hot, humid summer day.

Well, not at two Phoenix, Ariz.-area contracting outfits, Air Conditioning by Jay LLC and Magic Touch Mechanical Inc.

In both companies, it falls to the quality assurance and operations managers, respectively, to ensure that the technicians aren’t slacking when it comes to keeping up with the latest trends/developments/technologies/products affecting the industry.

With the help of senior leads, these two businesses have come up with some engaging and rewarding ways to make sure that technicians and servicemen are getting the job done, and most importantly, getting the job done right the first time and eliminating future callbacks, and thereby alleviating complaints from the customer base.

Face it - who wants to waste time by going back on an install that could have and should have been done properly the first round out? By implementing new and interactive ways to learn and share information, the technicians get invaluable certification-prep review material memorized and put into practice, all while interacting with their fellow peers and perhaps getting a chance to show off a little about who knows the most.



PERFORMANCE DATA TO MAXIMIZE INITIATIVES

“Basically, our goal with training and continuing education is eliminating inaccuracies, addressing them and improving on them,” said Michael J. Goater, sales manager with Air Conditioning by Jay Inc., who comes to the industry from an installer background and has been integral in implementing a comprehensive Quality Control (QC) practice at the company. The company is home to nearly 50 employees, and is engaged in residential and light commercial projects. NATE certification and Heat Pump Master Technician certification are conditions of employment for technicians there.

The QC process generates reports that detail each install by job reference number, installation date, responsible technician, and a QC checkup date (performed within two weeks of install). The performance side of things is broken out and measured by the following characteristics:

• Working (operational);

• Not working (one or more of the stages aren’t functioning properly.);

• Future callbacks (identifies potential future red flags and can be used to predict the need for future call backs;

• Other.

All of this info is recorded and then entered into the QC spreadsheet, which is then tracked and usable. These comprehensive spreadsheets can accurately pinpoint where educational initiatives are needed by highlighting areas that need improvement or attention. Brett Monik, quality assurance at Air Conditioning by Jay, is the man responsible for creating these highly useful performance reports specifically for the company, and is referred to appreciatively as the “go-to-guy for all educational and training initiatives” by Michael Goater. Monik’s role is to inspect every install and go over it with a fine-toothed comb and make certain there are no issues; again, the goal being to eliminate future callbacks.



Michael Goater is the sales manager with Air Conditioning by Jay Inc., located in the Phoenix market. Training is an important part of the business and sales philosophy at the company which has nearly 50 employees.

TEAMWORK STRATEGIES FOR SHARING INFORMATION

Education is key to the success of the individual employee/technician, as well as to the bottom line of the contractor outfit, according to Goater. Senior lead teams are charged with creating internal training calendars based on Monik’s QC reports. In an effort to promote ongoing research concerning industry developments, the leads are assigned a topic and are then expected to research and prepare information to share with the other technicians.

This is all part of an educational initiative known as Top Tech Cool School, which is a direct mirror of the tracked results for the installation department’s QC program. Akin to “Jeopardy,” points are awarded for answering questions in various categories correctly. According to Goater, this brings a fun element to the learning and retention process and, perhaps most importantly, encourages participation.

“It’s sometimes hard to get the guys excited about tackling new material. Our goal is to convey the info and for it to sink in and stick,” Goater said. “The Top Tech Cool School is in-house training made more palatable. It fosters encouragement and participation, and allows the guys a chance to ‘flex’ on their knowledge in front of their peers,” he says.

“Basically, we’ve devised new ways as training can be so boring in the industry,” Monik said. “This makes it more interactive.”

Monik has developed much of the content and direction as training for NATE testing, and also serves as a proctor for the NATE exam. He says that a lot of the work on Top Tech Cool School was geared for prepping for the NATE exam or journeyman’s license. “Again, [we] take it and make it more palatable for these guys,” Brett continued. “I prefer training on items that we actually have issues with. I’m inspecting work; if I find problems, then we train on that so we no longer have problems. With new equipment there is always a training/learning curve. I’ll put together a game or Powerpoint or Photostory 3 presentation for Windows.”

By assembling images together - Monik likes to document every install with pictures - this makes for a more comprehensive overview and can showcase some true examples from installs done in the field.

“I gather information and represent it to someone else,” he said. “An awful lot of specialized curriculums are out there and available, but we have something that’s a bit more personal to us, and is a bit more relevant. Once you’ve built a nice base, you can go more and more into details and technologies and so forth.”

Monik also says that the NATE materials sometimes don’t translate to everyday operations succinctly. “There is lots of info to regurgitate and then forget about,” he said, and would prefer to focus on key industry issues (e.g., air flow) to advance the HVAC industry. But don’t take this the wrong way. The tests are important, he insists, and a majority - about 80 percent - of the crew are, in fact, NATE certified. “Technology is something people need to be comfortable with. You evolve with it, or you become obsolete.”



NATE certification and Heat Pump Master Technician certification are conditions of employment for technicians working for Air Conditioning by Jay Inc. and Magic Touch.

IN-HOUSE TRAINING

If you think this next name sounds familiar, you’re absolutely right. With more than 20 years in the field, Rich Morgan at Magic Touch Mechanical Inc. has placed himself in the upper echelon of the HVAC industry. The company focuses on three divisions: residential, light commercial and refrigeration, and hosts a number of certifications, including NATE-certified technicians, Heat Pump Master Technician employee certifications, Arizona Public Service certified contractor, and numerous other designations via various manufacturers and institutions.

Morgan was named The NEWS’ Best Contractor to Work For in 2008 and has an intensive in-house training program set up for his personnel. (Visit www.achrnews.com and search “Rich Morgan” for reference.) In addition to the in-house program, employees also take part in organizational training with Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), the Heat Pump Council, Blue Energy Institute, Arizona Electric LGE, as well as other courses offered by local utilities.

Morgan says that Magic Touch employs four levels of technicians. There are the 1-3 level techs, and then the fourth level, which are service manager positions. It is immediately apparent that education is an issue taken very seriously at the company.

Each prospective employee is given a skills assessment test, which is “rather intensive,” Morgan said. For those hired on, Magic Touch conducts in-house training every Monday of each week. Jim Watson, the operations manager for Magic Touch, creates the educational calendar for the year. The technicians themselves are then assigned a topic to research and are placed in a rotation and charged with preparing the educational materials to lead a training session.

“We assess training needs for the year, and then match availability and rotate, thereby eliminating repeating items,” Morgan said.

The in-house training is further supplemented by HVAC Learning Solutions, an online educational tool. Watson assigns the techs courses to complete and these must be finalized within a given amount of time. Magic Touch is able to monitor and track the technicians’ performance, and can keep an eye on areas that need attention.



FURTHER EDUCATIONAL INITIATIVES

Technicians are required to complete professional continuing education credits. All Level 2 employees earn Master Heat Pump Technician certification, and Level 3 sees them obtaining NATE certification.

“Within a year of hire, technicians at Magic Service are Master Heat Pump techs, and within the first two years, are required to obtain NATE certification,” Morgan said. He expects to employ a crew that is 100 percent NATE-certified. Magic Touch pays for all the training. The technician must pass with an 85 percent or better to qualify for that, he clarifies. And this goes for any outside training/education - not just technical exams.

“Overall, training and continuing education is better for the company, better for the technician, and better for the customer,” Morgan said, “and it pays for itself ten-fold.”



REWARDING EDUCATIONAL ACCOMPLISHMENTS

“It’s important to develop a standard from a craftsmanship standpoint,” Goater said.

A stronger incentive for keeping on top of current trends and developments is a sliding pay scale. “There is increased pay for more certs,” he said. “The greater the score on the evaluation process with QC, the higher the pay grade.” There is a subsequent increase in pay and scale payment for passing exams.

It is essential to create an environment where further education is not only encouraged, but required, recognized, and/or compensated by the company, Monik said, and relays that it demonstrates faith in its technicians and a willingness to help them make advancements. These are mutually beneficial, as more customers are looking to contractors that employ NATE and other certified technicians.

Prizes are a good motivator, too, Monik adds, and said that the rewards depend on what is available, but essentially boil down to new tools or “Jay Bucks,” which the employees can use to buy tools and other items. “It’s basically free money,” Monik said laughingly. “It’s [the reward process] all still evolving.”

“The continuing education and certification program keeps Magic Touch at a higher caliber,” Morgan said. “Again, it’s better overall for the company, the tech and the customer.”



CASHING IN ON CREDENTIALS

There indeed seems to be a direct correlation as to how far training and education can further enhance the image of the company. And not surprisingly, the consumer base recognizes the importance of having highly trained/certified technicians perform these installs. Rich Morgan sees more customers inquiring as to which certifications the company possesses, and points out that demonstrable education levels will continue to weed out the lesser companies.

“As NATE gains more recognition, I’d love to see uniform training, and industry associations make the consumer more aware of this,” Morgan said, referring to the overall impact education has on the ethos of a business. “It’s [training and education] really a great selling tool.”

And in these times of economic turbulence, when keeping steady operation in terms of ongoing contracts/appointments/jobs, etc. can determine a business’ success, why not look to education to provide you the upper hand? Aside from the obvious benefits to the technician, look to the bottom line of your business: Honestly, who wouldn’t benefit from a more educated, technologically capable/proficient roster of employees.

For more information, visit www.dialcomfort.com, www.magictouchair.com, or www.hvacls.com.

Publication date: 06/08/2009

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