Educators offer solid curriculum choices for incoming hvacr students

September 19, 2000
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There are different schools of thought when it comes to training an hvac professional.

One way is to train a student in a technical trade school setting, preparing them for work in the trade via college courses and some hands-on work. This type of training typically leads to work in a nonunion environment.

The second type of training is through an apprenticeship program, where the student combines classroom training with work experience alongside a journeyman technician. Technicians completing these programs usually choose careers in union shops.

High school contact

Kevin Heath, a/c and refrigeration instructor-coordinator at the Richmond Technical Center, Richmond, Va., said he likes to start getting students as early as high school.

“We have a two-year program which typically involves high school juniors,” he said. “We start out with the basics of refrigeration and work up through tools and the mechanical trades.

“I like to have the juniors working in the summer after they begin the course. When they come back to high school as a senior, they have a better idea of what to expect.”

Heath said that part of the training involves on-the-job instruction, too.

“We do some shadowing,” he explained. “Our students will shadow a technician and watch what they do. Contractors in the area often support this.

“I would like to do this shadowing with more contractors, where a technician would pick up the student for the whole day and then drop him off later.”

One feature of Richmond’s curriculum involves a “work-practicum” program, only available to high school seniors.

“If the student is in a two-year program, has good grades and attendance record, he can go to work in the second semester of his senior year,” said Heath. “He still needs to keep up with his academic classes, but now he works for a contractor, who is giving him his grade.”

Night school

Richmond Technical also offers a three-year night class course, which involves instruction by some industry leaders. One of their instructors is a Rheem representative who teaches a heat pump class.

“Generally, the first year involves 80% class and 20% shop,” Heath said. “The second year is a 50-50 split. And the third year involves classroom instruction in load calculation, heat pump operation, and commercial refrigeration.”

Heath said his courses not only teach the basics of hvacr work, they also prepare students for the real world of business.

“We do a lot more than teach kids how to turn a screwdriver. We do mock job interviews, we invite businesses to come in and interview students. We instill a work ethic in kids.”

Hands-on work

Hands-on training is a vital part of an overall curriculum. In the case of a long-term apprenticeship, it is a mandatory part of training.

“We offer a five-year apprenticeship program,” said John Morse, executive director of the Joint Apprenticeship & Training Trust in Atlanta. “Students attend school two nights a week while working days for a local contractor.

“This prepares them to be a journeyman hvac technician with a Mechanical Service [MS] degree. Our tuition is free,” he added; “the costs are picked up by contractors.”

Most curricula offer a natural progression from basic refrigeration theory and history into application involving a variety of hvacr skills.

“Some of the comprehensive skills we offer include building controls, radiant and hydronic heating, refrigeration, and understanding mechanical codes,” said John Breece, a technical instructor at Red Rocks Community College, Lakewood, Colo.

Breece said the curriculum varies for each student based on their ability to attend class. “Students can be here one night a week or four. For example, if a warehouse worker has been going to school four nights and then gets hired, he can come back to finish his studies on a one-night-per-week basis.”

Breece added that experienced tradesmen, not just instructors, teach students.

“When we teach blueprint reading, the students interact with all of the trades: electricians, plumbers, and builders,” he said. “The students also learn basic electricity, which makes them more well-rounded and able to appreciate the other trades.”

Design components

Ivan Maas, technical instructor at the North Dakota State College of Science, teaches duct design as part of his school’s curriculum.

“Our classes vary from basic refrigeration and lab work, to refrigeration theory and residential-commercial load design,” he said. “We used to have a sheet metal program, but there weren’t enough students to justify the course.

“Our two-year refrigeration-a/c course allows students to come back after completion and take a year of electrical design work. The curriculum also includes learning energy management through programmable controls.”

Heath said there are some advantages to classroom training.

“We have simulation software which is available for all students who need to understand how to work in certain weather conditions,” he said. “The software simulates weather conditions which can’t be duplicated in the real world.”

In spite of the availability of high-tech training, Maas added that students shouldn’t just depend on classroom training to understand the business.

“In the real world, the students need to get out and work with someone for a while,” he said. “There are few programs available where a student can be pulled out of school, given tools and a van, and sent to work.”

Where they come from, and where they're going

Many of the young people in technical training are high school students looking for a career in the technical trade. Other older students are looking for a career change and come from all walks of life.

Breece profiled a typical student in his program.

“Our average age is 30,” he said. “This person is already working in the construction trade. It may be a guy who is driving a truck and wants to move up, with the encouragement from his employer. But he may also have been in building maintenance, real estate, or worked as a chef.”

Bob Martinez, executive director of the International Training Institute (ITI), Alexandria, Va., said that his own background makes a good case study of where students in the trade come from.

Martinez said that he came from a “socially disadvantaged” background and moved to an upper-management position that he enjoys today.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I enlisted in the Army,” he said. “I was working with heavy equipment. When I got out, I started in a two-year sheet metal apprenticeship program. Now I am director of ITI.”

Martinez said that graduates from ITI are qualified sheet metal workers, capable of using their skills in many different fields. “Being a sheet metal worker means you have a lot of highly trained fabricating and welding skills. You can go into the field as a service technician, where there is a big shortage now.”

The shortage of qualified technicians is somewhat perplexing, since the salary levels of technical school graduates rival those of four-year-degreed professionals. According to Morse, the pay difference is obvious.

“A journeyman hvac technician can make a $40,000 salary after five years as an apprentice,” he said. “Compare that to the average salary of a Georgia Tech college graduate: $28,000.

“We are not just offering a job; we are offering a professional career.”

Morse said he was proud of a recent graduate — a female — who was named Outstanding Apprentice of the Year. Winners of this award are often given tools for their profession, donated by area vendors.

Heath said his training prepares students for all types of jobs, even those that don’t involve field work. “Adults are really taking to our computer labs. As a result, a lot of them are going into computer work or programming.”

But Heath pointed out some things that have to improve for the trade to move toward training standardization.

“ARI [the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute] offers the Industry Competency Exam, which makes technicians ARI-approved,” he said. “But all [training] factions should get together to standardize the industry. We need input from contractors to require these standards for everyone.”

Whatever career path a technician chooses after formal training, one thing remains clear: The hvacr trade is rewarding from a personal and financial point of view. Today more than ever, technicians are asked to become problem solvers, which can be highly rewarding.

“Many of our former students are doing very well. Our business tends to take care of people,” said Maas. “It is because they are dedicated.

“When a walk-in cooler full of ice cream goes down, you can’t tell the customer to wait until morning. We are looking for that dedication in our students.”

If dedication to the trade has its rewards, it can usually be seen on the technician’s paycheck.

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