ACHRNEWS

Votech Is Not for Dummies

May 26, 2008
Vince Foetisch (right) is one of several HVACR instructors at Owens Community College who puts in extra time teaching - while running his own business.


TOLEDO, Ohio & ALAMOGORDO, N.M. - Seeking new technician prospects and solid vocational education programs, two local communities are re-educating the public and the industry as to what it takes to be a successful votech school. There is money to be made in the HVACR industry, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Employment and Wages document. With just over 250,000 employed, the average HVACR salary ranges from approximately $23-59,000 a year. The salary number looks to increase as time passes and new surveys are taken. The average total of those employed by the HVACR industry, however, stands shaky as the industry continues to grapple with the generational and educational shifts in employment numbers.

CLASS IS IN SESSION

Each community has its own strategy, but they both share one thing in common - a lot of local business support. Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio, has a strong votech school that continues to feed students to the local businesses. New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Alamogordo, N.M., on the other hand, hopes to soon have a votech school to fill the gaping hole in the educational offerings to its local citizenry.

Owens has established a strong bond with the local HVACR contracting community, accepting students who already work for contractors and are in need of training to become certified, skilled, professional, and business-oriented. The enrollment numbers in the school’s HVACR program have doubled in the last five years, according to Scott Killy, coordinator of skilled trades and apprenticeship training at Owens.

“The Toledo contractors are responsible for the increased enrollment,” he said. “They have been a driving force in recruiting people for our trade. The key to a successful votech program is its strong relationship with local contractors.”

That same cooperation between local Alamogordo businesses and NMSU has been the driving force bringing a vocational training program to the campus. In fact, the college is so focused on expanding into vocational training that it recently hired Dr. Cheri Jimeno as its president. Jimeno has a strong background in vocational trades and advanced technologies.

“The local businesses have been the drivers for this training,” she said. “They need workers from the community and have had to look to schools in other communities. The local high schools eliminated this training 15 years ago and are now thinking that this was not a smart thing to do. So, we are looking to partner with the high schools.”

Administrators from both schools feel strongly about the HVACR trade shedding the enigma of being a second-tier profession and vocational training as just an option for people who can’t get into a four-year college program.

“Twenty to 30 years ago the skilled trades were looked up to as a great way to make a living,” said Dave Siravo, director of skilled trades and apprenticeship training at Owens. “Somewhere along the line the skilled trades became less desirable.

“I’ve actually heard a counselor tell high school students that they were too smart for the HVACR trade. So, I took one counselor into my classroom and showed her that HVACR is not for dummies. She had no idea.”

Rick Blank has been teaching classes at Owens Community College for six years, combining his duties with a daytime job in the field as an HVAC service tech.

THE OWENS SUCCESS STORY

In the 2006-07 academic year, the Owens’ Workforce and Community Services program worked with 450 companies training more than 5,000 workers and students. Michael Bankey, vice president of Workforce and Community Services for Owens said his school has a goal of serving 500 companies and even more students in 2007-08.

“Our programs are becoming eye-openers for people interested in the skilled trades,” Bankey said. “We teach students physics, math, technology, engineering, computers, etc.”

“This is all college-level training,” noted Killy. “This is not material for dummies.”

Part of Owens’ success comes from its affiliation with local training programs, such as one at a local academy, which was formed with the help of Toledo-area unions who wanted a training facility that would feed young students into apprenticeship training. “The trades helped out with the training and donated equipment,” said Siravo.

“Once these high school students graduate, many of them attend Owens to further their training.”

This type of positive relationship has spilled over into the local schools. Killy said, “Skilled trades are being brought back to high schools.”

Owens is also working closely with members of the Toledo Heating and Air Conditioning Contractors Association (THACCA) to help keep local workers and future workers in local businesses.

“What good is providing training if there are no employers looking to hire locally?” asked Siravo.

The Owens’ staff has seen an interesting trend develop in the last several years that has changed the demographics of Toledo-area votech students - the students are getting older.

“The average age of an apprentice in Ohio is probably 25 years of age,” said Siravo. “Years ago the average age was 18-20, kids just out of high school. The average age of Owens’ students is in the 28-32 range.”

Siravo believes that many young students enroll in four-year schools or embark on careers that appear to be what they want, but after spending a few years at a job they don’t like and having to start and support a family, they finally take time to realize they need a new career doing something that requires skill and guarantees security.

Local businesses are also stepping up to ensure their workers continue to get the best training and to make sure staff maintenance workers at schools, hospitals, factories, etc., upgrade their skills on a regular basis. “We can customize and deliver a specific training module for any company,” said Siravo.

Killy noted that Owens is reaching out to Toledo’s inner city by offering training to people who wouldn’t normally be able to attend classes on campus. “For many, it is a transportation issue,” he said. “The Source is a one-stop career consulting center in the inner city where Owens has rented space to introduce our programs.”

The school currently offers solar training through a photovoltaic installation training program, the only one of its kind in Ohio. Bankey said it is part of an overall plan to “keep up with growing trends in green technologies, which also include geothermal and wind power.”

Siravo said that a big advantage for Owens’ students is that they learn firsthand from people who are in the field every day. “We don’t have full-time instructors,” he said. “We draw people from the field. The students learn from the real experts.”

Owens Community College and its Workforce Community Services are doing a lot to dispel the myth that votech is for dummies. “We are giving companies college graduates,” said Bankey. “They are highly-skilled.”

Dr. Cheri Jimeno, president of New Mexico State University at Alamogordo has big plans for a vocational school in her community, including HVACR instruction.

NMSU: A HOPEFUL STORY

It wasn’t even close. Voters in the Alamogordo community approved a General Obligation (GO) bond to create a vocational trade school for the NMSU-Alamogordo campus in their area. The vote was 1,142-463. It proved that the community supports vocational technical training and wants to keep young people in the community, working for local businesses.

“Everyone attending the forum to discuss the GO bond agreed that it presented a great opportunity for higher education in the Alamogordo area,” said Jimeno. “We are the only community college in the state of New Mexico with a student population of over 1,000 students that does not have this type of programming.

“We had to show the legislature that we really needed this and that the community supported it. We are still very preliminary right now and look at fall 2009 to open a temporary facility with funding from the GO bond and the legislature.”

The good news comes on the heels of the growing enrollment at the NMSU-Alamogordo campus. Jimeno hopes all of the good news will lead up to a permanent facility for the vocational programs she hopes to begin, which would also include two-year degrees in the automotive, welding, carpentry, and electrical trades. “We would like to have 15-20 students in a lab environment,” she said. “Initially in the first year, if we can get 10 entry-level students in a new two-year degree program we would be happy. We are also looking at portable training, doing one curriculum for two years and switching to another, and then back again.”

Jimeno hopes to have an advisory board and curriculum in place soon. “We are planning on looking at the curriculum that has already been approved for the New Mexico State University system and we will also be forming an advisory board which will include some of the local HVACR trade.”

Right now, Alamogordo businesses have to look to Las Cruces (60 miles) or El Paso, Texas (80 miles) to find qualified workers. Both communities have strong HVAC contractor bases, according to Jimeno. “We have a local contractor association made up of several businesses, but not necessarily HVAC,” she added.

While she plans for what she hopes to be a learning center, the community will be proud of, Jimeno continues to stress the rewards of a career in HVACR. “The industry needs to continue to make the case of HVACR careers to politicians,” she said. “Techs are professionals who have to be well-trained and licensed. This is not a second calling; it is a first calling and a great career.

“We also need to shift our focus to educating seventh and eighth graders, including their parents.”

While NMSU-Alamogordo awaits its future votech students, Jimeno will keep spreading the message that the entire HVACR trade needs to get behind recruiting. “The industry needs to work closely with colleges and universities, be on advisory boards, and suggest the types of training that is available,” she said.

The local businesses in Toledo and Alamogordo are setting the tone for action - something that could easily be copied in other parts of the United States.

Publication date: 05/26/2008