Training, Education Offerings on an Upswing

December 22, 2008
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Some students from MCAA’s student chapters (shown above) listen in during the association’s annual convention, where many find internship and job opportunities. MCAA said it is building on programs aimed at securing for this industry the next generation of trained professionals “that are vital to our continued success.”


Over the past two years, contractor associations have been slowly but surely beefing up their respective training and education offerings - so much so that one industry insider referred to the increased interest as the “Education Explosion.”

“I agree that the need for skills-related education and training in the HVACR service field has increased over the past several years,” said Barb Dolim, executive director for Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA), “making it seem as though the past two years have led to a crescendo of educational programs.”

Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) President Jack Wilhelmi termed education and training “vital to our industry’s growth and profitability.” It’s why MCAA, he explained, continues to provide more and more offerings.

“MCAA members have a thirst for knowledge,” he said, “as evidenced by the attendance at MCAA’s slate of learning opportunities. … Our educational offerings provide something for everyone, from the CEO to the junior estimator.”

Vice president Kevin Holland will be the first to admit that the training programs offered by the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) were limited to its annual conference “and some technical training classes” - up until a few years ago, that is.

Said Holland, “Over the last couple of years, we’ve reinvented our training program to offer more opportunities for more contractors with better results.”

Gerry Kennedy, who heads the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC) Educational Foundation and is vice president of education, noted that with high-tech equipment, qualified and educated contractors are needed. It’s why PHCC is now providing more training opportunities for its members.

“Training is an issue that has a direct impact on the environment,” said Kennedy. “Improperly sized and/or installed equipment is less energy efficient. Finally, this is an issue of safety. Improperly installed gas or electric equipment can cause fires or worse.”

Mark Lowry, executive vice president for Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES), believes the industry is currently on the right educational path.

“Education and training have always been an important factor for this industry, so much, in fact, that it is the reason why RSES was established over 75 years ago,” he explained. “Furthering the education of contractors and technicians is vital as new technologies and performance standards rapidly emerge and consumers become more educated and aware of conserving energy and demanding technology to meet those needs.”

Lowry added, “The level of regulations and legislation governing this industry is only going to increase in the near future, and those doing the installation, service, and maintenance tasks need more than ever to stay current with the equipment and practices that are developed to meet these new standards.”

The NEWS surveyed some of the top contractor associations to find out what each is doing in regard to training and education. Featured here are just highlights of the associations’ programs.

ACCA INTRODUCES NEWEST PROGRAM

One of the newest offerings from ACCA is its ComfortU, launched in October. Holland termed the new initiative as a combination of “live, interactive training” with “recorded archives available 24/7.”

“In 2006, ACCA first began offering online seminars, or Webinars, for contractors and HVACR professionals. We knew that the technology offered a great opportunity for contractors to engage in first-rate learning without the need for travel. What we didn’t know was whether or not contractors would embrace this opportunity,” said Holland.

“We were pleasantly surprised when these Webinars turned out to be rather popular. We found that a lot of contractors were signing up for practically every one, and they told us that they were bringing in groups of 15 or more people to participate in the sessions. The employees responded very positively to the Webinars, and it was a great augmentation to their regular training programs.”

So last spring, ACCA came up with the concept of ComfortU - a new Webinar system with a more aggressive program schedule, and a new way for contractors to participate.

“Rather than charging a $97 registration fee per seminar, we’d charge $97 a month, make the recorded archives available online, and give subscribers access to all of them,” said Holland. “This means ComfortU subscribers have 24/7 access to an entire growing and dynamic training library, for them and their employees, for one low monthly fee.”

“We’re very excited about the program and pleased at the response,” said Holland. “Yes, offering all of our programs for one low monthly fee means that revenues may be smaller, but that’s not important to us. What’s important is that our industry gets access to practical information that helps contractors succeed.”

According to Holland, a key to ComfortU’s long-term success will be its ability to continually present exciting, interesting, and innovative seminars focused on real-world experience and immediate results, taught by contractors and experts. ComfortU, despite its tongue-in-cheek name, is not an academic program, he said.

“We focus on short topics that produce big results for contractors, with programs geared toward every part of a contracting business - owners, technicians, service managers, office managers, dispatchers, bookkeepers, sales managers,” he explained. “We are taking a very holistic approach to contracting success, and offering tools for the entire enterprise to learn and grow.”

And, just like all of ACCA’s education efforts, ComfortU is not for members only, Holland added. Members pay a lower fee, but there is no membership restriction on ACCA education programs, as they “are there to benefit the entire industry,” said Holland.

RSES ON THE MOVE

At RSES, Lowry said educational offerings and training resources being developed at this time are all based on feedback received by surveys conducted by the association to research the current training needs, demands, and trends.

“In the last two years, to support the current needs and demands for training, RSES has developed new products that provide more concise and focused training,” explained Lowry. “Our NATE certification preparation materials, for instance, are undergoing extensive revision, and in early 2009 will see the release of new modules developed with this improved clarity.”

Other recent releases include publications such as “Safety for the HVACR Service Technician” and “Electricity for the HVACR Technician.” In addition, the first manual in a four-year apprenticeship series developed in cooperation with ACCA, PHCC, and Delmar Cengage Learning was published in July. This series is designed for students in a formal apprenticeship program, or as the primary text in a career-technical education school. “HVACR 201” is scheduled to be published in March 2009, while “HVACR 310” is due to be released July 2009.

RSES has also revived its seminar program “to provide the live, hands-on, technical training to serve local markets in the industry,” said Lowry. “Our latest and most significant recent educational development, though, is the launching of RSES eLearning - to provide an educational delivery method that will appeal to a new generation of technicians and reach a larger technician base than obtainable through our current delivery methods.”

Instructor Jim Witten (standing) leads a discussion on estimating procedures at a “Best Practices in Estimating” seminar, put on by PHCC Educational Foundation. Year-to-date, the Foundation Seminar Series has reached 1,300 contractors and employers with a wide variety of seminars, all designed to help members increase productivity and profitability.

PHCC NOT STANDING STILL

The PHCC’s education movement picked up speed in 2005, when PHCC asked the PHCC National Educational Foundation to take over technical training programs. Since that time, the foundation has formed a partnership with ACCA and RSES, as mentioned above, to develop a series of HVACR textbooks.

“The fourth-year program will be supported by a series of books that will enable employers to help technicians specialize in programs that meet local heating and cooling needs,” said Kennedy.

For the past 21 years, the PHCC Educational Foundation has supported business management training, too. “For example, year-to-date, the Foundation Seminar Series has reached 1,300 contractors and employers with a wide variety of seminars designed to help them increase productivity and profitability,” said Kennedy.

PHCC has been looking outside the training arena, too. To address the skilled worker shortage, the foundation conducted a Workforce Summit in January and conducted another in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 20. The purpose of this summit was to focus attention on the critical shortage of skilled workers for the plumbing and HVACR industry and to develop a plan of action to train the workers that are needed to build and maintain the infrastructure in the respective state and region. “Business owners know that employing trained technicians is essential to profitability,” said Kennedy.

MSCA MEANS BUSINESS

While MSCA continues to focus on the development of management education programs, its partnership with the UA “has resulted in an equally robust output of educational offerings for employees,” mentioned Dolim.

“For many years, in many areas of the country, local chapters have worked closely with private technical schools, public school districts, and colleges to provide support for basic curriculum that generates technical workers and gives students a way to pursue those subjects in which they excel and that they believe will be a route to future success,” said Dolim.

“MSCA followed suit, seeking alliances with educators, the United Association (UA), and HVAC Excellence. Institutions for higher learning, under pressure to provide real-world skills and to respond to students’ needs, have been happy to work with us to create meaningful curriculum.”

MSCA’s own relationship with UA has resulted in collaboration for students that can last throughout their careers. Its 5-Star Careers program is an online tool that trainees and their mentors use to link potential employees “with environments that nurture them and encourage future cumulative growth,” said Dolim.

“We recognize that the students of these HVACR training schools have invested their own time and money to get trained in the mechanical service field, understand our industry, and want to pursue a career in our industry,” she said. “Thus, as employers, we value their skills, while the UA also recognizes their investment and allows them direct entry into the UA apprenticeship program.”

Like Kennedy, Dolim is more than happy to provide a thorough list of ways in which MSCA has addressed training and education over the past two years. Her list includes:

• The 2009 dates were just announced for the association’s new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Existing Building - Operations and Maintenance (LEED EB - O&M) accredited professional prep classes. The classes are designed to help prepare attendees for the new LEED EB - O&M exam, effective early 2009. According to Dolim, each is a 10-hour class that covers all credits and prerequisites under the new LEED O & M rating system, as well as the entire LEED process. (Dates are: Jan. 26-27, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; March 9-10, in Scottsdale, Ariz.; May 18-19, in Washington, D.C.; and Sept. 14-15, in Kansas City, Mo.)

• The association’s complete Customer Service Training Series program, which includes the Leader’s Guide, PowerPoint slides, and a Participant Notebook, is now available on DVD.

• MSCA is providing Green Awareness training, jointly developed by HVAC Excellence, Ferris State University (FSU), and UA. According to Dolim, members can download a program developed by FSU, Green Mechanical Council, and HVAC Excellence “that is designed to enhance awareness of fundamental and emerging green technologies.”

“The Green Awareness Training and Certification program has been developed to help ensure company employees understand new terminology, equipment, technologies, and concepts associated with green,” she said. “Special emphasis is also on the specification, purchase, and application of energy-efficient products.”

The program is now available to all MSCA contractors who wish to train their employees in-house. The student handbook, Green Mechanical Systems, can be ordered directly from HVAC Excellence. The green awareness certification exam is being offered through National ITC.

MCAA KEEPS PACE

Like most contractor associations, MCAA has been teaming up with others to provide training and educational opportunities for its members. By joining forces with MSCA, the Mechanical Contracting Education and Research Foundation (MCERF), and the Manufacturer/Supplier Council, Wilhelmi said MCAA “has dramatically expanded our participation in the dynamic world of green and sustainable construction over the past few years.”

Another key initiative has been building its programs “aimed at securing for this industry the next generation of trained professionals that are vital to our continued success.” This is being accomplished, in part, by promoting its Career Development Initiative. The association is marketing it to more colleges and universities, “and getting more young people excited about a career in the mechanical industry,” said Wilhelmi.

Through its Education Association, Wilhelmi said MCAA attempts to stay atop the changes in the industry. This past June’s education conference on high-performance estimating “was a big step toward that goal,” he said.

Among the association’s most popular offerings are the Institute for Project Management (IPM), the Pre-Fabrication Conference, and the Advanced Leadership Institute for senior executives. IPM has become so popular, there is more than a year backlog of project managers waiting to get into the program, said Wilhelmi. MCAA decided to hold two classes concurrently next April and will increase the class size by 10 percent in an attempt to reduce the wait list.

At its summer meeting, the MCAA board of directors agreed to establish an Institute for Project Acquisition (IPA), modeled after its IPM. Plans call for this to be a one-week course for professionals with responsibilities in the areas of estimating and project acquisition.

“With the advent of new technologies, I believe we will see amazing - I might even say once-in-a-lifetime - changes in this area of our businesses, whether we are estimating with a spreadsheet now or the most advanced system,” said Wilhelmi. “We can’t afford to get behind the change curve here. We have had a number of planning meetings and hope we can get this program up and running by the end of next year.”

For more information, visit www.acca.org, www.mcaa.org, www.msca.org, www.phccweb.org, or www.rses.org.

Pictured is the online technical training page for Nordyne’s new line of gas furnaces. In early 2009, the manufacturer plans to offer its contractors an online business training course given by a respected industry consultant.

Sidebar: Training Support

Contractor associations are not the lone forces in this industry’s education explosion. Over the past two years, most manufacturers have been boosting training opportunities and educational support for contractors, too.

“I think this is in large part due to a collective desire to raise the bar among contractors and their technicians,” said Raymond Granderson, training manager of The Training Network at Rheem and Ruud, “not only from a technical standpoint, but also from a business standpoint.”

Nordyne can say the same. Carol Baker, director of communication for the manufacturer, said the industry’s boost in training is because contractors have become “thirstier for knowledge.”

“It is because they understand it can put money in their pocket, make them competitive, and give them a chance to sustain and grow their business,” she explained. “We host contractor visits at our facilities often, and we experience their excitement firsthand when you talk about training opportunities.”

Here is a quick look at what two manufacturers are offering contractors under their respective education and training umbrella.

RHEEM/RUUD CONNECTION
Over the past few years, the Rheem Heating and Cooling training department, called The Training Network, has continued to develop technical training programs. Earlier this year, Rheem implemented an online training module, Total Access Training, which is available online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Courses focus on various technical and mechanical subjects that are especially prominent today, including thermostatic expansion valves, improving compressor reliability, and R-410A.

“Technicians no longer have to wait for a traditional training event. They can simply participate in a virtual class at any time that is convenient,” said Granderson.

In addition, the manufacturer recently partnered with several renowned third-party trainers to form its True Success Training group. These individuals offer a variety of sales, business, and marketing courses that are designed to assist contractors to further the success of their business.

“In the current economy, these classes are not only relevant but also extremely valuable to small business owners,” said Granderson.

NORDYNE POSSIBILITIES
Nordyne provides video-broadcast training on products and programs to distributor and contractor customers 24/7 over the Internet via a password-protected interactive network. It has the capability to do live sessions, too.

“In all cases, we are bringing expert sources - like product managers, technical trainers, industry consultants and the marketing team - directly to the user so that the messages are unfiltered,” said Baker. “We have been doing this for over a year, and we see no end to the type of training that is possible with our broadcast technology. In fact, we will be offering contractors, in early 2009, an exclusive online business training course given by a respected industry consultant.”

According to Baker, users will have access to an online forum to ask questions to the trainer as they go through the training modules. And, the cost is significantly less to the user if done online versus attending a group meeting, she explained.

“Looking into 2009, we will be expanding that online training with exclusive business courses to our contractor customers,” added Baker. “We also facilitate hands-on technical training for our more advanced products.”

For more information on The Training Network, go to www.thetrainingnetwork.com, and for more on Nordyne, go to www.nordyne.com.

Publication date: 12/22/2008

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