George Beaver, vice president of Southeastern Building Trades Associates Inc. (SBTA), directs a continuing education class.

SAINT MARYS, Ga. - Many HVACR industry members see state-mandated certification courses as an unnecessary drudgery for renewing tradesmen/contracting licenses; however, graduates of Southeastern Building Trades Associates Inc. (SBTA) continuing education classes see the process as mind-expanding and state-of-the-art learning.

As a former contractor who once experienced first-hand how boring licensing update classes can be, George Beaver, vice president, had a better idea when he founded the SBTA 13 years ago. Besides the basics, Beaver thought contractors and service techs, who are required to take basic continuing education classes to update HVAC contracting licenses in 32 of 50 states, also needed business fundamentals and an introduction of new products and industry trends.

The presentation has changed too. SBTA is now one of the leading certification course programs since embracing the exploding trend of online certification or “distance learning” for HVAC, refrigeration, plumbing, and electrical contractors in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. While the SBTA teaching staff still holds 60-student-capacity in-person traveling sessions on-site at 30 hotels throughout Georgia annually, nearly 60 percent of its 5,000 annual students last year completed continuing education classes online at SBTA’s Website.

As more computer literates enter the workforce, online education is growing exponentially. Beaver’s in-house research reveals only 5 percent of tradespeople used computers 10 years ago. Today, however, over 35 percent use computers and Beaver expects 50 percent or more by 2010.E-Learning Magazinereports that 79 percent of students prefer self-paced online training to classrooms. The largest American college today is the University of Phoenix, which is a virtual school with over 60,000 students - all of which complete course requirements online. Even traditional brick and mortar schools, such as the University of Florida, is offering a Masters in Business Administration degree online today.

Online training isn’t the only reason SBTA has become one of the Southeast’s most successful continuing education schools. Updates on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, and state building codes are mandatory course topics. However, what separates SBTA from other certification courses is the many general business training principles and especially Beaver’s penchant for introducing new product trends as a half-hour portion of the four-hour course. Resultantly, SBTA reviews many new products to help contractors separate the industry’s truly revolutionary from what might someday turn out to be just the latest “snake oil.” “We feel it’s our responsibility to introduce new trends and products to people renewing their licenses, because if we don’t, who will?” said Beaver.

Karen Brooks of Arlen Plumbing checks her computer while Jon Preble, CEO of SBTA, points out an online course topic.

For example, Beaver discovered a relatively new product at a HVAC distributor, Super Seal, which is a refrigeration system sealant by Cliplight Mfg., Toronto. However, an air conditioning and refrigeration equipment manufacturers representative visiting the distributor that day downgraded the product as an automotive radiator stop-leak product that would clog everything in a refrigeration system including the compressor. Beaver knew that service techs periodically struggle with phantom or inaccessible refrigerant leaks in everything from small appliances up to multiple ton air conditioning systems, and a true refrigeration system sealant would be a boon for his students, so he investigated further. The distributor’s counterman opposed the equipment rep’s advice as misguided and claimed many service techs were having great success with Super Seal and had not reported any equipment failures. “I quickly learned that Super Seal is a high-tech polymer formula that only reacts when exposed to atmospheric moisture if and when it travels through a leaking refrigeration system’s exit hole,” Beaver explained. “It was absolutely nothing like automotive radiator leak-stop products.”

Like all products he touts in his course, Beaver performed his own Super Seal tests on refrigeration systems before recommending it in his course. “Further research told me some equipment manufacturers are dishonestly spreading false information about Super Seal,” said Beaver. “They’d rather sell new equipment than have service techs repairing perfectly fine older equipment that happens to have developed a leak - which really aggravated me. Too much equipment already goes prematurely to crowded landfills that could be repaired for extended periods of another five to 10 years at a great service to the end-user, not to mention the environment.”

Other trends or new products students have raved about in SBTA certification courses have included variable speed fans, which included information and equipment help from ABB, New Berlin, Wis., and Carrier, Syracuse, N.Y.  “We’ve covered how variable speed fans were developed, how to troubleshoot them, how to fix them, and other information to keep contractors updated,” said Jon Preble, a certified engineer and SBTA’s CEO.

Another trendy topic covered by the course is mini-split a/c systems with help from manufacturers such as Daikin AC, Carrollton, Texas, which supplied information and equipment for the course. 

Besides new products, Beaver’s staff doggedly tracks new state laws as well. For example, most Georgians think the penalty for fraudulent unemployment claims is to pay back the money, because that’s what the statute claims. However, Beaver discovered some judges were imprisoning cheaters up to 30 days for every fraudulent check. “You won’t find this kind of information on other state certification courses because most other schools just go by the state manual,” said Beaver. “We take it a step further and present the reality of situations.” 

Dragging the license certification industry into the 21st century has been no easy task for SBTA. Although former Georgia Secretary of State, Kathy Cox, first approved SBTA’s online licensing launch as part of her quest for modernizing government operations, Beaver recalls resistance from a state licensing board chairman who later reversed the approval. “He said he had ‘operated a contracting business for 30 years without a computer, so no one else needed one and they certainly didn’t need to complete license certification on a computer,’” said Beaver. 

As more computer use grows, so will online continuing education for state-mandated licensing updates. SBTA’s business is growing annually from contractors that are discovering that license updates needn’t be drudgery.

Publication date:02/04/2008