When Sacramento, Calif., UA Local 447 Apprenticeship Training Center instructor Phil Wilbur got started in the industry in 1977, he was going to community college with the intent of becoming a chemical engineer. Sharing a ride with his friend, however, meant that he would sometimes hang out in his friend’s classes, and the guy was taking an air conditioning course.
“The next thing I cancelled all of my chemical engineering classes and signed up for air conditioning,” Wilbur said. Around 1979 he started working for a small refrigeration contractor, then he moved on to another company where he started doing more air conditioning work. In 1988, he went to work for York International (now Johnson Controls), and became involved with the district’s chiller work.
When he graduated from union plumbing classes, there was no a/c training offered. “I told them it sucks; they told me to come back and teach the next semester,” Wilbur said. And so his teaching career was launched.
The new class was so successful, the local eventually added a second instructor; now there are seven refrigeration instructors. “There are approximately 80-90 students at this time in the five-year program,” Wilbur said. Students work during the day and attend class at night.
“I like what I do,” he said. “I enjoy the fact that you get that one guy, once in a while, who says you made a difference. You made a difference in someone’s life.”
Wilbur teaches first-year apprentices, CFC certification, and computer literacy. The local is currently putting together a rigging program.
“I was a better instructor because of Pat Myers,” he added. Myers came in third place inThe NEWS’contest last year. “Our guys are all top notch at what they do.” They are all experienced at what they are teaching; “we all have day jobs. We typically will spend 30-40 minutes discussing industry stuff in the teachers’ lounge. We all make each other better.”
TEACHING TO THINKWilbur stresses that he teaches his students how to think. “I want them to be self supporting. I’ll give them Sudoku problems, logic problems, role playing … I’ll run them through the mill sometimes. You can teach your mind to process that way.
“It’s like being a pro coach,” he said. “You can’t take a constant hard-line attitude. They’ll shut you off.”
According to fellow instructor Ed Swisher, “He is the best instructor in our school.” However, Wilbur nominated Swisher in this competition a couple of years ago, and another instructor last year.
“He was going to nominate somebody else this year, but I insisted that he is the one to be nominated,” Swisher said. In addition to his classroom inventiveness, “Phil gets to know all of his students personally and shows a genuine interest in them.”
Wilbur summed it up like this: “I like to see people succeed. I think any of us who teach, we don’t do it for the money. We do it because there’s something about it we enjoy, and we enjoy working with the guys.”