While many in the industry still use the term votech, or vocational/technical, to describe the educational programs that prepare individuals to enter the HVAC trade, that term is being increasingly discarded. Instead of votech, educators and administrators are using the phrase Career and Technical Education, or CTE.
One of the driving forces behind this rebranding is an effort to replace the stigma associated with votech schools. Not only are people in the HVAC industry passionate about putting new emphasis on CTE and moving away from old stereotypes, but so are others involved in the trades and in education - all the way up to the president. Recent statements by President Obama and the Secretary of Education all indicate that the current administration is placing increasing emphasis on technical education.
FOCUS ON CTEEarlier this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at Harvard about CTE, and termed the new vision and approach “CTE 2.0.” Sec. Duncan said, “The mission of CTE has to change. It can no longer be about earning a diploma and landing a job after high school. The goal of CTE 2.0 should be that students earn a postsecondary degree or an industry-recognized certification - and land a job that leads to a successful career.”
He continued to emphasize postsecondary education and industry certification throughout his speech, and also noted that President Obama is focused on these aspects of CTE as well. “To be a winner in the future, President Obama has urged every American to get at least a year of higher education or post-secondary career training. ‘Whatever the training may be,’ the president said, ‘every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.’ ”
Duncan explained, “In effect, the president has suggested that every American earn a minimum of two pieces of paper - a high school diploma, and a degree or industry-recognized certification. In the years ahead, young adults are likely to need those two credentials to secure a good job. That will become the ticket to success and a positive future.”
Duncan cited a study from Georgetown University that predicted that, from 2008 to 2018, roughly two-thirds of U.S. job openings will require postsecondary education and training. “Fourteen million of those job openings will be in the middle-skill occupations, filled by workers with an associate’s degree or occupational certificate,” he said.
According to Warren Lupson, director of education for the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), the HVAC industry is well positioned to provide this type of education and certification. He noted that the Industry Competency Exam (ICE) is currently offered as three tests: residential, light commercial, and refrigeration. “Schools use it as an exit exam in a lot of cases,” he said, noting that it should assure employers that they are receiving a competent entry-level technician.
Similarly, Thomas Tebbe, national programs director for HVAC Excellence, noted that his organization also offers an Employment Ready Certification test for student outcome assessment. Tebbe added a word of caution about certification, and how some in the industry may set too high of expectations for recent graduates. “At times, contractors or employers don’t have a realistic expectation of what a graduate from a full-time HVACR program should be able to do. I’ve heard them say a graduate should be ‘van-ready.’ But what occupation qualifies any graduate to walk in and just take over?”
Tebbe continued, “The expectation of a contractor should be: ‘I’m hiring an entry-level technician who has to be trained, nurtured, and educated into a position.’ ” Tebbe pointed to the importance of field experience as a requirement for certification, and reiterated that contractors should look for “employment-ready certification offered by HVAC Excellence, ICE, or an equivalent, which shows that a student learned the competencies in the school and is ready to enter the workforce.”
After achieving entry-level certification, individuals should gain field experience before attempting to seek a technician certification. According to Patrick Murphy, vice president of certifications for North American Technician Excellence (NATE), “The NATE certifications are for seasoned technicians, not entry level technicians. We suggest that a candidate have technical training and one year of experience in the field for the installation certifications, and two years of field experience for the service series.”
According to Tebbe, HVAC Excellence requires candidates to verify that they have two years of field experience before taking the HVAC Excellence Professional Level exam.
Murphy also commented on the value of achieving certification. “Certification proves the technician has the knowledge to do the job properly. That value translates to various levels,” he explained. “For the technician, it gives him a sense of accomplishment. For the contractor, it lets him know that his technician has the knowledge to do the job correctly with a higher degree of proficiency. For the consumer, it lets them know the contractor has taken the extra step to make sure their employees are knowledgeable according to the industry standard.”
After taking a technician certification test, an applicant can choose to specialize even further by taking exams such as RSES Certificate Member Specialty (CMS), HVAC Excellence Master Specialist, or NATE Efficiency Analyst.
CAREER-READINESSIn addition to certification, career-readiness is also a hot topic across the industry and educational sectors.
According to Duncan, the Department of Education defines career-ready students as those who “have the academic skills to be able to engage in postsecondary education and training without the need for remediation.” Not only do career-ready students need these academic skills, Duncan said, they also “must have the knowledge and skills that employers need from day one.” He explained, “That means having critical thinking and problem-solving skills, an ability to synthesize information, solid communication skills, and the ability to work well on a team.”
Duncan said, “There is a lot of talk these days about the need to boost college and career-readiness. But the truth - and I include myself here - is that most of the current debate is about college-readiness. Too often, career-readiness is an afterthought.”
In the HVAC industry, many instructors are made aware of what employers are looking for through their industry advisory panels. At the Instructors Workshop hosted by AHRI earlier this year, one panel session focused on what employers are looking for in recent graduates. Most of the panelists named listed off basic skills, such as holding a current driver’s license, passing a drug test, showing up on time, as well as communicating and relating well with others.
LOOKING TO THE FUTUREAs the administration continues to push for more rigorous certification and career preparation, HVAC programs that focus on these aspects should be well situated to continue to move away from the old votech stigma.
Duncan also spoke about the past problems of CTE, and the stigma of vocational educations. “Voc ed lacked academic rigor and relevance. It was a last-stop destination - rather than serving as a launching pad to postsecondary education and industry-recognized certifications leading to a good job.” According to Duncan, business partnerships, career guidance and counseling, and statewide articulation agreements are the key to overcoming many of the past problems.
Tebbe added that manufacturers, distributors, and contractors can all participate in supporting and aiding the education of the next generation to enter HVAC. “If we all work together in harmony, there’s a lot of things that could be accomplished,” he said.