HVACR equipment seems to be upgrading at an unprecedented pace. New regulations are reaching the industry quicker than ever, with more to come. New refrigerants are flooding the market, just in time to fill the gap left by the more familiar refrigerants that are on the brink of being phased out. And everybody seems to be talking green.

For trade schools, community colleges, and four-year universities, the task is attempting to identify the instruction parameters of HVAC 101, the basics of the refrigeration cycle, and beyond. And for contractors who have to deal with new generation equipment, more regulations, new refrigerants, and customers’ questions about green, the expectations of prospective service technicians have never been more unsettled.

Employment Prerequisites

As the spring semester wound down in academic institutions, and contractors caught a brief lull before the cooling season heated up, The NEWS asked a handful of academia and employers their thoughts on the changing HVACR landscape related to what those students who soon may become technicians need to know.

In the broadest brushstroke, teachers are trying to keep up with the winds of change blowing through the industry, but never at the expense of teaching the basics. And contractors, while grateful for whatever technical groundwork a new hire might have, also still desire soft skills in terms of communication and customer relations as much as anything.

“Career technology education (CTE) programs must ensure students have plenty of time with the tools and access to the latest equipment such as heat pump, radiant panels, variable-air volume systems, zoning equipment, building automations systems, heat pumps and renewable-energy systems,” said Andy Erbach professor of HVACR at Elgin (Ill.) Community College, whose HVACR program offers both an associate in applied science degree in HVACR as well as vocational certificates. “It is also critically important that codes and standards be taught because many technicians in the field are unaware of the effect that changes to international codes have on our industry.”

Erbach saw the need for academia to have links with trade associations within the industry. For example, in dealing with new refrigerants including the so-called natural refrigerants like HCs, CO2, and ammonia, he said, “this is where a lot of industry-partner organizations like RETA [Refrigerating, Engineers & Technicians Association] and ACCA [Air Conditioning Contractors of America] have a lot to offer. We need to work closely with them.”

In terms of all the green talk, Erbach called green solutions a natural fit with a well-run HVAC program. He said, “In order to ensure the quality and relevance of training, I feel strongly that schools should seek accreditation by a reputable third party for both the HVAC curriculum and the renewable-energy component of their programs. HVAC Excellence, PAHRA [Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation] and the Green Mechanical Council all offer rigorous third-party accreditation programs.”

Finding the Right Balance

John Tomczyk, a regular contributor for The NEWS, is a professor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. The college offers both a bachelor’s degree in HVACR engineer technology and an associate in applied science in HVACR Technology.

“The best and most efficient method of teaching students the latest in energy-efficient equipment is to have the students actually work hands-on with the equipment in the laboratory. However, meaningful lectures that timely correlate main concepts are of vital importance,” Tomczyk said. He noted Ferris has three hours of lectures and hosts three-hour laboratory periods twice each week.

Dealing with natural refrigerants should come “as their technology develops” even though he admits “they are hard to teach in an educational laboratory setting.” For the established natural refrigerant ammonia, Tomczyk said, “It should be taught in two to three lectures followed by a field trip to an ammonia plant.”

One method of getting students to think about environmental issues is with the textbook used in the associate program. “Sentences and paragraphs are highlighted with a green leaf at the start and end of the section when they apply to green technology in any way,” Tomczyk said.

Recovery and recycling — a requirement for technicians — needs to be stressed, he said. “Our university makes students recover and recycle. This lets students get familiar with the different pieces of the recovery and recycling equipment, and the proper safety procedures to handle the refrigerant in the recovery tank.”

Real-World Experiences

Kelley Anderson is director of education at Coyne College in Chicago, which offers a diploma and associate degree in HVACR.

Anderson noted that the school’s “labs are built to simulate real-world experiences. Therefore, some equipment students work on is older and some is newer and more energy efficient.”

The real world is also emphasized with guest speakers who teach students about the latest in energy-efficient equipment. The speakers come through the work of the school’s program advisory committee (PAC) and industry manufacturers.

The school also stresses continuing education for instructors. “The faculty development program en-
sures instructors are participating in
continuing education opportunities throughout the year,” Anderson said.

She also offered a perspective that jives with the thoughts of contractors. In noting the changes with the arrival of newer refrigerants such as CO2 and HFOs, she said, “They are mentioned but not used in lab equipment. Coyne is preparing students for entry-level employment in the HVAC field in a finite amount of time. There is much material that is covered regarding basic information and theory of HVAC.”

And, again in line with the wheelhouse of contractors, she noted the college’s advisory committee members “have stressed the importance of soft skills in entry-level employees. They need to be professional, well-spoken, and customer-service oriented in addition to having technical knowledge and ability. Therefore, Coyne has incorporated more soft skills and customer-service training into its HVAC programs.”

Contractors Comment

And that sits just fine with contractors. Bobby Ring, president and CEO of Meyer & Depew Co., Kenilworth, N.J., said, “I’ve spoken to groups of students at several vocational schools over the years. I usually end up doing a presentation about not wanting just competently trained technicians, but good employees who are constantly reviewing expectations for their new careers.

“Employers want employees who arrive on time, maintain a good appearance, provide eight hours of work for eight hours of pay, have a good driving record, do not abuse drugs or alcohol, keep their trucks neat and clean, have a positive attitude about their jobs, and attend classes on a regular basis.”

Greg Crumpton, president of AirTight Mechanical of Charlotte, N.C., sees training as a partnership among many entities. “A strong partnership is required between the manufacturers, the school, and/or educational facility, as well as mechanical/service contractors in the area.”

In terms of regulatory issues, he noted, “AirTight has partnered with two local schools, in so far as becoming involved with the curriculum-selecting panel. We are working to ensure what the institutions are teaching is current, relevant, and required in the local market place.”

Ongoing training beyond schools was stressed by Crumpton. For example, regarding recovery/recycling/reclamation of refrigerants, “I feel that we as an industry do a pretty good job of educating, testing, and certifying our technicians on the R/R/R process.” But it is an ongoing process, similar to that of introducing new refrigerants. Here he echoed the school educators who try to monitor those developments. “We are pretty much in the weeds with what is working, what is not working, and how to get there as far as alternative refrigerants. All the major manufacturers of the gases seemed to be engaged and the OEMs are figuring out their long-term gas strategy as well.”

That we-are-all-in-this-together aspect was noted by Hank Bloom, owner of Environmental Conditioning Systems of Mentor, Ohio. Bloom said, regarding energy-efficient equipment, “The major equipment manufacturers should form a partnership with schools to keep them up to date and engage the local contractors to be involved in the recruiting of new talent.”

He also saw the value to schools partnering with trade organizations like ASHRAE and ACCA to keep up on the changing regulatory landscape.

But, like so many other contractors and educators, he said the importance of soft skills can often trump all the technical, regulatory, and environmental-awareness talk.

“We will consider anyone that has the right attitude and desire to be in our field regardless of training,” Bloom said. “And training doesn’t end upon earning a certificate or diploma at an educational institution. We let new service techs work as helpers in the field. After this process, we all can sit down and determine the proper training to go forward.”

Publication date: 7/8/2013 

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