After high school, Rusty Walker, now 55, joined the U.S. Army for a four-year stint as an electronics technician. But after his service was up, he decided to take his career a step further.

“I thought, ‘I’ll try mechanical’ and fell in love with thermodynamics,” he said. “I stumbled into it.”

Since then, Walker has finished school, worked in the field, and helped establish Hillphoenix’s Learning Center, where he currently serves as senior trainer.

Walker’s dedication to training, his experience in the field, and his commitment to the future generation of HVACR technicians earned him runner-up honors in The NEWS’ 2013 Best Trainer contest.

Hands-On Man

After college, Walker spent some time testing coils and systems in a lab. Then, 16 years ago, he attended a Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) meeting at Hillphoenix. “I walked into my first motor room and said, this is cool,” he said. “I told my buddy, I want to work there.”

Walker was hired as an engineer with Hillphoenix, was promoted to a lab engineer position, and eventually earned the role of lab manager. After seven years at Hillphoenix, he left to join Atlanta Energy Specialists to “try something different.”

“It made me a much better engineer, going into actual service,” Walker said. “I did that for about three years. Then Hillphoenix called, and they were putting a training facility together.”

Walker’s engineering and service background made him a great fit for the senior trainer role, where he provides training to field service technicians, installation personnel, design engineers, and many others in the HVACR industry.

“There seems to be a need for more training as we get these more complex systems, and it seems like mechanics are thirsting for someone to teach them how to do this,” Walker said, adding, “It’s something I’ve really fallen in love with.”

Relatable Rusty

Walker’s knowledge and passion for his job is evident, and his ability to connect with technicians has helped him become one of the most effective trainers in the industry.

Pat Welty, owner of SCR Inc., St. Cloud, Minn., has sat in on many of Walker’s classes and presentations over the years. Walker’s teaching ability, he said, is unmatched.

“He is well prepared for his classes and is very knowledgeable on the subject he is presenting,” Welty said. “He adjusts his presentation to the level of competency within in the class. In my experience, there is not a better trainer in our industry.”

David Moorehead, a technical writer and trainer at Hillphoenix, works with Walker and said his effectiveness as a trainer has a lot to do with his ability to connect well with his trainees.

“It’s largely because he’s worked as a refrigeration technician in the field, where he’s been on calls and worked long hours,” Moorehead said. “He has that background, and when he works with other technicians who are in here for training, he connects with them.”

“I like to do the engineering training and working with contractors and technicians,” Walker said. “I love the questions and challenges. I always try to get everybody involved in the class, to have a conversation. They’re participating, they want to answer, and they get it. That’s the fun part.”

Walker said contractors who come in for training will sometimes “have some attitude,” but it doesn’t bother him. “As they learn and understand, you can see as they’re really starting to get it,” he said. “I really like that.”

In addition to relating to his trainees, Walker isn’t afraid to get his hands — and everything else — a little dirty.

“When he teaches on site, he’ll finish the class and say, ‘Show me some of the stuff you’re doing,’ and he’ll go climb around on equipment and identify some problems,” Moorehead said. Chuckling, he added, “He’s ruined a few pairs of pants doing that.”

Keeping it Simple

One of Walker’s best qualities is that he can explain a complicated subject in a way that everyone can understand, Moorehead said. “That’s one of his greatest attributes; he’s able to talk with individuals on their terms, regarding their concerns.”

“I take a complicated process and kind of simplify it,” Walker said. “I just try to keep it simple, be real, and communicate on a level that everybody understands.”

Moorehead, who has been with Hillphoenix for a year, said he has already learned a great deal from Walker by working with him and sitting in on his classes. “I really feel that people walk away with things they can use from him,” he said. “Not just one thing — a number of things they can use right away in their jobs. And he’s done that consistently over the time I’ve known him.”

Welty said Walker keeps things simple, and finds ways to keep his trainees engaged throughout the duration of the class.

“One of Rusty’s other key attributes is that he keeps the courses lively and interesting, interjecting stories that may relate to a particular repair or procedure, which he can easily do, because he has spent time in the field. He can relate to what a technician encounters on an installation or repair,” Welty said. “To Rusty, teaching is not just a job but a passion, and he approaches it with a lot of energy. This keeps everyone awake, and they leave his courses with smiles on their faces and knowledge in their toolboxes.”

Moorehead agreed that Rusty has a unique and interactive teaching style, adding that he is known for roaming around the room during class. But he also has another distinctive characteristic that sets him apart from most other trainers. “He is very well known for having a loud, booming voice,” Moorehead said. “In this learning center, we’re adjacent to an area of cubicles, and if we ever forget to close the door, they let us know.”

The Next Gen

While Walker has enjoyed teaching over the years, he said there currently aren’t enough kids in the trade and indicated he would like to do more training with young technicians. But attracting the next generation of industry workers has been a challenge, he said.

“I don’t know how we’re going to attract young people. It’s a lot of hours, you get dirty, and it’s hot,” he said. “We had a lot of trade schools when I was in high school, but that doesn’t seem to be much of an option anymore. Everybody wants to go to college and get a four-year degree, but we need people who know how to put their hands on things.”

Getting into the schools and talking to students about the advantages of a career in HVACR is an important step in changing their perception of the industry and the opportunities it offers, he said. “We need to teach young people it’s OK not to go to a four-year college,” he said. “You can make a respectable living in this industry.”

In addition to wanting to teach younger technicians, Walker said he hopes to continue to expand the training program at Hillphoenix.

“My goal is to keep growing the Hillphoenix Learning Center, get more trainers, and get more people out there in the field,” he said. “I want people to get energized and see more young people enter the trade.”

That, he said, will help ensure there are enough competent, skilled young workers to take the reins from the baby boomers as they enter retirement. “Guys like me, we make up 80 percent of the trade, and we’re going to be retiring and dying off soon,” he said. “You can outsource some jobs, but you can’t outsource hands-on work.”

Publication date: 11/25/2013 

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