KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For its 50th annual National Leadership and Skills Conference, SkillsUSA drew more than 6,000 participants from secondary and post-secondary educational and training programs. The centerpiece was a daylong competition in 99 different categories, one of which was HVACR, where 54 students who had advanced from local, regional, and state competitions spent a day troubleshooting mechanical equipment as well as taking an exam on HVACR basics.

Under the eye of scoring judges, contestants brazed, executed air conditioning troubleshooting techniques, demonstrated refrigerant recovery and recycling skills, performed refrigeration maintenance, evaluated airflow, serviced a gas furnace, and were tested on geothermal equipment.

When the day was done, top finishers in the college/post-secondary division were:

• Gold winner: Beau Tippett, Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston, Idaho;

• Silver winner: Aaron Bell, Lamar Institute of Technology, Beaumont, Texas; and

• Bronze winner: Gerald McNerney, Metropolitan Community College, Omaha, Nebraska.

Tops in the high school division were:

• Gold winner: Brandon Irons, Indian Capital Technology Center, Muskogee, Oklahoma;

• Silver winner: Tyler Nichols, Albany Career and Technical School, Albany, New York; and

• Bronze winner: Shawn McAuley, Platt Technical High School, Milford, Connecticut.

Hard and Soft

In order to succeed in HVACR, and most other mechanical industries, service technicians must be equipped with both hard and soft skillsets — hard skills meaning working with the tools and equipment, and soft skills meaning dealing politely and diplomatically with customers.

Both skill sets are taught in high schools, colleges, and vocational schools, and are often included in the grading process and through referrals to potential employers.

It certainly factors into the Skills
USA career and technical student organization, too, which was evident at this summer’s event. In the HVACR competition, students demonstrated how to diagnose and troubleshoot equipment while using the tools of the trade. Following the technical expose, students attended dozens of seminars focusing on leadership, work ethics, high expectations, and best practices.

Expert Help

A technical committee of HVACR experts organized and oversaw the competition. Co-chairs were Bob Mikell, Carrier Corp., and Bill Roberts, Lennox Industries Inc. Others on the committee were Mike Eckstein, RSES; Bob Feathers, Emerson Educational Services; Bob Henson, Harris Products Group; Les Karcher, Carrier Corp.; Warren Lupson, Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI); and Jamie Simpson, Schaal Heating and Cooling, Des Moines, Iowa.

Also in the equation was the National Education Team, made up of HVACR instructors. For 2014, they were James Hanway of Northland Career Center, Platte City, Missouri; Todd Huxford, South Central College, Faribault, Minnesota; Richard Shurtleff, Chariho Career and Technical Center, Wood River Junction, Rhode Island; and James Tankersley, Altamaha Technical College, Jesup, Georgia.

The SkillsUSA 2014 Awards & Recognition publication listed additional support within the HVACR sector from Apex Tool Group LLC, Appion Inc., Calculated Industries Inc., Carhartt Inc., CPS Products, Fluke Corp., KASKO, Irwin Industrial Tool Co., JB Industries Inc., Lowe’s Companies Inc., Midwest Tool and Cutlery, Milwaukee Electric Tool Co., Malco Products Inc., Ranken Technical College, Regal Beloit Corp., Sealed Units Parts Co. Inc. (Supco), Universal Enterprises Inc. (UEi) Test Instruments, University of Northwestern Ohio, and Yellow Jacket.

To get the view on how the teaching side — ranging from local classrooms to the national SkillsUSA event — fits into preparing a student in both hard and soft skills for the job market, three of the four National Education Team instructors took a break from setting up testing stations to discuss the HVACR learning process.

Each noted the complexity of the industry and stressed that secondary, post-secondary, and vocational training equips prospects solely with entry-level skill sets. To succeed, this knowledge must be expanded upon by contractors, suppliers, manufacturers, and trade associations through ongoing education.

“The knowledge is basic,” Shurtleff said. “Students leave the classroom with skills, but lack experience. When they are able to put these skills to the test, over and over again, they gain a knowledge base, and the contractor can build from there.”

Hanway stressed up-and-coming technicians must possess “employability skills including soft skills,” stating they must be able to communicate with customers in a professional manner.

For Huxford, “Students should have soft skills. If they don’t, they won’t do well in customers’ homes.” He further noted that, these days, customers have the capability of recording technicians with hidden cameras, documenting every conversation and action within the home or structure.

Connecting With Contractors

To help a contractor latch onto the best prospects coming out of an HVACR program, Huxford said he has students sign a release form allowing him to provide information to contractors that extends beyond a diploma or a certificate of completion. “If a student doesn’t sign such a form, well, that may say something about that student,” he said.

Hanway said that soft skills account for about 45 percent of a grade in the classes he teaches at Northland.

Shurtleff, Huxford, and Hanway praised the SkillsUSA contest, noting how it helps make young people more employable at the local, state, and national levels.

“You can tell all the difference in the world with kids involved in SkillsUSA,” said Shurtleff. “Those involved with SkillsUSA are preparing for success.”

“We can see the positive impact of SkillsUSA,” said Hanway. “These students get involved and they get the bug. They develop a passion for their future in the industry.”

A New Home

The HVACR event took up one portion of the massive Bartle Hall in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Competition neighbors included culinary arts, plumbing, photography, electrical construction wiring, and industrial motor controls — and those six were just a small part of the 99 competitions going on.

The event was open to the public, so thousands walked about the complex to watch events designed to show vocational education in a most favorable light.

The 2014 event was the final one for Kansas City. Next summer, the event will relocate to Louisville, Kentucky. Promoters from Louisville were on hand to promise even more convention hall space and more hotel rooms for SkillsUSA, which has grown consistently, year after year.

SIDEBAR: Professionals and Professors

The need for soft skills extends into contractoring firms across the nation, as was noted by a handful of contractors recently contacted by The NEWS. Rich Morgan, president, Magic Touch Mechanical, Mesa, Arizona, said: “We look for a positive attitude, a willingness to learn, and mechanical aptitude — in that order. Truth is, we are quicker to hire a person who has the characteristics in question than a trade school graduate with the wrong attitude.”

Morgan added that he appreciates instructors that are willing to share tips and information on future prospects, calling it extremely valuable. “Knowing the attitude a graduate displayed in school and how he or she interacted with other students, instructors, and administrative staff reflects on how the individual will most likely interact with coworkers, clients, and management at the company.”

Eric Knaak, vice president of operations for Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning, Rochester, New York, said: “The first thing we look at is personality and how well the individual will represent the company. After that, we look at mechanical aptitude and mechanical ability (a series of tests we perform). Then we consider experience, specific skill sets, driving record, work experience, etc. We know from experience that we can educate and train somebody who has the right personality and attitude, but we cannot train personality or attitude, so they need to already have those traits that we are looking for.”

He also cherishes his company’s interaction with various HVACR professors regarding future employees. “I have had those conversations from time to time and they are very helpful because not everyone who enters these programs is necessarily a good candidate. These conversations have allowed me to work with the local community college, and we are working on a program for co-ops that takes place early in the degree process, as opposed to the last semester, so students may get valuable feedback before investing two years into something that may not be a fit for them.”

Publication date: 8/11/2014

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