For thousands of years, workers have transferred skills from one generation to the next by some sort of formal or informal apprenticeship program. The first official apprenticeship program can be traced back almost 4,000 years to ancient Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi, which stated artisans must teach their crafts to their youth, and apprentices were to be treated as adopted sons.

Fast forward several millennia, and the transfer of knowledge still takes place in numerous apprenticeship programs around the country, though at an increasingly lower rate. According to the Department of Labor, the U.S. had over 19,000 registered apprenticeship programs in 2013 with more than 113,000 individuals entering a program that year and more than 44,000 participants graduating from a program that same year.

Compare those numbers to 2002, when there were almost 32,000 registered apprenticeship programs in the U.S. with more than 139,000 new apprentices entering a program and 52,000 graduating. The 40 percent drop in these formal training programs over 11 years is not good news for the HVAC industry, which has long relied on this system to supply a steady stream of skilled workers. But, as demand for HVAC professionals grows, many remain hopeful existing apprenticeship programs will be able to attract new recruits, and that new training models may entice the next generation to enter the HVAC industry.

Bright Spots

One of the oldest registered apprenticeship programs in the U.S. was started in 1921 by the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters, Sprinklerfitters, Steamfitters, and HVACR Service Techs, and it still operates today, supplying a skilled workforce for organizations such as the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) and Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC). Individuals who join the UA can enter its five-year apprenticeship program, which combines classroom, hands-on technical training, and on-the-job training.

The five-year program is divided into one-year segments, each of which includes 1,700-2,000 hours of on-the-job training (OJT) and a minimum of 246 hours of related classroom instruction. All UA apprentices receive a general education in the trade with core courses in basics, such as mathematics, science, drafting, safety, and other classes related to the pipe trades.

With more than 300 training centers across the U.S. and Canada, the UA apprenticeship program offers attractive pay and benefits, as well as college credit, which entice enough qualified applicants to fulfill typical manpower needs, said Chris Haslinger, director of training, UA Training Department, International Training Fund, Annapolis, Maryland. “In fact, in some large metropolitan areas, there may be 2,000-3,000 people applying for roughly 100 openings in a given year.”

Over the last five years, there has actually been an increase in applications received by the UA apprenticeship program as people look for second careers or different work opportunities. “The HVAC apprenticeship industry is an area where we have seen an increased interest in our programs, and we believe that over the next five to 10 years, this industry will continue to grow,” said Haslinger. “A lot of this growth is due to the impending mass exodus of baby boomers from this sector of our trade. In addition, our Veterans In Piping (VIP) program, which places active-duty veterans in accelerated welding and HVACR technician training programs, is very popular.”

The growing demand for skilled HVAC professionals is the reason why PHCC of San Diego implemented a two-year HVAC training program in October 2013. “By 2018, it is estimated that 86,000 new jobs will be available in the HVAC industry,” said Danielle Dorsey, executive director, PHCC of San Diego. “Careers in this industry provide excellent pay and lifelong employment, and, best of all, they produce portable skills and cannot be outsourced. We are placing students on a fast track to a new career.”

At the PHCC Academy of San Diego, students learn a solid foundation and understanding of environmental problems and their solutions, Dorsey said, as well as detailed theory, diagnostics, and repair procedures. At this point in time, the program is a general training program that is not federally certified, therefore OJT hours are not required.

“The HVAC program meets once a week for 39 weeks, and, upon satisfactory completion, each student becomes EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] 608 certified, ICE [Industry Competency Exam] certified, and has an opportunity to become NATE [North American Technician Excellence] certified,” said Dorsey. “The graduate is then prepared to enter the field to design, install, service, maintain, and troubleshoot residential and commercial HVAC systems. The first class began with 17 students. In the second year of the program, there are 13 new incoming students.”

While Dorsey is optimistic the PHCC Academy of San Diego will continue to grow due to the strong need for educated technicians, she notes apprenticeship programs are on the decline for several reasons. “Young people are going in other directions, such as smart technologies and cool gadgets, and high schools are no longer offering vocational classes that would expose students to the industry and shape their careers. Kids usually do not aspire to be plumbers or HVAC technicians when they grow up, which is why we need to educate them about the technology used in the industry as well as the stability of this career choice.”

Hit and Miss

Pat Lupson, executive director, Air Conditioning Contractors of America — National Capital Chapter (ACCA-NCC), Silver Spring, Maryland, agrees middle and high school students should be made aware of the opportunities that exist in the HVAC industry. “They need to be educated that the trade is a great industry that provides a very respectable income. They also need to know it doesn’t just involve repairing home or commercial HVAC units. For example, engineers are needed to design equipment and systems, and air quality impacts every part of our lives.”

Since 1988, ACCA-NCC has offered an apprenticeship program that trains 30-50 students each year. The four-year program involves 640 hours of class instruction coupled with 8,000 hours of OJT. Those who graduate are recognized as Maryland journeymen without having to sit for the required licensing exam.

Mike Tucker, owner, Tucker’s Air Conditioning & Heating, Gaithersburg, Maryland, has participated in the ACCA-NCC apprenticeship program for seven years.

“We participate so that our younger employees can get the book knowledge necessary to back up their hands-on knowledge,” said Tucker. “A more knowledgeable tech presents much better to our clientele and is seen as more experienced. I like this program because it puts technicians on a four-year track to journeyman status. In addition, it allows us to build our techs from the ground up, and we are able to train them in our methodology.”

Tucker added the HVAC industry has trouble attracting new technicians, but apprenticeship programs, such as the one available through ACCA-NCC, give non-college-bound students a great opportunity for a wonderful career in HVAC. “All contractors should be involved, as it raises the quality of employees over the long haul.”

ACCA-Texas, Austin, Texas, began a similar four-year Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship program in 2010 with the hopes of graduating skilled HVAC workers for the Dallas/Fort Worth and greater Houston areas. Unfortunately, the program is currently on hold for several reasons, including the fact that the Department of Labor pulled its approval due to low registration.

“Apprenticeship training is not required in Texas, and installers or technicians are not required to be licensed or certified; therefore, those enrolled in the program were there voluntarily,” said Todd McAlister, executive director, ACCA-Texas. “There is a registration process in Texas that includes a background check; however, there is no determination of competency within the industry. To operate legally, air conditioning and refrigeration companies must be licensed, but only one license is necessary for the whole company.”

Recruitment was another problem, McAlister noted, as the four-year commitment proved difficult for technicians and contractors to accede. “Many contractors were concerned they would invest in these apprentices only to have them quit midway through the program, leaving them to absorb tuition costs.”

It was also difficult to convince contractors to allow apprentices to train for a week at a time rather than after normal work hours. “Training students for a full week was a better investment and led to a better learning environment,” said McAlister. “However, for many employers, it was difficult to turn an installer loose for a full week while still having to pay his or her salary and training costs, as well as cover travel expenses if the individual was not from the local area.”

In December 2013, ACCA-Texas graduated one class of 16 in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but there were no graduates in the greater Houston area. “We see great value in apprenticeship training and industry training as a whole. The challenge for the industry will be to develop methods to get engagement through local secondary schools so that both the students and their parents view the trades as a viable path to a lifetime of employment and success.”

Going It Alone

When statewide licensing became a reality in Iowa several years ago, Brian Leech, owner, Service Legends, Des Moines, Iowa, decided to take matters into his own hands and create an apprenticeship program specifically for his company. “We’ve trained our team members for quite some time internally, utilizing multiple different resources and centers. I did not really want an external entity to train my team because we do things so uniquely, and I felt our training was significantly superior to outside training organizations.”

So, Leech worked with the director for state apprenticeships to create a state- and federally approved four-year, 8,000-hour program designed to graduate technicians who are able to pass the state licensing exam as well as all NATE certification exams. To enter the apprenticeship program, candidates are hired as employees and then placed on probation for 90 days. During that time, they are paid $10 per hour, and they must become EPA certified and pass five technical and competency exams.

“It’s self-study correspondence — they read through the textbooks, take the mini-exams, and then we test them in the shop with a proctored exam,” said Leech. “Once they take all five exams and obtain their EPA licenses, we enroll them in the apprenticeship program. If they don’t get that done in the first 90 days, we let them go. That hasn’t happened yet, but we want them to take it seriously. We have high expectations, and we don’t mess around.”

After the probationary period (and a successful performance review), pay is automatically increased to $13.20 per hour, and apprentices work toward completing coursework that is mostly self-study. In-house trainers also provide classroom and hands-on training in the test lab each week, and all apprentices are eventually sent to a one-week training class at Ultimate Training Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. After every 1,000 hours of successfully completed coursework and OJT, apprentices receive an increase in pay, eventually reaching $33 per hour (plus benefits) upon graduation from the program.

Leech advertises his program extensively on the radio, and, so far, he’s had no trouble finding or retaining apprentices. “We currently have 17 or 18 apprentices, and 11 or 12 other employees are on a virtual bench, waiting to enter the program. We’ve graduated eight apprentices so far, and I’m really happy with the results.”

Leech is so pleased with the outcome that he would like to see other contractors — even direct competitors — adopt his apprenticeship program model, as he believes it will raise the bar in the industry. “With more training, it becomes an issue of who can develop their people better, which I think is great. Successful contractors know they have to take care of their people if they’re going to remain successful. Offering a training program like ours makes it easy to recruit good talent because employees know we’re going to take care of them and train them.”

The increased interest in existing programs and the emergence of new models such as Leech’s cannot come too soon, as the HVAC industry desperately needs skilled apprentices to replenish vacancies left by those who are retiring in greater numbers each year.

Publication date: 10/6/2014

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