When Phil Wilbur enrolled in his local community college more than 30 years ago, he had every intention of becoming a chemical engineer. But, after a friend introduced him to the HVAC industry, he quickly changed his mind.
“My friend was taking refrigeration and air conditioning classes at the college, and he gave me a ride,” Wilbur recalled. “My classes were done early, so I went in and waited for him in his building, and I started looking at all the different stuff. I found it fascinating. So, I dropped all my chemical engineering classes and began the two-year trade school program.”
Since then, Wilbur, who is a chiller team technical leader for Johnson Controls Inc. by day and an apprenticeship instructor at UA Local 447’s Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Training Center by night, has not only built a career in HVACR — he’s helped many others build theirs, too.
It’s Wilbur’s tireless dedication to his work, his students, and the future of the HVACR industry that have earned him the title of The NEWS’ 2015 Best Instructor.
FILLING A NEED
After trade school, Wilbur took a job with a union contractor. “They put me through a four-year apprenticeship, but the school I went to had no refrigeration program, so I complained to the coordinator. He said, ‘Why don’t you come back next year and start a program and make it better?’ So, I did.”
That was 1985. Three decades later, Local 447’s HVAC program is thriving. Six additional instructors are on staff now at the Sacramento, California, training facility, and Wilbur estimates around 400 apprentices have come through the program, where he teaches first-year refrigeration as well as OSHA 10, OSHA 30, industrial rigging, and crane signalman certification courses, among other related subjects.
“Four of the instructors here now are my old students, and they’re teaching with me, which is nice,” Wilbur said. “It’s my 30th year — I’m the old guy now.”
Matthew Davie, service manager at Emcor Mesa Energy Systems and refrigeration instructor at UA Local 447, is one such student turned teacher.
“He was my instructor for two years — my first and second year in the apprenticeship — and I’ve been in the trade now for more than 20 years,” Davie said. “One of the reasons I considered instructing is because of the experience I had with Phil in his class. I’m still learning from him.”
Wilbur’s vast knowledge and passion for the trades combined with his dedication to helping each of his students succeed has earned him a reputation as a top-notch educator among his students, colleagues, and peers.
“He would never leave a student behind,” Davie said. “If they weren’t grasping what he was teaching at the time, he’d take the time to make sure they understood it. He’d redirect his teaching tactics to make sure everyone was learning.”
Will Stone, a service mechanic at Climate Control Inc. in Sacramento, completed Wilbur’s program 18 years ago. “I had the opportunity to work for Phil at York as an apprentice,” he said. “Everyone wants to work for Phil, but I got the privilege of doing that. I was one of his pupils and one of his peers — I got the best of both worlds.”
Since then, Stone and Wilbur have maintained a friendship. “We share a lot of stories — war stories, you could say — of the business. He’s one of those guys who will probably always be around this industry, whether he retires or not.”
SHAPING THE INDUSTRY’S NEXT GENERATION
While he has a knack for being able to teach to any level, Wilbur, who was a Best Instructor contest runner-up in 2009, still faces many challenges as an educator, including overcoming the stigma attached to blue-collar jobs.
He also goes the extra mile to ensure his students perform confidently.
“I try to instill pride in them,” he said. “Be proud of what you do. Don’t ever take yourself for granted. Don’t ever be belittled because someone looks at you because your hands are dirty, your shirt’s dirty, you drive this van, you’re on a roof and it’s 120°F, you’re out in the snow — be proud of that, and let your children know that.”
Also, proving problematic for Wilbur and other instructors is the generational gap between the outgoing baby boomers, who are retiring in droves, and the much younger millennials, who are just entering the industry.
“In 1980, when I got into the trade, the average 25 year old was married, had one or two kids, had a house payment, had a car payment, and was worried as hell about losing his or her job. Now, the average 25 year old isn’t married, doesn’t have kids, maybe still lives with mom and dad, and hasn’t had to fight as hard. If he showed up on the soccer field, he got a trophy for it,” Wilbur said. “In the real world of competition, you have to fight for your spot. It’s a challenge trying to connect with the younger groups about the urgency, about this as a career — it’s not just something you do because it’s on your radar for a try. You have to stay with it. And this isn’t just this industry — this is a bigger problem overall.”
‘YOU HAVE TO HAVE FUN’
Despite its challenges, Wilbur said he loves what he does and wouldn’t have it any other way. And, when he retires from his position at Johnson Controls in the next couple of years, he hopes to continue teaching.
“I tell people, ‘I don’t do it for money, but I wouldn’t do it for free, either,’” he joked. “I do it because, for whatever reason, it’s fun to me. You have to have fun — this has to be enjoyable.”
Part of what makes it fun is watching students learn and become successful, Wilbur said. “When I see a kid who is struggling, pull him aside and talk to him, and then you see him turning it around and going from a D to a B, you say, ‘awesome.’ You see the empowerment that comes with that accomplishment.”
Being surrounded by other like-minded instructors also helps make the job enjoyable. “It’s rewarding when I step back and look at the program,” he said. “I started it, but a lot of other people have made it really good. It’s a nice thing to see it done well, and I’m lucky to work with some awesome instructors.
“My success is due to many good folks, including my coordinators over the last 30 years, Don Fouts, Phil Smyth, and Randy Boatman; my fellow HVAC instructors, Matt Davie, Andy Davie, Kevin Kiley, and Steve Christiansen; retired HVAC instructors, Pat Myers, Jim Trenz, and Ed Swisher; our local RSD [Refrigeration Supplies Distributor] training group led by Tom Hardy and John Pullin; and, finally, my wife and son, who missed me every Tuesday and Thursday school night from 5:30 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. since 1985.”
Wilbur added: “As with most things in life, circumstance, opportunity, and some luck play into getting where we are. I’ve been blessed with all of that throughout my career.”
Davie, however, argued that they’re the lucky ones to have Wilbur.
“When you combine a person with his amount of knowledge, heart, and passion for the trade and its people, that’s the reason we’re churning quality journeymen out of our training center,” he said. “If you ask me, he deserves this award multiple times.”
Publication date: 9/21/2015