The idea is simple: One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating®, a Direct Energy brand, sponsors the One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating Technical Training Center at Suncoast Technical College. The company funds all the tuition, supplies, books, and uniforms for the students.
“The unfortunate reality that comes into play in this industry is money,” said Dave Borowski, director of technical training at Direct Energy. “Many small shops put their money toward getting the lowest price, but fail to invest in themselves by paying for continuing education for their workers and such. I think our whole industry has deteriorated to where you’re either stealing technicians or growing your own. You typically have no idea what kind of luggage a stolen technician has, and growing your own techs can be a mixed bag because you may not have great trainers on your staff. You need to have formatting and regimented classes.”
That formatting is part of the reason there are such high hopes for the long-term sustainability of this program. Trainers from One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating regularly work with the students, and the company grants students access to its online training resources to supplement what they’re learning in the classroom.
“One of the most pressing problems our franchisees face is a lack of skilled technicians,” said Mark Baker, president of franchise, Direct Energy. “They just can’t find enough good people to work in this business. Our folks have to endure background checks and drug tests, and it’s a challenge to find good people with customer service skills.
“Having conversations with homeowners is also vitally important,” continued Baker. “Our parent company in the U.K. runs a school that has a two-year waiting list to get in. We saw that blueprint as a vision for us and decided an immediate way to help franchisees was to start a partnership with a local community college.”
Once their education at Suncoast is complete, students are offered a position at a One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating location in Florida.
THE FIRST WAVE
“For the first group of students, we had to keep it local and control the results,” said Borowski. “We went to high schools through guidance counselors and said we wanted talented students. I met with the students weekly and made sure they were getting everything they needed to be successful. Once school training wrapped up, I implemented our unique training program based on communication skills. You can teach guys and gals to fix stuff, but you also must teach them to be great communicators. They’re the ones representing your company at a customer’s front door.”
The curriculum itself is a balance between classroom education and practical applications. Students spend half the day in the classroom, focusing on theory, principle, and code, and the remainder of the day is spent in the lab performing hands-on activities with torches, meters, and other equipment.
“When someone graduates from the tech school, they have the basic skills needed, but we also look for people skills, because they’re so essential,” said Baker. “The way you present yourself while on the job site and how you knock on the door and approach customers are important factors. We offer courses where our franchisees and students learn how to interact with consumers. We have all had a guy or gal come to our houses and finish the job without explaining anything. We expect more than that from our technicians.”
Students in the program have access to the company’s online management system and can take online classes to learn how Direct Energy does business. They also have the opportunity to go for ride-alongs with their potential employer to better grasp what the experience is like on the job site.
“The trades are in high demand, and people will always need help with their air conditioning and heating systems,” said Will Sivils, a 23-year-old student in the first wave of the program. “I didn’t want a job that was going to be obsolete in a few years, and this was a great opportunity.”
IMPROVING FOR THE FUTURE
According to Baker, the initial run of the program has been successful and Direct Energy anticipates expanding the program across the country during the first quarter of 2016.
“Our team is working with a half-dozen schools across the country to replicate this program,” said Baker. “We’re looking at technical schools with multiple locations.”
Borowski highlighted that Direct Energy isn’t building any schools itself, but is partnering with established vocational schools and training students to do things a specific way.
“Of course, we want students to be physically capable, but it’s important they know that their job is not just to fix things. They need to leave a system better than they found it. The real challenge has been attracting high-character people. It all comes down to character, which is one reason we’re trying hard to work with veteran’s associations, as they understand structure and taking direction. They’re mature enough to understand there is a job to do.”
On an application level, Baker said that listening to student feedback is vitally important, adding that the program will continue to grow and evolve as it ventures out past just Suncoast Technical College.
“We learned that students really enjoy getting the chance to ride alongside technicians on the job,” said Baker. “Students will have more interaction with their potential future employers moving forward because it is something they’re really asking for.”
SIDEBAR: GAINING EXPOSURE
Direct Energy is hoping a separate venture with television personality Mike Rowe will further help close the technician gap and generate interest in HVAC and the trades as a whole.
“We’re partnering with Mike and the mikeroweWORKS foundation,” said Baker. “Our television and radio spots have prominently featured Mike. He works with schools across the U.S. and is trying to get people to work in the trades and get rid of stigmas associated with them. Hard work should not be shunned. Through the partnership, we’ve donated to his foundation, as we share a like-minded cause. This training program was in place before we teamed up with Mike, but the relationship has been great. The trades can give you a great living and ensure you can take care of your family.”
Publication date: 12/28/2015