HVACR Contractors Embrace Online Learning
Industry experts recommend combining online, on-site training
Once largely dismissed by the education community, there is no doubt that online learning is becoming more mainstream across the U.S. More than 5 million students, or 25 percent of all college and university students, are enrolled in distance education courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This trend is evident in the HVACR industry, as well. HVACRedu.net, which began training entry-level people 20 years ago, used to instruct 1,000 students a year, and about 70 percent of its enrollment identified as entry-level students.
Now, the training organization offers about 1,500 hours of online curriculum suitable for new hires all the way up to experienced technicians.
“I anticipate we’ll handle around 4,000 students this year, so, yes, online training is growing,” said Chris Compton, founder and CEO of HVACRedu.net. “Public awareness regarding online education has increased, and the technology to deliver a good educational process has really evolved; it’s really amazing. Additionally, we see our student population evolving. In the beginning, we were primarily dealing with entry-level students. Our student count was only about 30 percent of the existing workforce. Today, our student count has sort of reversed itself. Now, we have about 70 percent with industry experience and 30 percent who are entry-level students. We’re engaging much more with the existing workforce than with entry-level students.”
The notion of 24/7 access is really what draws people to online training, Compton noted. “All of our students are, for the most part, employed somewhere. They’re either in the industry already or are working somewhere to survive — not necessarily in the HVACR industry. Online training is all about access. If somebody wants to get into the industry or into the trade, online training is accessible 24/7. You can learn something based on your schedule rather than a school schedule, and that really appeals to people.”
To meet the growing demand for online training, many organizations have been expanding their online training libraries.
“Certainly the offerings for it [online training] are growing,” said Keith Mercurio, director of training, Nexstar Network. “I know Lennox released beautiful online training through its BuildATech program. That program impressed me and looks to be something worthwhile.
“Essentially, the offerings are increasing because there is a demand for them,” continued Mercurio. “The demand stems from wanting to allow technicians to grow in their aptitude without necessarily having to send them away and impact productivity. And, that’s the great challenge companies face when investing in training.”
Nexstar Network offers its members a wide variety of classroom and online training. The organization has hundreds of videos covering everything from communication, sales, leadership, customer service, and more.
When it comes to online training, there are a number of benefits achieved as opposed to traditional classroom learning.
“It’s asynchronous. It allows an individual to study based on his or her own personal schedule,” Compton said. “Additionally, students can review the same section repeatedly. It’s not like they have to catch it the first time around, like they would in a classroom. We can also hand out all kinds of things to students for their use. Our handouts include documents, video, simulations, and games. If you printed all the handouts, it would be enough to fill a pickup truck. Also, in a classroom, the typical college class period is 50 minutes, and instructors only have so much time to get their ideas across. We don’t have those kinds of limitations.”
While HVACRedu.net models its program after the classroom experience, online training often lacks the conversation and interaction that happens in the classroom.
“That’s the reality of online training,” Compton said. “However, we do have faculty who are all certified master HVACR educators. They’re available 40 hours a week for a toll-free phone call, Skype, email, or online chat. And, we also teach live sessions on a semi-regular basis where students can ask questions just like in the classroom, just without breathing on each other.”
Eric Shidell, founder and lead trainer, HVAC Service Mentor, said online training can duplicate and even exceed the capabilities of classroom training.
“In a classroom environment, there is always someone who can’t see well, hear well, or may get distracted by discourteous classmates,” he said. “Live, interactive online classes eliminate these disadvantages, and every student gets the best seat in the house. All of my online training events are directed toward experienced technicians with the intent of helping fill in the knowledge gaps every experienced tech has and helps propel them into a higher level of performance in the field.”
Mercurio said while there are numerous benefits to online training, the best use of it is for the purposes of supplementing or complementing actual on-site training.
“There are massive benefits to online training when it’s complementary to on-site training,” he explained. “Online training can save travel and productivity costs, and it allows students to take the lesson in bit by bit rather than all at once. But there are certainly pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, with every method. We conduct more than 120 live programs and train more than 5,000 people annually. Nothing will ever replace what we train during a live event. But, we have drastically improved the outcome and the reinforcement of behavioral technique with online training, and I really feel strongly that it should be a combination effort because it’s a twofold approach.”
HANDS-ON TRAINING IS STILL IMPORTANT
Many in the industry believe nothing can replace hands-on learning in the classroom environment.
“Having learned both ways in my long career, I definitely vote for classroom training or on-the-job training,” said Frank Trapani, a Dallas-area refrigeration/energy management technician. “I still do internet-based classes to stay up to date with new technology, where I can learn at my own pace. But, as far as newbies, you cannot beat a classroom environment with a skilled trainer.”
David Watson, senior HVACR technician at One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning LLC in Sarasota, Florida, said while it can be a viable option for experienced techs, online training won’t work for entry-level people.
“It’s like trying to learn hands-on skills with no technical background,” he said. “If you think you can view what I do on a daily basis via video, then may you rest in peace. On the other hand, a seasoned tech can benefit greatly from video. It saves time, hard-earned money, and much-needed sleep.”
Gene Bartholomew, HVACR instructor at Lincoln Technical Institute in Hartford, Connecticut, agreed, saying, “Students are not going to get the magnitude of training they get from live, hands-on instruction that includes working with their hands, which is what we do.
“Someone who has been in the field 10-20 years might gain some knowledge with a training PowerPoint or video, unless it’s an entirely new product they’ve never seen,” Bartholomew continued. “But, a newbie with no knowledge of electricity or mechanics that has yet to understand righty-tighty, lefty-loosie? Are we serious? Nothing can replace having the equipment in front of you, seeing it run, and troubleshooting possible issues. Online training can have a valuable place when a tech can’t make the seminar or the seminar doesn’t come to their area, but it will not exceed live training. I’ve been to too many and held many, and video is nothing compared to being in the room with guys like Dan Holohan or Bill Beda. I just went to a Rinnai seminar and the presenters had all the parts and several boilers to take apart and do mock maintenance. How can watching a video exceed that?”
Carter Stanfield, director of the air conditioning technology department at Athens Technical College in Athens, Georgia, said people in the industry do not have to choose one or the other.
“Online has the advantage of being more flexible for people who have busy schedules. They can study when they can find the time,” he said. “However, there must be some lab time. We have approximately half of our class hours online, with at least one actual face-to-face class a week. And all the lab work is still done at the school. This allows students to schedule labs around their work hours. Delivering information online is just another tool, like books and videos. I have seen plenty of traditional classes where nothing was being accomplished. Online delivery is neither good nor bad, it’s just another tool.”
Stanfield noted it’s also important to differentiate between knowledge and skills. “For many people, online may be even better than a classroom because the student controls the pace, can have things instantly repeated, and can access multiple quizzes and check points to ensure they have it. But skills like brazing, assembling duct, etc. require hands-on training. For example, you can’t teach someone to throw a football online. They could learn all about velocity and angle and all the physics involved, but still may not be able to throw the ball. A lot of things in air conditioning require both knowledge and skills. One without the other is not particularly useful. Learning to use the vast amount of information that is right at your fingertips online is incredibly helpful. Technicians must be able to do that. However, at least as much time in the lab or field is needed.”
David Garceau, technical support and training manager, Gemaire Distributors LLC, agreed, saying the industry is based on practical skills, so hands-on training is essential in some form.
“Sadly, traditional technical trade schools and apprentice programs have diminished, and most of the real hands-on training is literally learned on the job,” he said. “We have to accept this as the status quo and get beyond it. Online training becomes a solution and is a very real and practical choice. There are many different types of online training methods, from full class sessions to the short YouTube-style video. Each type has merit and applications.
“There are absolutely differences between live and online training, but they may not be as different as they appear. Borrowing a point from Dr. Stephen Covey, ‘We should begin with the end in mind,’ so any training class should focus on sharing knowledge, and we should use every tool we have at our disposal.”
Additionally, online training should be looked at as a solution to get more technicians into the field during the growing labor shortage, Compton noted. “There is a shortage of skilled, qualified technicians out there, and online training is a solution to that because there are simply not enough hours or bodies to train the large number of people that are needed.”
HVACRedu.net offers online courses in several areas, including apprenticeships, technical core assessment, and more. For more information, visit www.hvacredu.net.
SIDEBAR: WEBINARS REACH GREATER AUDIENCES
With the growing acceptance of online learning, many HVAC industry organizations and manufacturers are taking advantage of online training tools like webinars. In its 2016 Webinar Benchmarks Report, ON24 reported the average viewing time for webinar attendees has steadily increased over the years. After reviewing 12,870 webcasts, the average viewing time for webinar attendees was an all-time high of 57 minutes this year, reflecting the corresponding trend toward greater interactivity in webinars. Additionally, the average webinar size is 233 attendees. By removing events with fewer than 100 attendees from the analysis, the average number of attendees jumps to 522, according to the report.
Nortek Global HVAC has been performing training webinars for the past 10 years and launched its own private broadcasting system to host and deliver live training to both customers and non-customers.
“We developed this platform so we can reach more customers and their employees while reducing the costs of on-site training,” said Carol Baker, vice president of marketing, Nortek Global HVAC. “Basically, it provides a 24/7 platform to customers that is not possible with on-site training. And, since we record our live broadcasts, registered users who were unable to attend can go back and do it at a time that’s convenient for them. It also allows us to train customers on numerous subjects and deliver the content in shorter segments, making it easier to digest. Plus, the student can replay the content and, in some cases, take quizzes to see how well they are absorbing the information.”
Additionally, by using webinars, Nortek Global doesn’t have to worry about minimum requirements for a class size like on-site training. “A distributor looking to train a couple of new contractor customers or employees will not have to postpone training until those requirements are met,” Baker said. “Students can either use our pre-recorded video training or attend one of our live broadcasting video sessions. Because our online live training reaches a larger geographic area, we can increase the frequency of training without major worries associated with classroom minimums. We still use on-site training but are more selective when determining which curriculum is appropriate for on-site training now that we have the ability to reach more people more efficiently online.”
Mitsubishi Electric US Inc. Cooling & Heating Division also uses webinars to reach a large number of industry professionals at the same time, according to Kevin Miskewicz, director of commercial marketing of the company.
“Webinars offer opportunities for us to provide attendees with the most up-to-date information on trends, technologies, industry-wide research, and new products,” he explained. “We are able to not only teach and provide continuing education units [CEUs] to industry professionals, but also interact with them through live Q&A sessions. We see this as one of the most important benefits of webinars. We can answer attendees’ questions in that moment while dually gaining insight into what is on the minds of contractors, architects, engineers, and other industry professionals. In 2015, we hosted eight webinars on four different topics with a total of 3,500 participants. We have seen success with webinars and will continue to do them in the future.”
The NEWS also offers webinars, which help bring contractors closer to new HVACR products and technologies. For more information, click here.
Publication date: 7/11/2016