Finding technicians to work in the HVACR industry can be difficult, and the strong job market makes it even more challenging, as prospective employees have their choice of job opportunities. For commercial refrigeration contractors, it can be especially challenging, because technicians may have to work during less desirable times, such as nights and weekends, to repair equipment before it results in the loss of perishable goods for their customers.
Even though the job may require odd hours, the field of refrigeration can offer an exciting, varied, and challenging career, but it requires extensive training. That is why some refrigeration contractors are taking matters into their own hands and creating specialized in-house training programs focused specifically on the skills required for technicians to become refrigeration experts. They contend that making this investment will not only draw more people to their companies, it will help them keep the technicians they already have.
INVEST IN PEOPLE
Early training and ongoing development for technicians are very important to Todd Ernest, CEO and owner of Climate Pros, as evidenced by the extensive training facility he built at his Glendale Heights, Illinois, location. The 3,000-square-foot mock grocery store — called CPU for Climate Pros University — contains all types of commercial refrigeration and HVAC equipment, so Climate Pros technicians can receive and participate in hands-on training for everything from the fundamentals of heat transfer to the advanced troubleshooting of complex systems.
“Feedback from our technicians who have participated in these hands-on programs has been very positive,” said Ernest. “I absolutely believe that it is better to train your people and have them leave than to not train them and have them stay.
When you invest in your people, they recognize that you care about them and their future. This is something that is severely lacking in this industry.”
Climate Pros has over 500 employees operating in 27 states, and the company specializes in providing service to grocery stores and light industrial refrigeration applications. The company recruits employees from technical schools and also hires those who may have no industry experience but show a strong mechanical aptitude. Ernest said that he primarily looks for people who can live by the company’s core values, which include honesty, integrity, company pride, doing whatever it takes to get a job done, always looking ahead, and being relationship-driven.
“If they can live by our core values and have a capacity to build from, then we can help them become some of the best in the industry,” he said.
While it may be easier to hire graduates from technical school, as they already have a baseline knowledge of HVACR, most still require additional training, said Ernest. That’s because technical schools typically focus on residential HVAC and very small refrigeration systems, and technicians at Climate Pros need to know how to work in light industrial plants, as well as supermarkets.
That is why CPU contains a wide array of equipment, including refrigeration cases, a walk-in cooler and freezer, several self-contained units, a blast freezer, and a CO2 ice flaker. The university is eagerly awaiting the delivery of a CO2 rack trainer as well. Outside is a full-sized, medium/low temperature, split suction, parallel rack system that operates most of the equipment at CPU. Ernest said there is only one piece missing at the facility, and that is the energy management system (EMS) controls panel.
“Once that is finished, we will have the top four EMS control systems that we see in the industry,” he said. “Then we will be able to train with real-world simulated scenarios so that the techs can get real hands-on training and programming experience. Pairing this highly specialized hands-on commercial refrigeration training with what the technical schools currently offer results in a rapidly advanced and highly skilled workforce.”
There are numerous benefits to having an on-site training facility, said Ernest, including the ability to train technicians on the fly when a need arises. Comfort Pros also utilizes the facility to host manufacturers, who often come in to conduct training sessions on their components and equipment.
“We even use it to provide training for our office folks, so that they can better understand what our field personnel do each and every day,” he said. “This helps our centralized teams provide better support for our field technicians.”
Training is also important to Mike Fitch, one of the owners of SCR Inc. in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The company has five locations around the state that provide commercial refrigeration service for a wide range of applications, including supermarkets, cold storage facilities, and ice rinks.
Earlier this year, SCR implemented a new training program in order to strengthen its technicians’ knowledge of HVACR.
The program is offered through the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) Technical Institute, and SCR techs can take part in it after they finish their two-year degree.
“We offer the program to employees who have zero to five years of experience post technical school,” said Fitch. “We currently have a sample group of 17 employees enrolled in the training program. Our techs were excited about the program, and it is our hope that they will share the experience with others in the company, and we will have more enrolled as this program continues to evolve.”
While SCR provides training opportunities for all its employees, Fitch hopes to be able to offer a program designed for more seasoned members of his staff as well. He noted that offering these training opportunities is a big benefit to the company, as employees are able to provide the most current and best practices in HVACR to customers. And it may also be the reason why the company has such a low employee turnover rate of less than 5 percent.
In most of the company’s locations, Fitch does not have a problem finding new employees. Many new recruits come from local and regional HVACR technical schools and have a desire to continue living in the area.
“We also recruit individuals who tried a four-year degree and found it wasn’t for them, or else started working directly after high school and now want to advance their career,” he said. “We are looking for someone who wants to work, learn, and advance.”
For contractors who want to start their own in-house training program, Fitch advises them to find a program that is already established and reputable and that aligns with the company’s values.
“Don’t try and create your own program,” he said. “You will run into roadblocks and time commitments that will wear you down and hamper the program.”
While it takes time and energy to create a training program that will help employees improve their skills and advance their careers, both Ernest and Fitch agree that it is well worth the effort.
“At the end of the day, no one is going to train your techs for you, and if you leave them to learn on their own, you are liable to either lose them or else lose a customer because of them,” Ernest said. “No one really wants that, so it is always best to invest in your people.”
Publication date: 6/3/2019