A well-educated HVAC technician can mean the difference between a cascade of satisfied customers or a torrent of unhappy ones. A technician who can successfully install or troubleshoot equipment on the first try, quickly and effectively, gives a radically different experience to a customer than if the customer has to call the company a second or third time. Education is a critical step to the competent workforce of the future. And education, like the rest of the HVAC industry, will have both exciting opportunities to take advantage of and challenges to overcome in the upcoming year.
KEEPING UP WITH TECHNOLOGY
“Education is the focal point of the industry; education serves everybody from the manufacturer to the wholesaler, to the distributor, to the homeowner, to the local contractor,” said Tom Tebbe, national programs director for HVAC Excellence. “So I would hope that everybody will want to say, ‘Let’s do whatever we can to make these schools the best they can be.’”
Tebbe is excited about the growth of technology in the HVAC industry and its effect on education and the workforce. While the speed at which technology is changing makes it difficult for education to adequately keep pace, the advanced technology that technicians are required to master makes the field appealing to many young students, he said.
As technology advances, the government is increasingly recognizing HVACR programs as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs, leading to increases in federal funding, Tebbe explained. This is leading to increases in the amount of high schools implementing HVACR programs. Tebbe wants high school students, and all people entering the industry, to receive a quality education that will prepare them for their careers.
“We want students to understand the value of what they do,” he said. “It’s a global industry, and we want them to understand the importance of that and prepare for growth in that industry — not just being able to learn enough to get a job.”
Eugene Silberstein, director of technical education and standards at ESCO and lead author of Cengage’s Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Technology textbook, said that the industry is expanding to currently underrepresented demographics, especially to women, who are increasingly becoming more present in the industry. The growth of the new workforce is exciting, he said, and education has a critical part in making this happen.
As the new workforce supplants the current one, Silberstein said it is important that students with a computer background enter the industry.
“Our industry is getting into building automation and the electronics and the digital controls,” he said. “We have the opportunity to create this super workforce. Technicians now are working so much more with their heads than with their hands. Educating the people who are guiding students into their career paths, such as counselors, and educating the teachers will help those computer-literate students thrive in the HVAC industry.
“Teachers need to stay on top of these trends, too, in order to pass them along to students,” he continued. “Teachers are realizing that they really need to up their game to provide the best service for their students. A lot of teachers would partake in professional development because they were required to [in the past]. Now they’re doing it on their own.”
CHALLENGES TO EDUCATION
While HVAC brings exciting trends for contractors to watch, there are also challenges that those in education will need to overcome. Silberstein explained that HVAC education programs have high costs, which leads to difficulty in getting administrative support for the classes in schools and colleges. This also leads to lower salaries for teachers, which makes it harder to recruit them, as the teacher could be making significantly more money out in the field, Silberstein said.
Finding qualified teachers can also be a challenge when a great number of people are not formally trained in HVAC, let alone have formal teaching credentials qualifying them
to stand in a classroom and teach others.
“So it’s a really rough situation, because you have people standing in front of the room teaching who aren’t officially and professionally trained to teach,” he said.
In addition to this, staying on top of developing technologies can provide yet another challenge for teachers when they aren’t out in the field anymore.
“The industry is advancing so fast, and the training that we offer has to be relevant to what the graduates of our program are going to be experiencing when they get out,” he said.
Tebbe also agreed that this was an issue, explaining that a teacher has a lot to deal with on his or her schedule between classroom hours and the need to continually learn about new products as manufacturers release them. Plus, if they are not formally educated teachers, they will need to be trained on the art of teaching as well.
“We sometimes forget that being a teacher is a totally different occupation or career from being a technician,” he said. “We’re going to have to give them the time and the adjustments to make and require a specific training to get those pedagogical skills that one needs to effectively communicate.”
Todd Washam, ACCA (Air Conditioning Contractors of America) vice president of public policy and industry relations, explained that students coming out of trade school are not consistently coming out as job-ready candidates, an issue that is affecting not only the HVAC industry but the national workforce as a whole. Some of this gap in knowledge in HVAC is due to a lack of knowledge of technical skills; however, this also includes the lack of soft skills, such as client communication.
“[These include] skills like interacting with customers, having a good handshake, speaking clearly, speaking at a level that customers can understand,” he said. “How to communicate technical issues to non-technical people. And the basic interpersonal skills like showing up on time and having your uniform looking nice and clean.”
He explained that ACCA understands this problem and will be launching a soft skills education course in collaboration with Power Selling Pros. The program is exclusive to ACCA members, and the class will help contractors pass these soft skills to their technicians. It also includes a 30-day communications challenge for the contractor’s technicians to take part in.
“This is going to have unbelievable value, not just for the business owner or general manager or the sales leader but for all of their technicians to have access to,” Washam said.
Washam said that these soft skills are critical to helping technicians advance through their HVAC careers, potentially helping them lead a service department one day.
Director of technical education/standards ESCO
TEACHING THE FUTURE
As the HVAC industry suffers from a lack of sufficient funds and awareness in schools across the nation, both Tebbe and Silberstein said that contractors have the opportunity to help resolve this problem in their local communities.
Silberstein suggested working hard to educate the administration of local schools about the benefit of HVAC programs and what is needed to run them successfully. Once administration buys into this, he said, the funds given to HVACR programs and the programs’ quality will increase.
“The majority of academics don’t have a satisfactory knowledge of CTE programs or experience in them,” he said. “So it’s very difficult to have the administrators want to invest in these programs that they themselves don’t understand the benefit of.”
He recommended that contractors try to sit on the advisory committees for the schools, since contractors are the ones “buying” the product — qualified students. So it’s in the contractor’s best interest to have input regarding how the school’s HVAC education program teaches its students.
“If a contractor is at a meeting and says ‘Your graduates are not trained on mini splits, and we need your students to be trained on this equipment so we will feel more comfortable hiring them,’ the administration is going to say ‘We need to get mini splits,’” he said.
Tebbe recommended that contractors stop by schools and be guest speakers, explaining what the day in the life of an HVAC company is like. They could also offer internship programs to the school or “sponsor” students, where the student may study for three days and work in the field the other two.
“With the right training,” Tebbe said, “you’re going to get somebody that has potential for a lot of growth once you hire them.”
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