HVAC Contractors Embrace Online Learning Amidst COVID-19 Crisis
Online training is proving easier, more successful than anticipated
Frank Besednjak calls himself a “road warrior.” For more than 20 years, Besednjak — president of The Training Source Inc. (dba The Real Frank) — has been crisscrossing the Southeast and Midwest, coaching HVAC contractors on how to run a better business. By mid-March, he’d already hit 52 locations this year, averaging two to three workshops a week.
Then COVID-19 hit. Besednjak, along with the rest of America, was grounded — as were his clients.
Like other companies and coaches on the training side of HVAC, he had to adapt. As it happened, Besednjak once worked as a manager of training and field support operations for GE Appliances, where he ran weekly training sessions that were broadcast via satellite. It didn’t take long for him to get up and running with Zoom webinars.
“The biggest challenge today that I'm having is getting contractors to not have an issue with getting online,” he said. “I guess they're expecting me to look like Max Headroom, because it’s almost a shock to them that everything worked so well. Some of the feedback I've received from my customers is that they never thought it would be this easy, that they learned so much via a web event.”
Dominick Guarino is chairman and CEO at National Comfort Institute (NCI).
“Because of the crisis, contractors are kind of pushed out of their comfort zones with learning to learn online,” he said. “It's been a little like pulling teeth to get people to participate, pre-COVID, but my gut feeling is now that they've jumped into the water because they had to, they’ll find out it's not so bad. My thought is, we're going to see a lot more online training going forward.”
The Coronavirus Sped Up the Transition To Online Education
LG Air Conditioning Technologies had been planning since late 2019 to increase distance learning as a key component of its overall training strategy. COVID-19 more or less kicked that strategy into high gear.
Aran Winn is senior regional sales engineer, LG Electronics USA.
“In the past, our strategy would be lunch and learns: bring in lunch to a general contractor's office, sit with them for an hour or two, usually groups of 10 or less,” he said. Then there were events like the AHR Expo, where Winn would speak about LG products and innovation to thousands of people at a time. LG had also done webinars on topics like design tools and piping tools for VRF systems.
“This definitely isn't a brand-new thing for us,” Winn said. “I think where this is really different is we are expanding it. We're creating a series of these that can touch base with design engineers, building owners, architects, and contractors on a weekly basis.”
The new LG Connections virtual speaker series launched April 15; the webinar will be offered each Wednesday and includes a 30-minute presentation followed by 15 minutes of Q&A.
“It was in the hundreds that attended,” Winn said. “In-person, I would be doing one or two of those a week with half a dozen, dozen people. It certainly gives you a louder megaphone.
“We're able to monitor how long they're listening in, and over 90 percent of folks were listening for the entire time, which is incredible,” he continued.
The series offers the opportunity for CPE credits, which requires participant feedback, and Winn said a lot of it was “very, very positive: 90 to 95-plus percent positive responses. They like the format, they like the content. And we drive home for folks that if they didn't get as much information as they would like, always reach out.”
NCI’s Guarino faced a unique challenge when in-person events were taken off the table: thousands of contractors whose recertifications were due, and no way for them to show up for in-person testing. Up until this spring, testing was held entirely in-person.
“We decided the fastest thing we could do was, first of all, promote the online training we already have,” he said. “If you look at our online university on our website, we have 80-plus webinars [that are] fully self-directed. But we needed to look beyond that, because we have over 3,000 people working for contractors who nationwide need their recertifications right now.
“It was quite interesting, actually, because our industry is behind the times when it comes to online training,” he continued. “A lot of people talk about it. There's a lot of good online training out there. But it's very hard to get contractors on board; it’s just something they're not used to.”
NCI decided to develop live online training for its three key disciplines, and converted its training center in Cleveland into a video broadcasting studio complete with four cameras and an audio system. Classes are held in four-hour sessions on two consecutive days. NCI is also holding a sales class for one of its utility clients. Traditionally a two-day in-person class, it’s divided into four online four-hour segments, spread over two weeks
“People don't mind fairly lengthy sessions, is what we're hearing,” Guarino said. “But it can’t take up an entire week … where they have to do it every day.”
Besednjak said the key to a successful online training session is being prepared and making sure participants are prepared. Using a software called Corsizio, he sends participants automated reminders, tutorials on how to set up everything online, and payment links. He also offers a practice session the day before. His first virtual training session had about 11 people. Now he’s up to 30-something each time.
“It has shocked me as to how easily it has been accepted and how quick it is [for participants] to catch on,” he said. “They're like, ‘Wow, this is awesome — I'm going to do it this way from now on,’ and it's just because it was done well and communicated properly.”
In addition to live webinars, he also has pre-recorded, pay-to-view webinars, and he makes a point to do one free webinar a month — an extension of his business model where he would speak once a month for free at an event or for a charitable cause.
The challenges with online training are having to monitor everyone — participation is required for continuing education credits — and the lack of body language that helps a speaker get a feel for the audience, Besednjak said.
“It's very difficult to do that when you're looking at a 1x1-inch picture of someone and I can't even tell if their eyes are open or closed,” he said. “I'd much rather be doing this in-person.”
HVAC Excellence is doing online training with a different audience in mind. With the stay at home orders all around the United States, the organization was concerned about trade schools needing to shut down during the pandemic.
“Getting people into the industry was a big concern before this happened in our country. And now we have this break and the concern is these individuals might move on to something else if they can’t continue their education,” said Randy Petit, Sr., regional vice president of HVAC Excellence office of program development. After their March meeting got cancelled, the organization decided to make their online learning free to both instructors and students.
“We have gotten a lot of positive reaction from the instructors,” Petit said.
The Future of Online Training for HVAC Contractors
When the country ultimately emerges from coronavirus-induced shutdown, will online training continue to reign supreme in the realm of HVAC?
Winn thinks it will play a bigger role, though how much of a role remains to be seen.
“Being able to get their hands on the equipment, hopefully in a training situation rather than the first time they see it out on the job site, is still going to be important for installation contractors and service contractors,” he said. “I think that that will always have to be there, to some aspect. But I certainly think that we're all getting much better at Zoom; the entire country will be experts at doing a webinar after all this. And I think people are going to be much more used to that as a format. I think this is showing the opportunity to add online training or remote training to our curriculum. I could see this supplementing it and enhancing it — absolutely.”
According to Guarino, NCI’s feedback shows that many of their contractors prefer online to in-person training for recertification.
“Upwards of 70 percent said, ‘We really like this and I will keep doing it even after the crisis is over,’” he noted. On the other hand, participants almost unanimously said they preferred to do NCI’s normal two- and three-day certification classes in-person.
“They know our training approach is very, very personal,” Guarino said. “It's very hands-on, very interactive with the class.”
More online training could be a huge opportunity to reach more contractors, installers, and technicians without the cost of traveling to a physical classroom. Per Winn, that might mean attending one class in-person, then receiving additional information through webinars.
Besednjak suggested that an online training structure could help with employee retention, serving as a step in working one’s way up through levels as a service technician — something that could be tied to raises and recognition.
“Younger people today don't mind learning; they'll learn and want to do more, but they have to see some progression,” he said. “They love to be able to say, ‘Now I'm at a level C; I want to be an A,’ and that process will include requiring them to do online learning and pass a test that will demonstrate their ability to be able to work at that level.”