When it comes to recruiting young talent to the HVACR industry, Morgan Smith thinks natural refrigerants are key.

Smith is manager of programs and operations, North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council (NASRC), a 501(c)3 nonprofit focused on addressing barriers to natural refrigerant adoption.

“Our young people have grown up in the age of technology, and we see natural refrigerants as sort of synonymous with the latest technology because that's where so many of the latest innovations are happening,” she said. “One of the things that's going to attract them to this trade is that we have a link to new technology … within the curriculum.”

Natural refrigerants — including CO2, ammonia, and hydrocarbons — are climate-friendly alternatives to traditional HFC refrigerants and have been identified as one of the most impactful climate solutions globally. They’re gaining traction among supermarkets facing increasing regulatory pressure to transition to climate-friendly refrigerant alternatives. But natural refrigerants aren't currently incorporated into most HVACR programs, Smith said.

“Our goal is to bring natural refrigerants on par with other refrigerant options,” Smith said — and one of the biggest challenges is a shortage of technicians trained on the installation and maintenance of natural refrigerant technologies.

To address this disconnect, NASRC and ESCO Group are collaborating to develop a CO2 curriculum for community college and trade school HVACR programs. ESCO Group is a primary source of HVACR curriculum for U.S. schools and is a leading training entity for school instructors through their annual HVAC Excellence Conference.

The partnership aims to familiarize technicians with natural refrigerant right from the start of their training.

“We always try to keep ahead of the curve on what's coming up, as far as needed training in the field, and it usually takes a couple of years before anything catches on,” said Randy Petit, CMHE, vice president of program development at ESCO Group. “For instance, when we published the first R-410A refrigerant textbook, it took about two years for everybody to get their feet wet, so to speak, and get with the program and start teaching.”

Current education on the topic of natural refrigerants covers the science and design aspect, not the how-to aspect, Petit said.

”You can't take a normal refrigeration tech and put them on a CO2 system — they’ll get hurt or ruin the system,” Petit said. “We wanted to make sure people that go into that field are certified. That's one of the big things today is making sure somebody has the retained knowledge or the manual skills to do a job.”

The NASRC/ESCO Group partnership aims to create curriculum, publish it, and help get some training and certification programs off the ground.

“Ultimately, our goal is to get this curriculum widely adopted at a national level so all of the candidates entering the field would have been exposed to CO2 before they even enter the field,” Smith said. “Not only [will they be] well versed in natural refrigerants, the same way that they would be other types, but they'll also be more equipped to attend field trainings that are already offered — removing barriers to attending those trainings, and expanding their knowledge even further.”

Having techs trained and ready to work on CO2 systems will be a boon to contractors who are already struggling to find qualified, skilled employees.

“It takes a lot of resources and money for someone to learn on the job,” Petit said. “When a technician has to slow down and work on an apprenticeship program at the same time, it actually costs the company money because now that technician becomes an instructor. He’s got to teach as he's working instead of just doing the work, and it probably adds 50 percent of the time on that job.”

NASRC and ESCO Group have formed a leadership committee of CO2 experts, training specialists, contractors and technicians, equipment manufacturers, and school representatives to outline the curriculum. Petit said it has drawn interest globally.

“It’s gotten to where I’m getting emails from overseas … wanting to participate in helping with this curriculum,” he said. Manufacturers are also joining the effort by contributing the use of their training materials in the curriculum.

The curriculum is expected to be finalized and available to schools sometime in 2021. To get involved in the committee, contact NASRC at info@nasrc.org.