NUREMBERG, Germany — The task was a daunting one. While in Germany for the IKK trade show, I was to interview contractors about finding, training, and retaining technicians. The idea was that they might be doing something different to avoid problems common with USA hvacr contractors.

The task was compounded by a really big problem: the language barrier.

Years ago, in the summer before I was to go to my first IKK show, I had this grand idea of learning enough German to carry on at least basic conversations. I rented an audiotape series from the library and listened and practiced faithfully for an hour or so a day. I was able to master, “Wo ist die Toilette” (“Where is the bathroom”) and not much else.

At first, however, language wasn’t much of a problem. The first rental car agent I ever encountered in Germany had recently transferred from San Antonio, TX, to be with her military husband on a U.S. base. The hotel clerk was from Scotland, having transferred to be near her husband who was on a military base, etc. And the IKK trade show itself is a multi-lingual event.

Occasionally I got lost on the roadway system and found myself in “only-German-spoken-here” sectors of cities. But with a lot of pointing at maps, I found my way back to where I should be. At least in those instances, “Wo ist die Toilette” came in handy.

It was at this point that I learned that English is spoken in the business environment of Germany, but not if you stray too far from that sector. After all, even if everybody in Germany has to study English starting in the fifth grade, they don’t all have to learn it.

When I did contractor stories outside of the context of the trade show, they were set up by public relation agencies of manufacturers who provide a bilingual person who told me what the contractor was saying in German. I must say that those contractors seemed to say wonderful things about the manufacturer — all the time. I guess German contractors just love their suppliers more than contractors in the U.S.

Tech Talk ‘Auf Deutsch’

For the latest trip this October, I was on my own. First I had the great idea of getting help from a former foreign exchange student that my wife and I had hosted for a year ending this past July.

We visited her and her family in Austria before heading up to Nuremberg for the IKK. She speaks fluent German and English. Near her home, there was even a heating contractor. But hvacr technical talk was not part of our student’s vocabulary.

She was not alone with that situation.

Even during press briefings at the IKK show, when simultaneous translations were provided, the translator wasn’t able to translate “hydrochlorofluorocarbon” and “polyolester” all that well.

Plan B was to then walk the show floor looking for those who looked like contractors and technicians (e.g., those without suits and ties). Then I would ask them if they spoke English and from there ask questions. This started out pretty well with some actual interviews successfully completed.

But then I drifted over to a booth showing trucks and vans from an Italian company. For some reason, those that looked like contractors and technicians started running from me as I came toward them with a desperate look in my eyes, babbling strange words. Their fleeing also ticked off the Italians in the exhibit booth. This was turning into an international incident, so I abandoned Plan B and turned to Plan C.

Plan C was to go to the press office of the exhibit hall, write out questions to be translated into German, have them taken to the contractor that does the service work at the exhibit hall, get written answers from him, and have them translated back into English.

I’m sure something will get lost in the translation, but I’m guessing not as much as when a manufacturer supplies the translator.

The eventual story that will result from all this is, therefore, a work in progress. Actually there are some interesting ways things are done in Europe in terms of recruiting, training, and retaining technicians.

I hope you will find the eventual story interesting. I also hope you have some patience in waiting for the translation.

Powell is refrigeration editor for The News. You may reach him at 847-622-7260; 847-622-7266 (fax) or (e-mail).

Publication date: 11/03/2000