KISSIMMEE, FL — There was a time, believe it or not, when vocational education was important. According to Marc Bridgens, associate professor of hvacr at Pennsylvania College of Technology, vocational education can be traced back to the 1600s and it hit its height in the 1970s.

“In the 70s, it took off because we had industry in the front pulling it along saying, ‘C’mon, we need to get more people out here trained,’” said Bridgens. “The vocational education movement began with the industry saying, ‘We have to pull vocational education along and the educators have to get behind it and start pushing. They have to help.’ Industry said, ‘We can’t pull this alone. We have to have somebody behind us helping us push.’”

In Bridgens’ estimation, all was moving along just fine “but all of a sudden there came a stumbling block and the movement stopped. There was some resistance to the movement.”

In his talk (“Making the Connection: Taking Hvacr Students from the Classroom to the Real World”) at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America’s (ACCA’s) 34th annual conference, Bridgens identified some of the forces at work. He asserted that industry and educators have to once again work together in unison in order to resolve the current problems with vocational education.

“It’s the only way this will be resolved,” he said.


In Bridgens’ estimation, technologies, changing skills, cost, and the fact this industry is “labor intensive” are all contributing factors to the current state of unrest in vocational education. “That’s where the movement of vocational education is kind of on hold because technology is moving so fast, we can’t keep up with it — not only in equipment but in methods to troubleshoot or for any type of repair,” he said.

“Skills needed are different. Skills have totally changed,” he said. “Fifteen years ago when you looked inside an air-handling unit, what did you find? You found a relay and a transformer. Now what do you see? You see a circuit board. The method of troubleshooting that circuit board is a little different than when it was with a relay and a transformer.”

The cost of education has increased, too, which has prevented many would-be students from entering the field, he believes.

“Community colleges are charging $30 to $40 a credit for vocational education,” he said. “For some colleges, it can be $2,077 a credit. Students can spend $22,000 for a two-year associate’s degree.… Cost has caused a resistance in vocational education, plus the cost of equipment has gone way up.

“It’s tough to get students or people wanting to come into the industry because it is labor intensive. They see the softer jobs. They want to get involved in those. It’s not as labor intensive,” he said.


These factors have helped contribute to the current disconnect between the employer and education, said Bridgens. Contractors in this session were quick to point out that today’s students are not coming away from vocational education familiar with current technology, are not prepared with advanced skills, lack respect, and lack communication skills. A few thought schools have improper teaching methodology and are not meeting the needs of the industry today.

“There is a huge difference in the quality of education,” noted one contractor in attendance. “There is no standardization. Some [schools] don’t even care. It is totally about making a profit, not necessarily teaching.”

Turning to the educators’ perspective, Bridgens noted that most schools are not capable of keeping up with constantly updated equipment. He thought the industry was not participating in the education process as it did prior to the 1970s. And, as an educator, Bridgens thought the fact some contractors offer only $5 an hour in pay only complicated matters.

“We have to get better participation from the industry,” he said, noting that contractors and the industry can help educators by providing curriculum input, make classroom visits, and have co-op participation. Equipment donations are a great help, he said — but, please, no damaged equipment.

“I cannot teach a student on damaged equipment. A student is not going to install damaged equipment,” he said.

“Donate a one-ton split system, or a 1.5-ton, or a 2-ton whatever,” he said. “What are you spending, $1,500? Man, what an investment. What kind of return? If you get a student out of there that makes you an excellent employee, wasn’t that a pretty darn good investment?”


Rather than just bemoan the current condition of vocational education, Bridgens encouraged each person in the room to take an active role in solving the problem. Complaining is easy to do, he noted, and talk is cheap. It takes a plan of attack and action, he said.

“The connection is not being made between industry and education to provide skilled technicians,” he said. “That’s the main problem we must address and resolve.”

Factors that are creating the current problem include student readiness (or lack of it), lack of overall skills, technology, interest, pride, and cost. In regard to student readiness, Bridgens sees a vast hole.

“The students we are getting just aren’t ready, not ready for education or post-secondary education,” he said. “Are they ready to go in the workforce? Are they mature enough? Many are not.

“Educators and contractors do not talk enough. When is the last time you talked to a vocational educator as a contractor? Do we normally do that? No. Communication is a key part.

“Everybody’s problems may be different. Not all solutions will fit under the same plan. You must develop what you think will work.”

Assessing the outcome is important, too, he said.

“No good plan is worth anything if its results are not measured,” said Bridgens. “We don’t step back and find out why it worked or didn’t work. If it did work, let’s improve on that. If it didn’t work, then we have to tweak things or start from scratch.”

His bottom line?

“Get involved,” he said.

Publication date: 04/08/2002