CENTERVILLE, Ohio - For seven years, Bob Feathers has been an instructor at RETS Tech Center. Currently, he is the department head for the HVACR program. Like many HVACR instructors, Feathers has had a long history in the industry. He has worked in the field for over 20 years. He even started his own business in Centerville, B.F. Mechanical.

But these days, getting students off to a good start is his top priority. The work he has done in the educational field is not limited to the RETS Tech classroom. Feathers has spent a great deal of time helping other schools get on board with certification and skills standards.

It is Feathers' work with RETS Tech and his drive to improve overall industry education that have earned him the title of 2003 HVACR Instructor of the Year in a contest conducted by The News and the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI).

Bob Feathers’ work is not limited to the RETS Tech classroom. He has played an active role in the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA) and the Council of Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Educators (CARE). (Photo by Bill Hanlon.)

The Industry's Needs

Why would someone want to leave the industry and pursue a career as an instructor? For Feathers, the choice was not difficult. "I knew the need of trying to get good entry-level technicians," he said.

As a contractor, Feathers en-countered many students who graduated from HVACR programs but were not prepared to tackle jobs in the field. In fact, Feathers admits that when he graduated from an HVACR program, he, too, felt that he wasn't completely ready.

In order to ensure that contractors could find qualified and confident technicians, Feathers decided to get into the education side of the industry. Seven years after that decision, Feathers has definitely made his presence felt at training and vocational institutions.

"As department head of the RETS Tech Center HVACR program, Bob has been instrumental in promoting the industry in this region and in the state of Ohio," said Mary Williams, lab assistant for the RETS Tech HVACR program.

Williams was one of Feathers' students. When she finished her course work at RETS Tech, she came back to work with Feathers in the lab. Williams has seen the enthusiasm Feathers has for his own school and for HVACR education in general.

To start, Feathers has played an active role in the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA) and the Council of Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Educators (CARE).

"We have been involved with CARE and PAHRA since its inception," said Feathers.

CARE is an organization made up of HVACR instructors who meet throughout the year to find better ways of educating students and improving school programs. One of the basic goals of CARE is to make sure that all programs follow the same guidelines and offer the same training, assuring potential employers that students learn essential skills.

"From the contractor end, I know what the industry needs," said Feathers. "We need people who are doing the same things. Our own school speaks for itself."

Part of ensuring that all students are on the same page is PAHRA accreditation. PAHRA accredits HVACR programs in three areas: residential heating and air conditioning, light commercial heating and air conditioning, and commercial refrigeration. RETS Tech was able to secure accreditation in all three of these areas.

Gaining PAHRA accreditation is not a simple process. HVACR programs must compile a number of specifics about their program during a self-study. The study includes information on the curriculum, the size of the lab space, student ratios, and the opportunities that are presented to students. A team of industry professionals then sets up a site visit to determine that everything in the study is accurate.

For many instructors aiming for PAHRA accreditation, preparing the self-study has proven to be the most time-consuming and daunting part of the process. After RETS Tech earned the accreditation, Feathers decided to help other vocational schools succeed in their efforts to achieve accreditation.

RETS Tech has helped other programs develop their own self-studies, and Feathers has offered to take trips to other schools to help instructors one-on-one.

Currently, Feathers is a PAHRA team leader. When he is not helping instructors work toward accreditation, he is one of the site visitors who evaluates whether the program is up to PAHRA standards.

Feathers instructs a mixture of students at RETS Tech, including nontraditional students returning to school to train for a new career. The course work includes basic electricity, the refrigeration cycle, and troubleshooting techniques. (Photo by Bill Hanlon.)

An Instructor Network

Feathers found out about PAHRA and became passionate about accreditation when he joined CARE. For Feathers, CARE has played a vital role in helping him network with other instructors who have similar goals. The instructor wanted to bring that network closer to home, and he played a role in establishing the Ohio Council of Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Educators (OCARE).

Feathers is currently the outgoing president of the Ohio chapter. He has used his involvement with OCARE to get Ohio instructors on the same page when it comes to issues of certification and accreditation. "We should all be looking for ways to improve ourselves," said Feathers.

The instructor has brought this message to OCARE. Feathers believes that all schools should be aiming for some kind of accreditation, whether it is through PAHRA or a separate accrediting body. He explains that the accreditation process lets a school see what it is doing right. And, in the long run, it gives the school credentials that help bolster the school's reputation within the industry while at the same time increasing public awareness.

Feathers also promotes industry certification. He believes that instructors should offer and encourage many different types of certification. The instructor has made the Industry Competency Exam (ICE) a part of his curriculum, and he is also a test proctor for ESCO Institute. Feathers stresses the importance of North American Technician Excellence (NATE) and encourages pretesting for NATE to help his students get over test anxiety. "Once I was able to bring CARE back [to Ohio], the school was very much in favor of looking into programmatic accreditation," said Feathers.

He also explained that once his school earned several types of accreditation, the industry began to pay more attention to RETS Tech. One obvious benefit was the increase in the amount of equipment that was donated to the lab.

"We are at the point where we sometimes turn donations away," said Feathers. "Or, we take them and, in turn, donate them to other schools in the area."

The HVACR department at RETS Tech sports a state-of-the-art lab with nearly every conceivable piece of equipment and a fully stocked tool room.

Perfecting The Classroom

Students in the HVACR program at RETS Tech have the opportunity to work in an impressive lab. Several types of refrigeration equipment are represented, including walk-in coolers, reach-in coolers, and refrigeration cases. Feathers has also been able to obtain rooftop units, geothermal units, boilers, numerous packaged units - the list goes on and on. One of the most impressive parts of Feathers' lab is his heat pump room, an area set aside from the rest of the lab devoted entirely to heat pumps.

The department also has its own fully stocked tool room. Whether it is a replacement part or a metering device, students can get what they need and go to work diagnosing the lab equipment.

But a well-stocked lab is only part of the learning process. Feathers has put together a curriculum and a method of teaching de-signed to help all of the students learn, retain what they have learned, and feel confident in what they are doing.

"No one feels demeaned when they are in the class," said Williams. "Some of the students haven't been to school in 20 years."

According to Feathers, the HVACR department has a good mix of young students and older students who are looking for a new career in the trades. But whatever their background, Feathers stresses the basics. He noted that some individuals who have not been in school for a long time tend to get overwhelmed. "A confidence level is something that can always be hard to build," said Feathers. "We don't assume that everyone knows everything."

The course starts with basic electricity and the refrigeration cycle before progressing to other topics, including basic troubleshooting techniques.

"We meet four days a week and it is pretty fast-paced," said Feathers. The course lasts 9 months and consists of three 12-week quarters.

In order to help students get used to the pace and absorb the knowledge, Feathers promotes real-world experience. There are many times throughout the year when students are encouraged to get out of the lab and into the field. For example, Feathers volunteers regularly for Habitat for Humanity projects. He has also taken his students to locations where maintenance needs to be performed on heating and cooling systems.

"Bob once took the entire class to a broadcast school in Dayton," said Williams. "There was no heat, so they ripped out the unit and put in a new one."

Feathers' hard work is paying off. In 2002 alone, 121 students graduated from the RETS Tech program. And in October, over 70 students had enrolled for the new quarter. The influx of qualified employees into the industry has definitely been noticed and appreciated by area contractors.

"We invite any and all local contractors at any time to come out and see what we are doing," said Feathers. "Most like the lab, and they watch our students - and eventually hire many of them.

"When an ex-student comes back and visits the school in his nice company truck, and I see them succeeding, that's the best part for me."

Publication date: 10/27/2003