PHOENIX - Finding qualified technicians has been a major problem in the HVACR industry for years and, unfortunately, it's probably going to get harder. Some schools are closing down HVACR programs because of declining enrollments. Such was the case with Universal Technical Institute's (UTI) Phoenix campus, which discontinued its HVACR programs in August 2003.

When UTI moved into its newly built facilities in June 2004, it did not want to take any of the equipment left from its now-defunct HVACR program. That was good news to cross-town "rival" Refrigeration School Inc. (RSI), which is now the largest provider in Phoenix for diplomas and degrees in refrigeration, air conditioning, and heating technologies.

RSI made an offer to acquire UTI's program training equipment in order to complement its own lab facilities. UTI agreed, and the equipment was trucked over to RSI's facilities by the end of June. Some of the equipment was placed directly in RSI classrooms; other pieces are being modified to fit existing specifications. By all counts, the value of the new equipment is inestimable. RSI is thrilled with its acquisition.

A worker loads the heat pump trainer to move it from the UTI campus in Phoenix across town to RSI.

Why Discontinue HVACR?

UTI's decision to discontinue its HVACR program was a disappointment but not a surprise to Jon Cline, director of training and industry at RSI, who had met with the school's vice president of sales a year prior.

"We discussed changes they had made in their marketing efforts to attract students more like our traditional student," Cline said. "We talked about the challenges they were having with the HVACR program and that they would possibly discontinue the program if the marketing efforts didn't yield more students for them."

When UTI made its final decision in August 2003, Cline immediately contacted UTI and offered any assistance RSI could provide. As it turned out, UTI scheduled classes to accommodate all its students, in an attempt to make sure each one received the education for which they had contracted.

"It is important to understand that our sector of education is small enough that we are all

pretty well acquainted personally," said Cline. "When one of us has a problem, it can impact all of us, so we do what we can to help. In this vein, even though our institution and UTI were competitors in a sense, the people I admire and respect most in the school business are from UTI."

Cline noted that UTI made its decision based on economics. Simply put, the HVACR program was profitable, but it was possible to make more money per square foot of floor space by teaching automotive, diesel, motorcycle, and marine technologies. Manufacturers in these other industries often sponsor training programs, so it's possible to get a significant increase in earnings with only one cost of acquisition per student.

By contrast, Cline stated, HVACR manufacturers seem to feel that once they put a piece of equipment on the loading dock for transport, their obligation to the industry is over.

"I have tried numerous times over the years to develop similar relationships with manufacturers in the HVACR industry to what UTI has in the transportation industry. On occasion some of them have been quite abrupt in their dismissal of the concept.

"Perhaps once technician shortages get really severe, the industry will begin to focus on what it takes to recruit and train the numbers of new entrants we really need."

RSI instructor Bob MacPherson disassembles systems at UTI for shipping to RSI, for training purposes.

Christmas In June

When Cline had his conversation with UTI two years ago, he made it clear that if efforts to revamp the HVACR program

didn't work out, he would like to obtain UTI's training equipment. UTI was more than happy to have RSI buy out its training program, and the final list of HVACR equipment that RSI was to receive was 11 pages long.

Equipment purchased by RSI included everything from demonstrator items (such as cutaways of compressors, electric motors, and refrigerant flow training boards) to basic wiring training boards, A/C units, heat pumps, furnaces, and refrigeration equipment.

"What was especially nice was the variety of equipment," said Cline. "Included were items like an American Standard unit with computer diagnostic controls, a 10- by 20-foot walk-in freezer, another walk-in with a water-cooled condenser, and small chilled-water units. These are all things that complement our current lab equipment."

Total equipment counts included six troubleshooting boards, 237 demonstration and trainer boards for everything from Ohm's law to programmable thermostat wiring, 55 demonstration items, 28 cutaway demonstrators, 22 commercial refrigeration systems, 21 commercial ice machines, 39 air conditioning split system and package units, 18 heat pumps, and 25 gas furnace and boiler heating units.

The equipment was a nice mix of new and old, and for RSI, that's good news. New does not always mean better. There is a lot of older equipment in the field that RSI graduates need to be prepared to service.

While RSI could make use of a lot of UTI's equipment immediately, some will just have to wait. The school already had 11,000 square feet of laboratory space that was well equipped. "We will ultimately utilize everything. We have found that with the amount of abuse equipment receives in training exercises, it gets worn out much more quickly than in a residential or commercial setting," said Cline.

RSI plans to use the equipment in its continual pursuit to provide quality HVACR-related training. The school graduates as many as 600 technicians each year, 30 percent to 40 percent of whom are referred by industry sources. These are students who have been identified as having the qualities needed to succeed in the HVACR industry; they just need the training.

"When you start with quality material, it is almost assured that you will succeed," stated Cline.

Publication date: 08/23/2004