Most reputable HVACR contractors spend a lot of time and energy training their technicians, as they realize the value of having a well-trained staff. They know that knowledgeable techs can more quickly and accurately diagnose a problem or install a system, which leads to happier customers, fewer callbacks, and higher profits. In addition, offering a robust training program is a great way to attract and retain employees.

But there is an art to training technicians. At the recently held HVAC Excellence National HVACR Education Conference in Las Vegas, Bryan Orr, co-owner of Kalos Services Inc. in Orlando, Florida, and founder of and the HVAC School Podcast, discussed how contractors should approach the training process.

First is the importance of food, he said, which is always a great way to get technicians to attend class. Offering pizza after work, followed by a short – preferably hands-on -- training session is a good method that is relatively easy and inexpensive to implement. Second is understanding the audience. Contractors should recognize that their technicians will likely have a wide range of experience, usually everything from apprentice to journeyman to senior technician. And they will probably be older, with an average age of around 40.

“The majority are going to be Gen X and older, which means that the way that they receive information and the way that they like to be communicated with is slightly different than the younger generation,” said Orr.

A case in point, since many of these older techs often have experience, they may be reluctant to participate in a class, for fear of showing that they may not know something. Orr said that the best way to get around this is for contractors to share stories about their own mistakes.

“I'm talking about being specific about your failings,” he said. “For example, one time, I was trying to figure out why my vacuum pump wouldn't start for 30 or 40 minutes, only to realize that the cord wasn't plugged in the wall. We all have these experiences and stories, which creates relatability. This allows people to realize that it is okay to be imperfect here, which allows them to ask questions and to be vulnerable.”

Orr is also a fan of employing the Socratic method, which is a method of discourse that engages the student in exploring the question without providing the answer. So instead of just reciting facts in front of the class, Orr suggests asking questions, then letting technicians take the lead on figuring out the right answer.

“Ask a question like, ‘why is a vacuum so difficult to pull on this system,’ then instead of answering it, let the technicians explore it further,” he said. “Have them figure out what experiment can we design in order to prove or disprove the assumption. That teaches people to use logic, and even with experienced technicians, a huge part is getting them to think logically and use the process of elimination. That's the nature of troubleshooting and diagnosis.”

Contractors should also not try to teach too much at one time. Orr said that it’s easy to get excited about a certain topic and want to do an information dump, but instead, it’s best to take it slow and be content with making incremental progress.

Finally, contractors should always make sure that the training class gives technicians something that they can apply right away, said Orr. This could be something like a new test procedure that allows them to do things more quickly or maybe a new tool that makes the job easier.

“Things that save time, increase sales, improve customer satisfaction, and make the job easier are the things you want to accomplish,” he said. “If you can't tie together the things that you're teaching to those things, then it gets tricky. You want to always tie it back to how it actually applies to their day-to-day operation, otherwise you'll lose them. You're not going to keep the attention span of a technician unless they can see how it connects to what they do.”