As a contractor, you have probably tried many approaches to training.

Chances are you have sent technicians to local seminars and/or away to conferences. Many of you, I know, provide in-house training after (and sometimes during) working hours. Others have turned to books and videos to obtain more knowledge.

Yet, in the end, as many of you have relayed, the results have been — and continue to be — less than desirable. What is a contractor to do?

One Option: Seminars

Sending someone to a seminar can be very expensive. Tuition payments can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Sometimes there are added costs, too, including payroll taxes for the technician. And don’t forget the loss of productivity while your employee is out of the office.

In regard to the seminar training process, this is not an ideal set-up, either. It usually involves a manufacturer bringing in techs from all over the country, and is designed around a particular type of equipment, such as that manufacturer’s centrifugal compressors or specialty control systems. The seminar may last anywhere from a day and a half to a week. In most cases, the techs attending have different backgrounds, which makes it difficult to find a common starting place without wasting a lot of time laying out basic ground work.

And, let’s face it, most seminars just don’t have the time to spend on basics — and they shouldn’t. We all learn at different rates, so some techs will learn a lot at these seminars while others get lost along the way, struggling to keep up. It can be a gamble on the part of the contractor footing the bill.

Of course, if you send a technician to a seminar, you expect this employee will come back and enlighten the rest of your staff. But, as you probably know by now, even if your tech did learn, it doesn’t mean s/he also becomes a good instructor. Reading through notes and trying to explain it all as well as the instructor at the seminar is often frustrating for all involved.

Because memory can fade, this new knowledge also must be put into practice as soon and as often as possible. Six months from now, we all can forget, right?

In-House No Panacea

In-house training is one solution, but by no means is it a panacea. Since many contractors are not large enough to have a full-time instructor on staff, the task may fall on whoever knows the most about the subject matter. Again, knowing the product and teaching the product are two very different things.

Also, gathering everyone together can be difficult, even if you do plan it in advance. As many of you have pointed out, it always seems that someone gets stuck on a job or in traffic, and everyone else has to wait. Sooner or later, you have to decide whether to go on without everyone or abandon the class and try again later.

Of course, books and videos are valuable resources. However, techs are usually very much hands-on, and books don’t always provide the practical, hands-on details that suit many technicians best. Plus, books offer no one from whom your techs can get feedback. Videos are better, but they are also very linear and without interaction. Both book- and video-based training require a certain level of self-motivation.

Enter the Computer

So what’s new that can improve on the training process? Some say it’s the computer.

Most contractors use computers to do their accounting. Many also use them for project takeoffs, project tracking, design work, dispatching, and service/maintenance tracking. Software products are now starting to come on the market that offer great new benefits to the training process at a price that is affordable.

For instance, at this year’s ACCA conference in Albuquerque, NM, Larry Crawford of Training Labs, Inc. (Redmond, WA), talked about a line of products called CATTRAX. According to Craw-ford, these products have been used in schools and apprenticeship programs for the past 10 years. They come on a CD-ROM and are designed to take a beginner from basic physics theory in mechanical refrigeration systems, or basic electrical theory in the electric module, through lessons on components to a modeling system allowing the user to apply their knowledge in various troubleshooting scenarios. (For more information, visit

We do know many of you believe in and provide training. What we don’t know is the training approach that works best. Please let us know which process works best for you, if any. It is our aim to pass along this information.

Publication date: 08/28/2000