Working With Your Hands

I read with interest Mike Murphy's column ["Changes In Attitudes And Latitudes"] in the Dec. 13 edition ofThe Newsregarding being "repotted." My understanding of what you were trying to communicate is that we should be encouraged to move outside of our small way of thinking and explore new horizons that will give us an opportunity to grow, specifically to go from working with our hands in the trade to moving into more of a management role, with the on-hands work being more and more delegated to employees.

Actually, I have been "repotted" myself. From 1980 until 1987, my ex-partner and I owned and operated an air conditioning company that grew to a five-truck operation, with several full-time employees and a secretary. We had lots of work, and we were making money.

I wasn't working all that hard, doing a lot of supervising and, to be honest, I was miserable. I wanted to get back to working "in" the business.

So I sold out to my partner. For the last 17 years, I've been working with my hands with the help of one or two part-time co-workers, with my wife doing most of the office work, scheduling, etc. I've never wanted to go back.

I would like to challenge your thinking for a moment. You made quotes such as, "Oh, most of you still like to get your hands dirty every now and again, just to prove you can still hang." and "The blinders come off as you begin to manage risk in your business ... letting go of something that's always been within your comfort zone ... because it's still fun."

I would like to suggest to you that there are three types of people working in the trade:

1. Those who want to work with their hands but want no responsibility of operating a business.

2. Those who want to operate a business rather than work with their hands.

3. Those who want to work with their hands but want to be independent rather than work as an employee.

I would like to suggest that working in the trade as a tradesman, a skilled worker, repairing, installing, creating, and sweating is not synonymous with limiting yourself, but might even be, for some people, the way to achieve your own potential.

There is no [such thing as] one size fits all. We're not all cut out to push a pencil, wear dress pants, lunch with prospective clients, and sit in a climate-controlled environment most of the day. Some of us, I dare say, are built and wired to get dirty, to be out on the road, on the job, turning wrenches, as humble as that may sound.

Some businesses are small by default, others are small by design. There are those who trudge along in a service truck because they don't have the gumption to move on, and there are those who are sitting in big offices, unhappy, because they have been programmed to believe that people who work with their hands are losers.

I would like to challenge that thinking as being outdated and frustrating. Knowing where you belong in this world and having the ability to be there is a wonderful thing. I've been there for 17 years.

Bruce Dix
Dix Air Conditioning & Heating Inc.
Bradenton, Fla.

Putting Theory Into Practice

[Editor's note: This letter is in response to the letter in the Nov. 15 issue titled "Certification ... So What?"]

Having been in residential HVAC in a variety of capacities for the last 30 years, I have been amazed at the varying degree of competence in this industry. I hold eight of the current 10 certifications available through NATE and am very proud of these certifications. People wanting to understand what the patches are all about have stopped me in airports. Our customers are becoming better informed.

I must agree that just possessing the certification does not make anyone a better technician. I also believe that longevity in the business likewise counts for little in someone's technical ability.

Our industry is full of certifications that mean nothing more than the paper they were printed on. I have also seen contractor's licenses awarded to people that didn't have a clue what condition the refrigerant was in any given part of the system.

While the NATE exam may not be the end-all to establishing if a tech is the best qualified for a job, it never pretended to be. It is a piece of a puzzle that must be considered during the hiring process. Just as you could not determine if a system is functioning properly based on suction pressure alone, NATE certification is a tool to help identify knowledge level in a particular skill area.

Experience is a wonderful teacher; it can teach many of us how to do something. We can do something wrong enough times to eventually understand how to get it working. Traveling the country teaching, I have seen a great number of young NATE-certified technicians that I would welcome to work on my personal unit, and I have seen some 30-year techs I wouldn't let touch it.

The biggest complaint I hear from techs that fail to pass the exams is that it deals too much in "theory" and not enough "practical." What the NATE test is trying to determine is if a technician not only understands the "how" but also the "why," the practical as well as the theory.

The manufacturers are designing the redundant problems out of the equipment; therefore, the parts we changed to solve problems in the past may no longer exist in coming years. Gone will be the repetitive problems of the past, and we will see much more of the random problems of airflow, humidification, pressurization, etc., surfacing.

While manufacturers' ongoing training on specific products should never be underestimated, the need for study in basic theory for NATE certifications is a necessity. We have far too many techs that learned the trade "on the job," never learning the basic theory needed to make a better first-time diagnosis. NATE testing is becoming a critical part of raising the bar in our industry.

While all the different certifications in general are fighting to establish their level in our industry, and the equipment is becoming more a commodity, we need to set ourselves apart from the pack in any way we can.

In the end, voluntary certification may not be the best answer but, for now, NATE leads the pack in reaching the broadest group of technicians across the residential field, and is more effective on the "need to know" issues than anything else we have tried.

R. Kincel
Instructional Designer
International Service Leadership
Surprise, Ariz.

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Publication date: 01/24/2005