When contractors tell me that they train their own people, I cringe.

Isn't there an art to teaching? Just because a contractor has the technical knowledge upstairs, does that make the contractor a good teacher? Look back at your high school and/or college days. Chances are you might have had a very bright instructor, but he or she just could not communicate well with you and/or the entire class. You hated it, right?

With the labor shortage, I understand why some contractors decide to teach their own. Gallagher's Heating & Air Conditioning (Los Molinos, Calif.), one of the winners in The News' 2004 "Best Contractor To Work For" contest, provides a little twist to the teaching process.

"There are good schools out there. They do a good job getting a tech comfortable enough to be alone in the field. However," cautioned general manager Geno Gruber, "the quality of people skills and attitude are not addressed. We feel that the value of a good attitude far outweighs skill. Skill is more easily taught than attitude or people skills."

I've heard that argument before, too. There is some solid truth in it. But again, if the technical part is easier, who does the teaching? And if it is easier, what does that say about this industry? Is that what we want to relay, that we can teach our own in this industry?

Gruber was put to the task again. "Should a contractor be a teacher? Great question," said Gruber before answering, "No. Unfortunately, we have to."

Poorly Planned Overall

"There are not enough trained people to go around," said Steve Saunders, CEO of Tempo Mechanical Services (Carrollton, Texas). That's why he is "a proponent of training any way it can get done." He is not blind to its downfalls, though.

"Working and learning from an industry professional is a great way to grow," he said. "Many great and very bright folks are totally turned off by traditional learning methodology, and a type of apprenticeship can be fabulous for them. This is how I think our industry turns out successful entrepreneurs."

However, "In-house training is, for the most part, poorly planned, poorly coordinated, and haphazard, with little to no validation of methodology and results," he said.

I would have to agree with him. Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning (Rochester, N.Y.) may have one of the best in-house setups with its "Isaac University." It is organized, has an actual training director, and seems to turn out qualified people. However, president Ray Isaac said this in-house school evolved over time because the company simply wanted to have more control over the actual training process.

"It's not rocket science, what we did," he said. However, "You have to know how to run a school. You have to set the curriculum. You have to have testing. ... We paid a lot of attention to this."

That being the case, he realized that not all contractors could produce such an elaborate establishment. And, he agreed that not all of the "old salts" (his words, not mine) of this HVACR world should teach.

"Finding qualified people who can teach, even that's hard," he said, adding, "We have to take responsibility for our own."

More Than Opening A Book

Jim Bergmann, voted 2004 Instructor of the Year byThe Newsand the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), realizes it's harder and harder to find competent and employable people, yet teaching one's own "may not be the best solution to the problem."

Go into an HVAC program with a handful of old equipment and old test tools and this instructor at Cuyahoga Valley Career Center (Brecksville, Ohio) "can guarantee that you will not see a growing program, or a program that local industry is using."

"I can tell you I have spent hundreds of hours writing and compiling information for courses to make the students that complete them successful," he said.

"Starting a course is not as easy as opening the book and starting at chapter one on theory; nor is it retelling all of your old war stories to all of your students. Courses need to have a specific objective with exit exams that test to see if the objective was reached.

"Just because there is teaching going on in the room doesn't mean there is any learning taking place. If your students can't complete the final objective, you need to examine what you, as the instructor, did wrong. That is where the art of teaching takes place. It's called reflection. That is what teachers are trained to do."

When it comes to education, we can all agree that there is room for improvement. Is there an easy solution? Obviously not.

Mark Skaer is senior editor. He can be reached at 618-239-0288 or markskaer@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 02/07/2005