By Greg Goater

Why must HVAC contractors take an active role in providing training? First of all, the importance of training continues to grow. Pick up any industry publication today, and you’re very likely to see an article on the positive and negative implications training has for technicians, HVAC contractors, and the HVAC industry.

Secondly, we’re finding that the public school system, vocational schools, and apprenticeship programs just aren’t turning out enough qualified technicians.

HVAC equipment has become more sophisticated, and involves all kinds of new technology incorporated into the simplest of equipment. Therefore, it’s in our best interest as contractors who must provide warranted quality service and installations, to provide training to our employees. Here are some tips related to starting a training program.

Find An Instructor
The first step to creating an in-house training program is to find a capable and qualified instructor. This person should be familiar with the HVAC industry and have teaching experience. During the interview, give the candidate a lesson plan and have them demonstrate how they would teach the lesson. Bring in a few senior technicians, other trainers, and even the owner of the company to critique the person to make sure they’ll be a good fit for your program.

After you’ve found a qualified instructor, show them specifically what it is that you want them to teach. It’s not as easy as saying “Give them a class on air conditioning.” Tell them where you want to start, where you want to finish, and how much time you want to devote to it. A good set of learning objectives, followed by a good lesson plan should provide this information for your new instructor. Preparation is the key to a successful training program.

Theory or Task Performance
You have to decide whether you’re going to teach theory or task performance. I think most contractors would rather have their technicians know how to go into the field and perform, so we tend to lean more towards task performance when planning the class. When creating our objectives, we use the acronym (SWBAT), which stands for “Student Will Be Able To”. We put a lot of thought and planning in what it is we want these students to be able to do when they complete the class. Be very specific about your objectives. For 30 hours of instruction, we usually have 30 to 35 objectives for each class.

Trade Math and Basic Electricity
Create a program for trade math and basic electricity. We run a two-day, 16-hour trade math and electricity class. This should be a pre-requisite for the actual training program because it cuts across all boundaries. That will help the technicians excel in the air conditioning and heating classes.

Anybody that works in this trade has to have a basic understanding of electricity. Can they use a voltmeter to read voltage? Can they set a heat anticipator on a thermostat? Can they calculate amps from watts and volts? Those are very specific things that you want the students to know entering your program. I can’t tell you the number of hours that I sat in classes on “Ohm’s Law.” Once I was finished, I had a jumble of math in my head and although I didn’t know an ohm from an amp, I could sure do the calculations and pass the test. That’s of very little value in the field.

You may also want to have a different class for different skill levels. I don’t want to stick a 12-year veteran in with a brand new apprentice; it’s just not going to work. Somebody is either going to be completely lost or completely bored. You want to make sure the material that you’re teaching is appropriate for the skill level.

You also want to keep the classes seasonal. There’s not much sense talking about air conditioning in November in Rochester, NY, because it’s going to be several months before anyone is going to need it.

Use Your Resources
Use your suppliers and manufacturers as resources, but don’t let them tell you what to do. Most of our suppliers have agreed to give some training to the trainers, and allow them to sign off on the individual certifications that are necessary.

You can use off the shelf textbooks, CDs, videos, etc. for your program, but you can’t make them the program itself. You can’t just grab something off the shelf and expect it will meet the objectives of your program.

Create a Learning Environment
Where are you going to perform this training? The environment has a lot to do with the student’s ability to learn. It’s got to be an environment that inspires learning. Make sure the room is brightly lit, has comfortable chairs, and nice tabletops or desks to take notes on. What isn’t going to cut it is a picnic table out in the shop, and I’ve seen a lot of people try to do that. The students aren’t going to be comfortable in that environment. If you treat the students appropriately in the academic environment then they’re going to respond appropriately. I would think that you’d want a real classroom with real tables and/or desks. You’re also going to need audio/visual equipment, white boards, and chalkboards.

If you want to have an effective program, you need a classroom. Many places in the community have classrooms if you don’t have one in your own building. For instance, investigate local schools that belong to the community. Go to your local school and find out the going rate on renting out classrooms. If you’re a taxpayer, you technically own the building. There’s also classroom space available in churches. Churches are usually very willing to rent out their Sunday school rooms or other available rooms. In addition to that, you’ve got fire halls and community centers.

To Pay or Not to Pay
Are you going to pay the techs for training? There are very few industries that actually pay people to learn. As contractors, we tend to be people that wouldn’t pay our employees to learn. It comes down to what is most cost effective. If you look at it like an investment, if you’re going to get more out of this technician if he goes through the training than if he didn’t, then it’s a good idea to pay him. The labor laws state that you can’t force anyone to go to class if you’re not going to pay them to be there. If you pay them as part of their job description, then you can hold them accountable for learning. That’s a plus side of paying them to be there.

When we started our program, we had approximately 75 technicians that we wanted to enroll. Of that, 50 were relatively new to the industry, and 25 were senior level techs. We developed our program on an annual calendar, running two sessions for the newer techs and one session for the senior techs. We found that if a technician had a particular problem with a portion of the material, our only choice was to pass them on to the next year or have them repeat the entire year. Also, with an annual calendar program, the only entry point was in September, so if we hired someone in October; they had to wait until the next September to be enrolled. In subsequent years, we set all of our instruction up around 15 week semesters. Smaller chunks of information meant that we could repeat techs through classes as needed, and we had multiple entry points throughout the year.

Preparation Gets You Through
After five years, many of our employees have been through much of the training. One of the first things we did was hire a full time teacher. That was me. I had a lot of teaching experience and felt that I could run the training department. Now, I’m the safety guy and the guy in the company that has all the codebooks.

One of the concerns that came up in the beginning was, if you’re only teaching for two hours a day, what are you going to do with the rest of your time? It turned out that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. If you use your time productively though, you can create a really good program.

Preparation is more important than the actual delivery of the information. Make sure your instructors are prepared. Have multiple teachers in case any get sick or quit. Call on senior service technicians to come in and help teach so they can learn how to do it correctly.

For more training tips, get the book “How to Teach Technicians Without Putting them to Sleep” by Dan Holohan. It’s an easy and informative book by a noted speaker and author. If you need motivation to begin a training university, consider the benefits:

  • NATE certified technicians
  • well-trained, qualified technicians
  • improved customer service
  • fewer call backs
  • increased loyalty and higher morale
  • happier customers

Greg Goater is the training director for Isaac Heating and Cooling, in Rochester, NY. He can be reached at 585/546-1400.