HVAC training, whether focusing on technical or soft skills, can take many shapes and sizes. While some contractors may concentrate primarily on how-to courses offered by equipment manufacturers, others prefer to teach their technicians the ABCs of the trade in-house.
For example, take Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning, Rochester, NY, which created Isaac University, the only contractor program nationally certified through the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation, according to Eric Knaak, Isaac’s vice president and general manager.
“We’ve always done some type of training on and off,” he explains. “When it wasn’t real busy, we would do training—a typical contractor program. Back in 2003, we made the decision to develop a robust training program because we were just not getting candidates coming on board that were qualified.”
So, the company hired a full-time training director, who developed a 15-week syllabus for a variety of classes, including basic electricity, trade math, gas heat systems, and air conditioning 1. “From there, we began building more classes as we added more employees,” Knaak says. “We started creating more lesson plans. We currently offer 16 courses at the university.”
A typical class, which is about 30 instructional hours, runs one day a week from 7 to 9 a.m. for 15 weeks. “While employees are in class, we pay them because we want them to know we recognize the value,” he emphasizes. “It’s important for us to have them properly trained so they can take care of our clients. It’s an investment. We’ve probably trained a couple hundred technicians and installers over the last 14 to 15 years.”
Employees who work in one of the six branch locations often follow a different class schedule because of their travel times. “We can’t always bring them in for a two-hour class every week because a couple of our branches are 1 ½ to 2 hours away. For those employees, we do block training in the spring and fall. It might be all day Tuesday for four or five weeks. They will get all the same materials, but we do it in a block.”
The classes combine lecture and hands-on lab. “We have a fully functioning lab that has about 30 to 35 pieces of equipment,” Knaak says. “In the classroom, they will have lecture and theory, and then they go out to the lab for practical application.”
The company, which has about 340 employees, provides residential, commercial, service, and installation, as well as home performance and home services, such as plumbing, electrical, and carpentry. In business since 1945, Isaac has an annual volume ranging from $35 to $50 million, of which about $500,000 to $750,000 is spent on education.
Although he admits that his trained technicians are sometimes lured away by the competition, Knaak stands behind the university 100 percent. “Our training program is pretty well respected and well known by our competitors,” he says. “We will train people, and someone else will offer them 20 to 30 percent more because they can get in the truck and get started right away. If you train them and they leave it is a downside. The flip side is what if you don’t train them and they stay?”
More Traditional Approach
While Schaafsma Heating & Cooling Company in Grand Rapids, MI, doesn’t sponsor a university, the company does make employee education a priority.
“We do a lot of training with National Comfort Institute on airflow, air diagnostics, combustion analysis, and carbon monoxide,” says Kevin Walsh, president. “Sometimes training is in-house. We’ve purchased just about all of the ACCA videos for NATE on electricity and Manual J so we have those for in-house training. We’ve had people from outside organizations come in and do companywide training. We frequently send technicians to classes held out of town for a day or two.”
In-house training typically lasts about two hours. “This morning we brought in the technical rep from our distributor to go through training on Bryant’s new ductless system,” he says. “The service techs were having questions on the diagnostic procedures so we arranged for him to do a two-hour class.”
The company, which is strictly residential service and replacement, has been in business for a whopping 112 years. “We originally sold coal furnaces,” Walsh explains. He estimates Schaafsma spends about 1 percent of sales on training each year.
Although the technicians usually prefer technical training, the company offers some type of customer service training on a weekly basis. “Soft skill training for customers is a little different and sometimes takes technicians out of their comfort zone,” Walsh explains. For office staff, topics might include dealing courteously with customers on the phone and ensuring customer problems are resolved.
All 35 employees have the desire to learn, according to Walsh. “The installers and technicians like to learn new things about the industry. Even our service techs who are 50 years old want to learn something new. We have a lot of people who are amazed in the amount of training we invest in them. They’ve come from other places where they didn’t get that. That’s really one of the benefits they appreciate.”
Listen to Your Customers
The secret to training your team is listening to your customers, emphasizes Brian Hooper, vice president, operations, MSI Mechanical, Salem, New Hampshire.
“They need to tell you what type of equipment and software that they want in their plants and facilities,” he says. “If you spend money on training that is not going to be used, it’s useless. You need to get feedback from the facilities you work in and find out what it is they want.”
MSI, which specializes in work for calls centers, data centers, and large office commercial buildings, has 25 employees in the field and five in the office and averages $8 to 10 million a year.
Hooper suggests that commercial contractors find out what their customers are installing and make sure everybody in the company knows the ins and outs of what that equipment can do. “If you are in long-term client relationship, you should ensure your team has the experience, background, information, and education to work on the equipment. That way, when the equipment does go down, you have a team that can fix it.
MSI’s budget for training varies according to client demand. “Some years it’s a big investment,” he says. “If we picked up large accounts, such as Bentley University or MIT with a lot of chillers and large-tonnage equipment, we would invest in sending our guys to Wisconsin to train on the Trane chillers or to Syracuse to get trained on Carrier chillers. Some years we could invest $2,000 and other years over $10,000, depending on what our accounts are that year.”
That type of manufacturer training typically last a week and the company pays for the class, airfare, and hotel. Employees also attend one or two-day courses that are local.
The company is currently evaluating three different vendors to conduct a companywide seminar this summer. “We are getting ready to launch a paperless system,” Hooper explains. “Part of the training we are going to be doing is soft skills or customer service training on a Saturday for the whole company. We’ll have a cookout and make it a fun occasion. We want to make sure that everyone understands we’re not just there to fix something—we want to give us customers what they need. If we don’t, they’ll just nod their head and use somebody else.”