Tag: trade school

Before we jump into the stuff that will make folks angry, let’s start with some common ground.

Can we agree that the desired result of education in the trades is –

Knowing what you are doing and doing it as safely, efficiently and correctly as possible

 If we can agree that we all have this common goal in mind, can we also agree that any way we can achieve this result in a faster, broader and more effective way would be a good thing?

Great!…

Now what follows is admittedly one perspective on how we can better achieve these outcomes. This isn’t scientifically quantified, it certainly contains some confirmation bias, but I can state with all honesty that it comes from a desire to help the trades achieve these goals.

TEAR DOWN THE GATES!!

10 years ago when techs first started putting HVAC/R videos on YouTube there was a huge backlash. For any of you that were on HVAC-Talk back then, you remember all of the doom and gloom.

Homeowners were going to use the info and kill themselves, bad practices were going to take over the trades, guys were going to go to “YouTube University” and think they know it all.

A decade has passed and those prophecies just haven’t come to pass at any significant scale.

The reason for this (in my mind) is the people who actively seek answers to questions are far better off than those who simply swallow what they are told by their teacher or the old timer who trained them.

Out in the light of day ideas have a chance to either thrive or die on their own merit rather than festering in the cold damp corners of “that’s the way I was taught” or “it always worked for me”.

Sure… there have been some bad actors teaching some silly and dangerous stuff along the way, but there have also been some excellent resources that have started discussions and brought ideas to the forefront that could have NEVER spread so quickly without the free sharing of ideas.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” ~ Mark Twain

Guess where some of the bad ideas that have persisted for generations came from before the YouTube and social media era?

In my experience, it was bad teachers and bad “senior” techs sharing poorly formulated ideas under the protection of intellectual isolation.

In other words, bad ideas formed and grew due to lack of scrutiny, or “peer review” if you prefer an academic term.

What are the gates and who are the Gatekeepers? 

They can be trade schools, manufacturers, traditional book publishers, universities, governing bodies, regulators, educators and the list goes on and on…

Anyone who intentionally places barriers in front of education is part of the problem in my worldview.

What I’m NOT saying –

  • Education should all be free
  • Formal education is worthless
  • The system is the problem
  • Poorly prepared workers should be thrown into the workplace

What I AM saying

  • Learning and progress should be heralded over certifications and degrees
  • What you know and can do is more important than how long you’ve been doing it
  • A lot of time and effort is wasted in bureaucracy and red tape rather than actually reinforcing learning and a passion for learning
  • Self-education is a lifelong skill that should be fostered at every opportunity

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” – Socrates

Self Education is Worth Promoting

Whether or not you are formally educated, self-education is paramount to success.

About a year ago I received an application for a service tech apprentice position with the following listed under the previous education field.

Self Study: EPA 608, R-410a Certification, PM Tech Certification, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Technology, Commercial Refrigeration: For Air Conditioning Technicians, Blue Collar Roots Network podcasts

When he came in for an interview he was polite and quiet, I asked him how he got the certifications if he didn’t go to a formal trade school, he replied: “I just found where I had to go and went out and got them”.

Do you think he ended up working out well? OF COURSE, HE DID!

He’s a self-starter, he doesn’t need a gatekeeper to tell him when or how to learn something he just went out and learned until he understood.

Does that mean we threw him in a truck right away? NO WAY! You can’t learn to ride a bike at a seminar and you can’t teach someone how to be an HVAC/R tech with a book, podcast or video.

He had to practice and apply what he had learned before the learning could manifest itself into skills but he came to the table with the proper mindset which led to the inevitable result of skill and mastery.

The “CYA” or Lawyer excuse

I sent out an email not long ago to a well known OEM seeking approval to use small portions of their bulletin content (with attribution) for some tech tips. Last I heard their lawyers were looking into it.

We get this a lot in the education side of the trade, a fear of “plagurizing” or saying the wrong thing so someone gets sued and then out of the OTHER side of their mouths comes complaints about the “skills gap” and difficulties in education.

I have a piece of advice on the lawyer and copyright stuff surrounding trade education…

STOP IT!

Obviously, if someone is directly copying or republishing your content as their own then that’s a problem and needs to be dealt with. Other than that, WHAT IS THE PROBLEM!

If people are sharing excerpts from your manual or book or bulletin online, do you REALLY think that’s a risk to your brand or business?

Do you honestly believe that people who are excited enough about the trade to share or excerpt from something you made are a problem?

Are you HONESTLY concerned that overeducation of the general consumer is a valid problem to protect against in comparison with the growing skills gap in our trade?

Do you think that good quality traditional HVAC/R education is at risk of being replaced by people online sharing good training materials?

“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing” ~ Warren Buffet

Risk Aversion

I have 10 kids and only one broken bone among them over 17 years (by the grace of God).

My kids hang from trees, ride bikes around the yard and on the driveway (with no helmet at times), ride our gas powered golf cart (too fast at times) and work with tools on all sorts of things. They cut veggies with knives for dinner, climb ladders to the attic, walk on trusses (the older ones) and ride skateboards with no kneepads.

Does this upbringing sound familiar to you? It probably does because that is the way that many of us were raised and it was certainly the way the generation that went to the moon strapped to a rocket were raised.

The point is that we all learn how to do fairly risky things SAFELY by being allowed to do them in reasonable low risk environments.

But HEAVEN FORBID we allow a 16 year old to job shadow or climb a ladder or use a saw.

How did we get to be so risk averse, especially in a trade where we melt metal with fire, run explosive gasses into buildings and set it on fire, freeze things and make sparks regularly.

If we didn’t want to take risks we should have become a hotel concierge, not an HVAC/R professional.

Now there is no reason to be foolish and we should look for ways to do things as safely as practically possible… but, COME ON FOLKS! Let’s not kill training and education before it can begin by running everything through the lawyers. We are the experts, let peer review and some common sense solve the unwise risks associated with the trade, not a bunch of legal jargon and red tape.

It’s human nature that once we have a good thing going it’s easy to get comfortable and stop taking risks. I get it, but we can no longer rely on the certificates, degrees and processes of yesteryear to solve the staffing problems at our doorstep. We need to actively recruit, share, train, communicate and collaborate from contractors, schools, publishers, OEMs, reps, trade publications and industry bodies.

We need to try new things, be open to taking risks and stop defending our little piece of turf.

“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” ~ Socrates

Conclusion

Do you want the trade to get better? Is it your goal to see techs progress more quickly? Make a real difference?

Tear down the gates and focus on inspiring the spark of continuous learning in the trades 

That’s what’s on my mind today.

— Bryan

 

 

 

So I hear you’re just finishing trade school? Well done.

You chose to take an excellent path and now your journey is just beginning.

How this will go is really up to you and that’s a good thing! You aren’t going to be forced in one direction or another, you get to choose.

Let’s talk about what choices you will make and what you need to know to end up where you want to go (unintentional rhyme there).


Choosing an Industry Segment

Many of you may end up working in a particular segment because you were recruited into it, or you know someone, or it was the first place that offers you a job. There is nothing wrong with that, but I would first consider all of your options.

Stationary vs. Field 

There are some jobs where you work as a stationary mechanic or tech on a single, or group of facilities, generally as a direct employee of the facility. In other jobs, you will work for an independent contractor on many different locations and for various customers.

Stationary jobs tend to be well suited for people who enjoy routine, a slower pace and less variability. Often the benefits (Vacation, health, retirement) in stationary jobs can be very good though the competitiveness of the pay may vary.

Field jobs have more risk and variability and are generally best suited for people who are always looking for a challenge and prefer not to have a set routine day in and day out.

Install vs. Service – Install or projects work tends to be more physically taxing but generally has a more fixed work schedule. Good install and project mechanics need to have a combination of productivity and efficiency as well as a strong mechanical sense and attention to aesthetic detail (how things look). Install mechanics must be able to read plans and specs but usually don’t need to learn as much from reading as service.

Service has a lot more scheduling variability and often work long hours in peak seasons. Service requires strong problem-solving skills, communication and an ability to think well under pressure. The best service techs can learn from many different sources including reading.

Residential vs. Commercial – In residential you will generally be able to stay busy in or near your own hometown.  You must be able to talk with people and handle tense situations and be willing to quote repairs and have money conversations with customers. In general, residential requires less travel and isn’t as technically difficult as commercial but can be more socially stressful.

Commercial work does not generally require nearly as much customer interaction but will often require more climbing, lifting, and travel. On the projects side, commercial work will often require periodic night work.

Specialty Segments 

HVAC/R has many specialty segments like chillers, controls (EMS, BAS), VRF, Market refrigeration, ammonia and many more. Specialty segments may be more challenging to get into right out of school but often have excellent long term opportunity for pay and advancement. One of the best ways to learn if an industry segment may be right for you is to strike up a conversation with a tech or owner in that segment on one of the forums or social media groups like HVAC school.


Initial Pay vs. Ultimate Opportunity

You will be tempted to choose a job based on which one pays you the most right out of school. For some of you, the need to make as much as you can right away is critical and I understand that.

But that isn’t how I would make the decision.

I would suggest looking into segments and companies where the pay after 5 years is the best rather than only considering what they pay out of school. The best way to find this info is to talk to people who have actually done it rather than trusting what a company says about themselves.

I know you may think you already HAVE an education, but your education is really only starting. Find a company that will continue to invest in training you rather than one that throws you to the wolves right out of school.

Don’t get the wrong idea…

There isn’t a job or career path out there that will work out exactly like you planned. The planning isn’t so you will check every box, it’s so you will get started out in the best direction. There will be many course corrections in your journey and you will learn a lot about yourself as you go.


Character is Key

Before we cover what you do to get where you want to go we need to discuss who you ARE.

You are a combination of your genetics inherited from your parents, the things that have happened to you and the choices you’ve made along the way. When questions of character come up you will be tempted to blame your genes (I’m just not a good reader) or your circumstances (I don’t have time to study), I beg you DON’T DO IT.

Every human that has ever lived is born with advantages and challenges and everyone has the choice to allow these external forces to define their existence or to choose to own what they become.

Whether life happens to you (victim mentality) or whether you happen to life (ownership) depends on you

Character means making a set of choices based on rules that you set for yourself of proper conduct. Here are some great character rules.

  1. Keep your word, especially when doing so requires sacrifice
  2. Treat everyone with respect whether they deserve it or not
  3. Spend time with people that make you better
  4. Listen more than you speak
  5. Practice gratefulness daily
  6. Work hard even when you think it doesn’t matter
  7. Do the right thing even when nobody will ever know
  8. Replace negativity with solutions
  9. Don’t complain… ever
  10. Make decisions you will be proud of 20 years from now

Sorry for writing a little self-help novel here… but character really matters.

You need to decide what sort of person you are or your circumstances will decide for you.


What Not to Do

If you are under the age of 25 I want to state once again how glad I am that you chose this business and I really think you made a great choice.

But please, recognize that some of the things culture and social interaction with your peers have taught you will wreak havoc on your career in this trade.

So please, for your own sake don’t –

  • Keep looking at your phone (seriously, don’t look at it…)
  • Come into work looking all sleepy and disengaged
  • Show up late
  • Make snarky remarks to more experienced workers (or anything that could be misinterpreted that way)
  • Tell experienced guys how you “did it in school”
  • Stand Around (Find a broom, organize something somewhere or read something directly related to your job)
  • Fall asleep at work (even in the van)
  • Tell people about personal stuff you don’t want everyone to know

This applies to workers of all ages of course, but these traits tend to be really common in younger workers.


What to Do Instead

Getting ahead is actually pretty simple (but not easy). You need to

Learn continuously, communicate positively and do good work consistently

Here are my top recommendations for actions you can take right out of school

  1.  Put aside money from every check for tools. Buy your own tools even if the company provides them. This is about investing in yourself, not about the company you work for right now.
  2. Remember things the older techs tell you. Thank them later on for specifically what they taught you and how it helped.
  3. Read Manuals. If you work on something new read the manual beforehand if you can. At a minimum, do it later on at home if you didn’t have time during the day. I don’t care if you are a “hands-on” learner thats not an excuse not to read. This is why I suggest doing just before or after you worked on it. You can’t get really good if you never read so start making it a habit.
  4. Show up to Work Early. On time is late, set your clocks 10 minutes forward if you need to.
  5. Share Facts from Others. If you find that someone more experienced is doing something incorrectly, share something you read in a manual or article and ask their thoughts on it rather than “confronting” them.
  6. Use Your Resources. Do some research and study before asking a question. There is still a time to ask, but it’s once you’ve already put in some work.

The Rule of Bob 

“If Bob has a problem with everyone, Bob is the problem”

I get contacted all the time by people fresh out of school who express that everyone in the trade is out to get them. They ALL do it wrong, they are ALL jerks, EVERYONE abuses and mistreats them.

There are really only two options when someone has these sorts of complaints

  1. They work for the worst company ever
  2. They don’t know how to overcome challenges

Sure, there are a lot of grouchy, sad, negative people in our trade. That’s true in EVERY job, tradespeople just tend to express it with a few more expletives than some other more “refined” professions. You’ve really got to learn to deal with negative people while finding ways to spend more time with positive and helpful people. Sometimes that means finding a different company and sometimes it means using it as an opportunity to build some resilience within yourself.

Some companies and bosses are bad… You won’t change them. If you work at a place that doesn’t match your character don’t complain, find a better fit.

Remember, this is all about you choosing a path that will take you where YOU want to go. Everything else is just circumstances and you will decide whether they make you better or bitter.

In the words of Forest Gump…

“That’s all I’ve got to say about that”

— Bryan

 

 

I have a confession to make. I’m a bit of a snob.

It’s embarrassing to admit because I never wanted to be a snob. I’ve consistently railed against snobbery whenever I bumped up against it.

But now I am one.

My snobbishness has been YEARS in the making.

I remember being on call when I was 20 years old and hearing my emergency pager going off at 1 am. At that time we had a toddler who wasn’t the best sleeper and we were living in a one-room “house”. I rolled out of bed and walked outside to call the customer, speaking out loud beforehand to try and get the sleep out of my voice before I dialed.

Me: “Hello, may I speak with Mr. Pedergast?”
Customer: “Yes, Who is this!”
Me: “This is the A/C technician with (redacted), I received a call that you have an emergency?”
Customer: “Yeah, you guys were JUST out here and now my A/C isn’t working and I need you out here right away!”
Me: “Ok, I will be out within a few hours, please have any recent invoices available so I can take a look before I start working”
Customer: “What! TWO HOURS! You won’t be here until 3 am? I need to WORK in the morning”
Me: “I will be there as soon as I can sir, It would be two hours at most”
Customer: “OK, just get here as soon as you can… (click)”

Needless to say, Mr. Pendergast actually had 3 systems in his home but the one that wasn’t working was his master bedroom so it was an absolute emergency, heaven forbid he use the spare room or **gasp** SLEEP ON THE SOFA.

It also turns out we hadn’t worked on THAT system recently, we had worked on another one but that didn’t prevent him from pitching a fit when I wrote down a diagnosis fee on the invoice.

So I have a question directed at the mindset that drives people like this customer to devalue the trades and the people who work in them. What can you ACTUALLY DO Mr. Pendergast? What real value to YOU add to society? Who needs YOU at 2 am? What does YOUR work day look like? How many real-world problems do YOU solve?

I have these thoughts now that I didn’t necessarily have when I was 20, because at that time I may have had much the same view of my work and value that Mr. Pendergast had. Back then I wasn’t a snob that looked down on people like Mr. Pendergast, now I am, much to my own chagrin.

What does this have to do with the skills gap? 

This customer is an extreme version of a larger challenge that exists in the minds of people from CEOs to Tradespeople themselves. This is the belief that one type of work is “more important” than another and therefore doing one thing over another makes you (or others) more or less important.

As I’ve progressed in my career and interacted with more people from various “prestigious” professions I’ve noticed three things that relate to this topic.

  1. Many of them are excellent people that I enjoy immensely
  2. They have no idea what it takes to do what we do
  3. They aren’t any better, smarter or more important than tradespeople

You see, most of them don’t really think they are BETTER than you and I, they just don’t have clue what it means to BE you and I. They can imagine what it’s like to work in an attic or crawlspace, to drag a gas furnace through the dirt, up a hill with a hand truck or to work on call into the wee hours of the morning but they still have NO CLUE what it really takes.

And that’s OK! it isn’t their experience so they can’t be expected to understand. You cannot change how others see the world by complaining about their worldview. We can change it by taking steps to value the trade ourselves and start thinking about all work, education and recruiting a bit differently.

Manifesto for Filling the Skills Gap 

#1 – The Trades Don’t Always Need to be a Full Contact Sport

I hear it all the time, some version of “I don’t want to be turning a wrench when I’m 60, my body can’t handle it!”.

That would be like asking a running back to carry the ball in the NFL or a pitcher still throwing it 96 MPH when they’re 60. There are aspects of our trade that are very physically demanding, there are segments that are minimally demanding and then there are roles that will allow you to sit in front of a screen and talk on a phone most of the time.

I wrote that last one because I knew 99% of you who have worked in the field got hives just THINKING about sitting in front of a computer all day. Many of us work with our hands because we ENJOY working with our hands, getting some fresh air, turning a wrench now and then and ultimately solving problems in the real world.

Which of us as little kids dreamed of a future where we would sit behind a desk answering emails and attending meetings all day?

We all have a desire to DO COOL THINGS not just talk about cool things and certainly not to sit on our butts staring at a screen all day.

The real problem isn’t turning a wrench, the issue is that we are afraid that the trade will use up our bodies and then leave us hanging when we can no longer throw the ball 96 MPH.

Here’s the truth, nobody who continues to invest in their mind and personal growth will be left hanging by this trade moving forward. There is just too much to do and too few people to do it. Getting left behind will happen due to lack of development and preparation not because of something intrinsic to the trade.

We have never needed the minds of those who have been around the business for 30+ years more than we do today. There just needs to be a shift in thinking from working our whole careers with the exact same focus to shifting from mostly physical to mostly mental work as we mature, I call this shifting from blue-collar to new-collar. This shift from physical to mostly mental takes time and intentionality but it’s critical to the future of the trade.

If we begin to phase more experienced people into training and supervision earlier it will keep more people in the trade and help improve the next crop, but there is a catch… The grouchy, inflexible, ego-driven, foul-mouthed tech won’t fit into these roles and will be left behind because they cannot be trusted to supervise and train.

Here is the litmus test for whether you are ready to begin making the transition. If you have been in the trade for 15+ years go ahead and think about a new technology that’s come out in the last 5 years that you are really comfortable with. Now think about your three favorite books, audio-books or podcasts on personal development or leadership. If you are drawing a blank then that is where you start.

We must have intentional programs and processes to transition more experienced workers to roles that utilize their field knowledge while coaching them on educational and leadership skills and traits. We need to leverage technology and resources to train and develop skills into existing tradespeople before looking forward to the next generation.

#2 – The Education System is Broken 

There are many incredible educators, schools and resources. Learning isn’t broken, the education SYSTEM is broken, especially for the trades.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” ~ Mark Twain

Humans learn through concept association (how this works reminds me of how that works) and practice. Yet the education system tries to teach using disassociated facts and memorization.

Imagine the US education system trying to teach a baby how to speak. They would develop a 4-year program where the baby would be taught Latin and Greek word roots, the history and science of words and then given speaking tests to see what they remembered.

How do babies actually learn to speak? They learn by hearing language used constantly and once they learn some words they make inferences on the meanings and pronunciations of other words which they then practice in context. Once the baby starts speaking then other adults and children begin to provide them with feedback on ways to improve their vocabulary and pronunciation.

Learning  is natural and organic and it has three necessary components

  1. Desire to Learn
  2. Observation & Practice in Context
  3. Feedback & Instruction in Context

The education system can only provide #3 and it can only be expected to do it well when the first two elements are in place. Many of us grew up watching adults do things around the house like installing an outlet, changing a tire or soaking a mower carburetor. Once we started in a trade school or in the field we already had a “language” of tactile skills we could draw from when we saw things in our trade of choice. If we had a good instructor or worked with a good journeyman they would draw on the language and mechanical concepts we already understood to relate concepts in HVAC/R. This is why many of us learned electrical theory as related to the flow of water in pipes, we had already seen water flow so this would help us understand the movement of electricity.

Many young people entering the workplace today don’t speak the same mechanical language we spoke as kids because their experiences are more likely to be of screens and computer keyboards than fire, gasoline, and plumbing.

With this being what it is we need to give new students and apprentices more experiences with the basics of mechanical assembly and tools before we can expect them to understand mechanical concepts taught in a lecture.

This is not only true of the trades, this is also why many young people don’t have basic skills like balancing a bank account, doing laundry or dealing with disappointment. You don’t learn these skills in a class, you learn them by doing them and dealing with them and often the culture emphasizes skills that are far less necessary for life than these. To bring it to a point, we think you need to learn theory and facts and then gain practice when really you must have a constant cycle between facts and application for it to make any sense. Often this means seeing something done and doing it before you can learn why you did it or why it matters.

We must develop programs that allow for a continuous loop of observation, practice, instruction, and feedback that focuses on the application of a skill more than the information. Effective education develops the tactile “language” of learning rather than just hammering away at the information. We cannot wait for government programs to do this for us. Contractors, OEMs, wholesalers, educators, influencers and reps need to work together to make this a reality.

#3 – Change Starts Between Our Ears

Back to me being a snob.

I don’t know what Mr. Pendergast did for a living, maybe he was a scientist working on a cure for cancer or an astronaut or a recently deposed dictator (which I imagine to be most likely). I can tell you that I’m glad that I work in a job where what I do makes a difference in peoples lives. I’m glad for an honest days work, doing pretty awesome stuff with some pretty neat tools, working alongside some really smart people. I’m glad I don’t devalue the hard work of others and their sacrifice like Mr. Pendergast did with me.

I spoke on a panel the other day where the question came up about recruiting the next generation and why young people don’t flock to the trades. I asked for a show of hands from the audience of how many of them encourage their kids to enter the trades. Only a few hands went up out of hundreds of people.

Maybe the reason we have a problem getting young people into the trades is because parents encourage kids to go into a career where they don’t need to put in a hard physical days work.

Why is that?

Do we think there is something wrong with having dirty hands and lifting heavy things every once and a while? I don’t think that’s it based on how many people pay GOOD MONEY to attend CrossFit classes and mud runs.

I think much of society has bought into a lie that working in blue collar jobs is somehow a “lesser” option. You are OK with your kids working an apprenticeship and attending a trade school if “college isn’t for them” or if they “Just aren’t academic” but not as a first option.

Those of you pushing your kids towards college, how would you feel if I said “Yeah I understand, some kids just aren’t suited to work for a living”. It’s insulting and ridiculous to assume that a kid needs to choose a trade if “college just isn’t for them”. Maybe they should choose a trade because it’s an interesting, rewarding and tactile career path where you get to solve real problems every day.

Ultimately I want my kids to do whatever they do with excellence and I want them to enjoy the path they choose whether that is as an HVAC tech or a physicist, although I’m pretty biased to HVAC myself.

We need to ask ourselves if we are ashamed of being in a blue-collar industry and if that impacts how we talk about our work to young people. If we are excited about this trade then don’t be afraid to be outspoken about it. 

Let’s get the skills gap filled by creating better paths for experienced people, improving education and being really excited about the opportunities in our trade for the next generation.

Oh and that toddler who my pager almost woke up… he just started as an apprentice in the trade. Don’t worry, he can always go to college as a plan B if he can’t cut it 😉

— The HVAC Snob – Bryan Orr

And no… his real name wasn’t Mr. Pendergast. That name is taken from a grouchy guy in one of my favorite movies as a kid. Do you know which one?

 

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