Where Are The Newbies?
by Carol Fey
Continued education is the key to staying in the industry. There’s no debate about it — there is a shortage of new guys in our industry. We like to grumble and blame it on the new generation: “Those kids just don’t like to work. They just don’t have the skills.” I suspect though, that the exiting generation, whether now or 50 years ago, typically sees the next generation as a bunch of ungrateful lazy slobs.
“People from the whole spectrum complain that young people 1) don’t want to get their hands dirty; 2) think they deserve a wage of $20+/hour; and 3) don’t believe they need any education of the trade,” says Carrie Polk, managing editor of a family of regional industry newspapers. She talks to all levels of people — contractors, distributors, manufacturers, educators.
“At the same time,” she notes, “educators complain that contractors will hire only those with three to five years’ experience.” Where are employees going to get the experience when it seems that “contractors are too busy chasing a dollar to properly train employees or even send them to classes?”
One educator in New Mexico cited the issue of states and school districts cutting industrial arts from their course offerings, either because of lower funding or because of safety issues regarding the use of industrial equipment by minors.
So it looks like the would-be “newbie” to our industry needs to be resourceful to figure out how to get enough training and experience to be hired and stay in the industry.
Open Your Ears: One of my favorite “new guys” in the hydronic heating business is Shaun Anderson. Some of you may have encountered him signed on as “The Future” on Dan Holohan’s The Wall at HeatingHelp.com.
Shaun is proud of being the young guy in an established industry. He’s been in the heating department at Rampart Supply in Colorado Springs, Colo., for just a couple years. Everything’s new and exciting to him. He says, “I got started first by having the hunger and passion to want to learn.” Here’s what he does:
Listens to the guys he works with and picks up their knowledge to get a feel for hydronic heating.
Works weekends installing tubing and piping boilers to get a visual on things.
Learns about equipment from local wholesalers and their employees.
Reads Dan Holohan’s, Carol Fey’s and other industry experts’ books.
Works with RPA for educational opportunities.
Attends after-hours classes by manufacturers reps to learn about new products for plumbing and heating.
Attends local mechanical contractors association meetings every other month to learn about code. Even though most of the meeting is talk about hot air, he learns a lot that applies to hydronic heating.
Reads trade magazines, such as PM, to find out about future trends.
Attends events sponsored by RPA, ASHRAE and ISH.
He says, “I found there are a thousand ways to skin a cat, but whose is the best? With people talking about global warming, gas shortages and more houses having radiant installed, you would be stupid not to want to install a mod-con boiler. Even installing baseboard at high temps, you still would see high efficiency during the milder days.
“When we do a heat calc for custom homes, depending on location, we use -20, -10 and 0 degree design temps. If it never gets that cold, you never need 180 degrees F through your baseboard.”
On-The-Job Experience: I met Ruben Chinea when he called me from Yonkers, N.Y., to ask about a thermostat problem on a job. Hardly a kid at age 35, he’s a “new guy” to the hydronics industry. He says he read articles that our industry is in need of minorities — he’s Latino — and he’s very optimistic about his future here. He’s getting on-the-job experience and going to school specializing in HVAC. He comments that he learns a lot about controls because his tech school instructor brings articles into class from PM magazine.
Steve Lanyon owns Blue Sky Plumbing and Heating in Wheat Ridge, Colo. Steve is a believer in “bucket time” as one of the best ways for a new guy to learn. Bucket time is when you sit down in front of the boiler, using an upended bucket as a stool, and think about the situation at hand.
He says the hardest thing for a new guy is to calm down enough to think. “They want to just get on the radio or phone and call the shop for someone to tell them what to do.” When a guy calls in, Steve’s tempted to solve the problem for him. But the right thing to do is get the caller calmed down. He might tell him to go outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air. “Then come back in, sit down on that bucket, and think about how to solve the problem. That’s when they learn.”
Eternal Apprentice: John Madden of Georgia, Vt., claims he is “proof positive that old dogs can learn new tricks.” He calls himself the eternal apprentice, although his license reads master plumber. He says there’s no such thing as a master plumber; technology changes too quickly. He says training in our industry is as important as it is for doctors. “A heart transplant is a common thing now — doctors learned that by constant training. We, too, are the guardians of people’s health and welfare.”
John gets much of his training by reading. Even though he thinks most of our industry doesn’t read, he believes they should, especially magazines where they can learn from the experiments of Hot Rod Rohr, and from the technical background of John Siegenthaler.
Madden also thinks contractors should start using computers to get information. “I can shoot off an e-mail to an expert and get a quick answer.”
As a result of interviewing many, many people in the industry, Carrie Polk is alarmed at the direction the trades are going — or not going. She says, “As an HVACR industry professional, I am shocked at the lack of cooperation between educators and the professionals who depend upon graduates to carry their trade through the next generation.”