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Make Continuing Eduction Count

Originally published: 05.01.14 by Pete Skinner

Choosing the right trainer is essential in ensuring your technicians actually learn 

Navigating the many CEU courses and technical training sessions available can be tricky. Deciding which ones you should send your technicians to can be even trickier, because everyone learns differently. Whether you hire a trainer, purchase an online training session or teach a refresher course yourself, it’s important to know best practices for training — and many times, it begins and ends with the trainer. 

Continuing education is essential for success in the HVACR industry and choosing the right trainer can be the difference between getting the most value for your education dollars and wasting your technicians’ valuable time. 

Think about who your worst teachers were. I attended a CEU course not long ago where the instructor recited — or rather, droned — word for word, the rules of the LEED architecture design. I fell asleep within 15 minutes. Other courses I’ve sat through are little more than a PowerPoint. 

You want to choose an educator who is engaging, who continually refreshes their teaching techniques from time

to time so their sessions are interactive and your technicians are actually learning (and not snoozing). 

Some HVACR contractors believe it’s difficult to teach technicians and their technicians see training as a waste of time. The fact is, a good teacher can lay bare the foundation for HVACR — much more than simply how to install and adjust the devices. 

Technicians don’t want to appear stupid, or are in a hurry to get to the next job. Most of the time, they get it right. You know the type — they’re getting ready to install a controller and say, “I don’t need to look at the manual. Just hand me that screwdriver.” You may see this as a disaster waiting to happen, and be shocked when the technician actually hooks up the controller, turns some screws and voila – the pump turns on. This technician may be lucky — or is he simply a hands-on learner? But those ingredients aren’t good enough for them to pass a credentialing exam or transition into the next generation heat pumps. 

Tools, Not Pencils 

Technicians love to learn, much more than the average student, if the content is delivered right. Most are naturally curious about mechanical things — how they’re built and how they operate. Most started as kids, taking things apart and putting them back together. They probably blew some fuses, busted some gears and burned out some motors, but they learned. 

Through trial and error, they developed valuable skills and amassed knowledge, mostly on their own. Drag them into a classroom and give them heavy doses of lectures and manual reviews, however, and you’ll waste their time and your money. 

A good trainer will play to their strengths — allowing your technicians to “get their hands dirty” while incorporating class participation and discussion into their lecture to reveal why things work. A good trainer’s goals must be content comprehension and retention, and both must be achieved to ensure the students are ready for field work and taking the next test. If instructors give the technician a tool and a device, rather than a slide on the screen, comprehension and retention are much more reliably achieved. 

Set Training Goals 

Before you figure out how you are going to get somewhere, you need to get the address of your destination. It’s no different in education. Make sure you sit down with your trainer ahead of time and agree on clear goals and presentation methods. What do you want them to accomplish? Be sure the instructor knows how to finish this sentence: At the end of this session, the class will have learned how to … 

Sure, it can be difficult to teach a class where everyone may possess a different skill set, or be at a different level. Sometimes it’s important to discuss the goals with the class up front. 

A good educator will begin the class by getting the students to introduce themselves, their skill sets and experience, and ask them what they want to achieve by the end of the class. Setting expectations at the outset keeps everyone engaged in the session, especially if they know they’re going to learn something they want to know. 

Learning Styles 

Technicians who learn effectively from lectures alone are rare and most student groups bring a wide range of capabilities and learning styles to the classroom — some will be visual and others auditory learners. Most of them will be kinesthetic/tactile learners. 

You should also look for a trainer who is experienced in teaching a heterogeneous group and can use all kinds of delivery techniques to hold their attention and help explain the concepts. Pictures, diagrams and slides work well for visual learners who prefer seeing ideas. Auditory learners prefer to learn by listening; lectures and discussions are a good fit for them. Most technicians are kinesthetic or tactile and prefer to learn through experience with physical models, 3D simulations, and laboratory exercises. A good trainer can adapt her presentations to all these learning styles and incorporate all these tools in her arsenal. 

Sometimes peer-to-peer learning works best, especially when some of your technicians are more experienced than others. Your trainer should allow your more experienced technicians to give examples from their work to add a dollop of reality from the field. 

An excellent way to deliver content is to foster discussion between students – experienced students can explain a particular topic element in their own words, with guidance from your trainer, while peers ask questions and provide observations. 

There is a big difference between how something works and why it works. Many HVACR instructors have very little time to fully cover their topics in the first place. Usually, teaching students how something works is considered the top priority. Then, due to time restraints, the “why things work” part isn’t discussed. 

When credentialing tests are the outcome, instructors need to make the “why” an equally important piece of their delivery — the physics, chemistry and math will give students an appreciation that will help them answer test questions they might have missed from rote learning alone. 

Tools of the Trade 

Another way to evaluate a trainer is on their selection of passive and active tools of the trade. With lectures, PowerPoint slides, animations, videos and photos, and on-line system performance displays and simulations are passive — your technicians simply listen or watch. Active tools that allow your technicians to actually participate in the class include lab manipulatives, demo devices, discussions, Q&As, work sheets and quizzes. 

If your instructor is simply piling on slide after slide, your technicians start seeing the presentation as entertainment, not illustrated learning. Believe me, your technicians may be listening to and enjoying this type of course, but they probably won’t retain much. 

Instead, look for an instructor who isn’t afraid to shut down the projector, move away from the podium and takes the time to actually write on the blackboard. You want an instructor who gets your technicians engaged with the topic and requires their active involvement. When their hands do something and they are discussing the issue, their brains are more fully engaged. 

Lab manipulatives are among the best teaching tools in HVACR training: students can re-create the systems under the instructor’s tutelage. They are especially good if taken apart ahead of time and assembled in class in front of the technicians or by technician teams. For system designs, icon-based magnetic boards offer excellent options for getting technicians to think about the system and component series. 

The Science of Training 

Many professorial types have published learning style research papers and books. These can be interesting reads, but when you’re trying to explain the vapor compression cycle to a mechanic, will you have success by simply throwing a psychometric chart on the screen and tracing the change in temperature, dew point, enthalpy, etc.? Probably not. 

For many years, I’ve taught young people, graduate students and adults in engineering classes and most recently as an adjunct professor for solar thermal system CEU type classes. Frankly, I did my most successful instruction when I figured out how they learn best and adapted my teaching style. 

When selecting someone to train your technicians, adaptability cannot be overlooked. Dollars put toward education are valuable, and the right trainer can ensure you get the most bang for your buck.

Pete Skinner is the owner and founder of Earth Environmental Group, LLC. (E2G Solar), where he designs, installs, repairs, researches and teaches about residential and commercial solar thermal systems. His courses range from entry level to advanced solar thermal at conferences and colleges across the USA. Contact Pete at 518-369-3208 or visit www.e2gsolar.com. 


Articles by Pete Skinner

Make Continuing Eduction Count

Technicians love to learn, much more than the average student, if it’s done right. Choosing the right trainer is essential in ensuring your technicians actually learn.
View article.