by Valerie Stakes, associate editor/editorial coordinator
“As the son of a mechanical contractor, I’ve had the opportunity to work in this field since I was 12 years old,” says Chad E. Vaughn. “HVAC has been good to my family, and undoubtedly, it will be good to me for the rest of my life.”
When asked about the biggest challenge facing them today, most contractors bemoan the shortage of skilled employees. If they only knew how many skilled, educated individuals, such as Vaughn, are ready to work and are searching for top-notch employers to show them a lifelong career in HVAC.
Where can contractors find such a wealth of talent? One need look no further than Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI.
“First and foremost, the faculty and staff really make HVAC special at Ferris,” says Mike Feutz, chair of the HVACR department. “There are nine full-time faculty members, and each brings a different expertise to the program, giving the students a broad base of knowledge.”
There are two programs at Ferris. The Associates of Science in HVACR Technology is a two-year program that teaches students to design, install, maintain, and troubleshoot HVACR equipment.
There’s also a four-year program. “The Bachelor of Science in HVACR Engineering Technology is one of only two such programs in the country, and is offered both on campus and on-line,” says Feutz. “This program focuses on the design, energy analysis, and control of large HVACR systems.”
Currently, the university is expanding the HVACR’s department’s building, which is shared with the Construction Technology and Management department. The building will go from 22,000 sq.ft to 75,000 sq.ft.
“This additional space allows us to more than double the size of our labs, and gives us enough room to install 159 different pieces of HVACR equipment,” says Feutz. “We have labs dedicated to basic air conditioning and refrigeration, gas heating, oil heating, commercial refrigeration, air conditioning, electricity, and fabrication.”
Real Life Experience
According to Feutz, what sets Ferris State’s program apart is the opportunity for students to obtain a solid education, in and out of the classroom.
For example, associate degree students are given lab assignments resembling service calls. Here, they learn to systematically troubleshoot equipment based on the complaint of a fictional customer. "We try to duplicate actual conditions as much as possible,” Feutz adds.
Students also meet with the program’s advisory board two times per year, and there are panel discussions where they have the opportunity to quiz board members about issues such as professionalism, and customer service and communication skills.
For the bachelor’s degree program, students serve an internship between their junior and senior year. “Students become even more motivated to learn after their ‘real-life’ experience. In fact, we’re investigating an internship for our associate’s degree students for this same reason,” he adds.
Four-year students gain additional practical experience from two "real-life" classes. One is an energy audit of an actual building, which culminates in a presentation of their findings to the building owner or facility manager.
“This class is particularly valuable because building owners want to save money through increased energy efficiency. Therefore, the owners want the students to be quite thorough during their presentation and they ask a lot of questions,” says Feutz.
The second class requires a complete system selection and design for a building. Here, students are given only architectural drawings and the location of the building.
”This class prepares students for the workforce because they perform the same functions as an actual design engineer. By the time Ferris students graduate, they will have already designed a system,” he says.
As a result, graduates are sought out by contractors and manufacturers across the country because of their ability to become productive immediately upon graduation.
In addition, students from this program have won the ASHRAE student competition for the past five years. “This record is a source of great pride, and tells us that we’re right on the mark with our pragmatic approach to engineering,” says Feutz..
When asked what drew them toward HVAC instead of the myriad of other career choices available, many Ferris students see an industry filled with challenges and opportunity.
For example, Jason Dempsey, who spent time in the military as an electrician and worked in elevator construction did extensive research on careers in the HVAC industry before coming to Ferris.
“All the articles I read kept reinforcing the demand for talented people and the opportunities available. I quickly saw it was a great field,” he says. “You can live a very rewarding life, and each day brings new challenges.”
Dempsey adds that the decision to attend Ferris was a clear-cut one. “I opened up the Yellow Pages and began calling major HVAC companies and asking principals what they thought of the university’s HVACR program and how did graduates measure up to those from other schools. The response was overwhelmingly positive,” he says.
According to Bob Krieg, whose family is in HVAC, “From high school on, I’ve I wanted a mechanical career. I decided to pursue HVAC because of the many career choices available.”
At the same time, many students come to Ferris without a family background in HVAC; they just see it as a great career. “I grew up in a farming community,” says Trevor Fink. “By ninth grade, I knew I wanted to go into HVAC because I wanted a job where I could use both my head and my hands.”
Extra Education Equals Career Advancement
In addition to Ferris being a great start to a rewarding career in HVAC, the program offers career advancement for those already in the field.
For example, Sam Lampe, a project engineer with Alticor in Ada, MI, has been in the HVAC industry for 24 years. “I was working on dairy and fruit farms that used refrigeration equipment,” he says. “The service technicians who worked on the equipment introduced me to the HVAC industry and to the two-year associate’s program at Ferris State.”
After completing the program, Lampe worked for a manufacturer’s representative. He then moved into the maintenance field where he worked strictly on large commercial and industrial HVAC applications.
“After working in the maintenance field for 12 years, I came to a point where I felt my job had become routine, and I needed to advance to the next level,” Lampe says. “I decided to go back to Ferris to get a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology. Without the degree, I wouldn’t have my current position.”
For Glenn T. Remington, a clean room operator with Pharmacia Corp. in Kalamazoo, MI, the four-year degree from Ferris allowed him to advance several times throughout his career.
“During my career, I found that my time was increasingly spent with HVAC equipment. For this reason, I decided to match an HVAC education with my industrial hygiene background,” he says.
“Although it took nearly 12 years attending part-time to finish my degree, it was well-worth the effort. In fact, I was able to advance my career four times while I was still in school,” Remington adds. “There’s a big difference between system design and system operations. Ferris gives you a good handle on both.”
What Employees Want From You
Once students complete their degrees, they’re often in the enviable position of having multiple job offers. However, what they look for in a prospective employer is rarely the highest salary.
“Money isn’t everything. I want to work for a company that’s interested in my technical abilities and cares about me as a person,” says Vaughn.
Remington adds, “It’s important to look for employers who have integrity and stability, and who see their employees as their greatest assets, not as something disposable. If you have that, the money will follow.”
Also important to students is the right working environment. According to Megan Ruehmeier, who graduates from Ferris this May, “During my job search, I looked for a warm, friendly environment where I would feel comfortable asking questions. In fact, when I interviewed, I always asked employees if they liked their job and the company.”
Dempsey adds, “As I interviewed, I realized the importance of fitting in within an organization — personality and ability-wise. There’s also training. Would I just be thrown into a situation without adequate preparation? This became more important than anything.”
Successful Recruiting Starts Early
In addition to posting positions on university career boards, Feutz advises, "If you want a Ferris State University graduate, your best bet is to sponsor one to attend.
“All schools, Ferris included, face a tough time recruiting students, and we can't do it alone. We need the help of the entire industry,” he adds. “If you’re a contractor and know bright high school students, encourage them to go to a school that teaches HVACR. Then, hire them during the summer, and, in a few years, you'll have graduates who will be grateful for the advice you gave and who will likely want to work for you.”
For more information on the HVACR Engineering Technology program at Ferris State University, contact Mike Feutz at 231/591-2351.