Every now and then, one of Mark Belade's and Domenic Lemma's HVAC graduates will drop by for a visit. They might be driving a new car or motorcycle purchased with wages earned at their new jobs as HVAC technicians. Or, they’ll have news about having just purchased a home.
It's always a moment of pride for student and instructor. It makes Belade and Lemma happy to see that their students are on their way, and that they have played a part in helping their young charges become licensed HVAC technicians.
Emmett O'Brien Technical High School, Ansonia, CT combines vocational training and standard high school academics. Among its 10 vocational offerings are HVAC and plumbing, automotive technology, carpentry, computer-aided drafting and design, and electrical. The program is a balanced and accelerated combination of vocational training and classroom instruction. It prepares students for post-secondary education, apprenticeships, or immediate employment.
"Each year, they have to learn in 90 days what a normal high school teaches in 180 days," Belade explains, "and they graduate with a public high school diploma. They spend 90 days in the shop, and 90 days in academics."
Belade joined the EOB faculty in 1997, after 20 years as a field technician, and four years of teaching at a private school. He now heads up the department. Shop Instructor Domenic Lemma has 16 years of field experience, and nine years as a teacher at EOB. Their work was featured recently in a major story in the local Ansonia newspaper, after Belade was named Teacher of the Year. For five straight years, Lemma's students have taken first place in the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute's (NOCTI's) testing program for the entire school system.
"We try to create a family environment here. If you're trying to sell something you truly believe in, the kids buy into it, and it's a win-win situation. They get excited about the learning process, and about getting better at the trade," Belade says.
"Mark and Domenic are well in tune with their students. They run an exceptional program," says EOB Principal Laurie Lebouthillier. "They live and breathe for their students. Their students really respect and look up to them."
Helping Students Choose a Career
Vocational training is alive and well in Connecticut. This year, 500 students applied to EOB; 180 were accepted, and classes for all 10 vocational tracks are full.
Prior to open enrollment, Lebouthillier and other EOB faculty visit area junior high schools, and invite students and their parents to an annual open house. A video presentation explains the school’s format, and parent and student questions are addressed. After they enroll and are accepted, students spend three days in each shop, as part of an exploratory program, to help them discover where their interests lie.
"They rotate through the shops to get a glimpse of what they're all about. They pick their top three favorites, and spend five days in those shops," Lebouthillier explains.
Two years of the EOB HVAC program are focused on heating and cooling theory. Hands-on instruction begins in junior year. Hands-on student training includes time spent on outside production, where they work on residential installations.
"On production days, the students get hands-on experience in both technical applications and theory," Lemma says. "I can teach them everything they need to know in our classroom and shop, but it's not the same as being faced with a real-life scenario in a home or business."
Local Business Involvement
To stay up to date on training content, EOB relies on the generous assistance of a Trade Technology Advisory Committee, made up of local business owners.
"We invite business owners in the area to visit our shops. They give us information on changes going on in the trades related to new trends or products. If they're getting apprentices who they think are weak in certain areas, we try to beef up our training in those areas," Belade says. In return for their contributions, local businesses are given first choice in hiring the school's best students.
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"EOB students are well prepared for the trade, in the technical areas, as well as in English, writing, and math skills," says Eric D’Eramo, president, Connecticut Heating Cooling Contractors Association.
"They have a passion for the trade. The industry has had a brain drain, as older workers retire, and we need to transfer HVAC knowledge effectively to young technicians," he says.
Reaching Today's Students for HVAC
HVAC has existed as more of a "hidden" career choice, and for the industry to grow the ranks, more work is required.
"Not too many kids come into the school saying they want to be an HVAC technician," Belade admits. "That's where the exploratory program works. They come through and see what we're all about. They see a video about the trade, and its different aspects, such as oil heat, gas, air conditioning, ductwork, and sheet metal fabrication. I think they like to see the full gamut of what can be done."
Mark Belade, Domenic Lemma, and Emett O'Brien Technical College are models of "what can be done" with the students of today, when you explain what HVAC is all about, inspire them with a vision of future accomplishments, and make learning relevant and worthwhile.
Technical College Uses CD-rom Training
Jeff Taylor, lead HVAC instructor at Mayfield College, Cathedral City, CA, works with students who are being retrained from other trades that have gone south, and military veterans. The program lasts nine months, with one month of an “externship,” which is working for a local employer. Students must work 180 hours for an HVAC company before earning a certificate. Mayfield College’s HVAC program is one year old.
Taylor attributes part of the vocational technical school’s success to the progressive use of interactive CD-rom training and testing.
"With electronic learning and testing, we now know the interactive CD-rom approach directs students to areas needing improvement," Taylor says. "In the 'study' mode, for example, incorrect answers automatically take students to the appropriate section for additional studying." Only students scoring 90% or higher on practice test questions are eligible to take the final online certification test, which Taylor proctors.
Students are EPA trained with the Qwik608™ Pack by Mainstream Engineering, Rockledge, FL — described by sources as the HVAC industry's only interactive CD-rom—accompanied by a 12-page self-study booklet, and proctored certification. EPA test graduates can easily explain the principles of superheat and sub-cooling and demonstrate how to get accurate gauge readings. The CD-rom takes students beyond EPA certification and includes optional training in "Indoor Air Quality," "Preventive Maintenance Technology." "R-410A", and "Green HVACR." mainstream-engr.com