The CB Interview: Shut off the HVAC to the ivory tower

Bob Clark says the entire high school educational system needs to be revamped, so as to once more give due attention to careers in the trades.

GLEN ELLYN, ILLINOIS — The biggest workforce problem for the HVACR industry is that there are too many psychologists, says Bob Clark. Psychologists inhabit a special circle of hell for Clark, whose business card reads “assistant professor,” but he actually runs the entire HVACR Business & Technology program at College of DuPage, located in this western suburb of Chicago.

When Contracting Business talked with Clark, he repeatedly jabbed a finger in the direction of the administration building across the street, filled, as it is, with psychologists and their ilk.

Psychologists are the high school guidance counselors who direct students to go to college to get degrees in art history or, worse, psychology. They fill the ranks of college administrations that look down their noses at the trades because tradesmen don’t hold advanced degrees.

The problem starts in the ivory tower. “The ivory tower needs to end,” Clark says. “Who built the ivory tower? It was technicians.”

He suggests shutting off the heating and cooling to the ivory tower.

Clark, for his part, has played the academic game. He has an Associates degree in Electrical and Electronic Automated Systems, Industrial Maintenance Technology and HVACR; a Bachelors in a double major of Business and Communications; an MBA in Energy and Sustainability, and a PhD in Career and Technical Education. He suffered through 12 years of post secondary education.

But for the knowledge that really counts, he holds multiple building automation certifications; he has an electrical license and Chicago Stationary Engineers License (High Pressure Steam); and has numerous other certifications including VRF, NFPA 70E, HAZWOPER OSHA 40, EPA Universal, Industrial Firefighting, Solar Energy, Sporlan Valve, CPR, and Bell & Gossett certifications in steam design, hydronic design, and chilled water design.

There’s a lot wrong with career and technical education, says Clark, and that applies whether one is talking about HVACR, plumbing, electrical, welding, or CNC machining and additive manufacturing. Let’s start with the faculty. Clark holds advanced degrees but he doesn’t think that even a Bachelors degree needs to be the norm, let alone a PhD. Clark could find a skilled tradesman with 20 years experience that would make a terrific instructor, but the administration (probably most college administrations nationwide) would look down their psychologist noses at him because he’s not degreed. On top of that, they would want to pay that individual $50,000 a year when he could be making $100,000 as a technician. You can imagine the type of people who get attracted to teaching.

For those who are already teaching at any level, we need better train the trainer programs, Clark says.

The next problem is the failure of the American educational system and the kinds of students that come into his HVACR program. It’s not that there’s something wrong with them — they’re all smart people. But they’re 30-35 years old. How come 99 percent of the students in the automotive program at College of DuPage come straight from high school, Clark asks, but HVACR students are still struggling to find a career?

Clark was the kind of kid who used to tear down Ford trucks, but today’s students in middle and high school don’t know anything about turning a wrench. All of the technical classes have been taken out of the middle and high schools.

Clark has an idea that could be taken up by contractor associations lobbying in Washington — have the Department of Education require all schools to have at least one general education overview class on career and technical education, preferably in high schools but at least at the community college level. Clark has the feeling that ignorance about CTE is pervasive.

“If you just mandate an ‘experience’ in CTE, it would change everything,” he says.

Clark also has a beef with federal funding, which he says is currently at $1.8 billion for the trades, compared with funding for nursing. Hospitals and nursing schools experienced a drastic shortage in nursing students, and they secured, Clark says, $397 billion for nursing education.

Clark is doing all he can from his end. His HVACR program at CoD is currently training just under 200 students with a maximum capacity of 250. He expects to max out in two years.

Ethnically, about half of his students are white and the rest are African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian. He had one woman, “and she got a job in, like, two seconds,” he says. Typically he has one to three women in his classes.

He won’t allow contractors to build anything in his expansive hands-on lab — the students have built everything, including their own chiller. He grounds them in basic electricity before moving on to HVACR. Everything in the building is thoroughly valved and heavily instrumented so that the students can see what happens as flows, whether air, water, steam or refrigerant, changes directions, temperatures or flow rates.

He hands out few credentials or diplomas because local contractors snap up most of the students before they graduate.

Clark worries about America’s future because of the nation’s infrastructure needs and the retirement rate of working HVACR practitioners.

“This is a national security issue,” he says, and points out, “who rebuilds after national disasters?”

It isn’t psychologists.

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