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CONTRACTOR INSIGHTS: Training Wheels Roll at AAA

Aug. 1, 2012
A 'mobile university' designed and built by AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. employees improves AAA's educational offerings and accelerates employee development.

Throughout its 75-year history AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. Bronx, NY has been committed to offering regular state of the art training for its service and installation technicians. Recently, the Bronx, NY-based commercial refrigeration leader —and the 2008 Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year (see has expanded its training outreach to provide an increased focus on "real-world" applications. The main element in this initiative is a customized, mobile refrigeration training trailer that began fabrication in January, 2012. After five months of classes, the first class of trainees graduated in June.

In March of this year, AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. celebrated 75 years of providing quality refrigeration service to its customers. From its founding, right up to present day, the word "education" has always been a key ingredient in AAA's mission statement, and something that's always on the mind of company President Donald Steffen. In fact, not a conversation will occur when you won'’t hear Steffen refer to AAA's "education culture," and its importance to the firm's success in commercial supermarket refrigeration.

Training to Meet New Realities
One of AAA's long-established training tactics has been to offer two Saturdays of training each month, for apprentices or future technicians, from September to May. In addition, attendance is mandatory for monthly seminars hosted by AAA's various vendor partners to provide on going education for their Senior technicians. However, Steffen and other AAA supervisors realized its technicians needed and wanted an increased amount of training, to keep up with ever-evolving industry requirements.

"New technicians that join AAA from technical schools are trained, however, they haven't had sufficient exposure to supermarket operations," says Donald's son, Vice President Dan Steffen. "So, even though we've been holding Saturday classes for apprentices, and after hours continuing education for technicians, we recognized the need for hands on training."

In the spring of 2011, the six supervisors who make up AAA's Education Committee began to develop a program that would:

  • include more hands on education
  • be structured to meet the needs of multiple levels of apprentices knowledge and skill sets
  • provide classes that offered improved continuity and flow, allowing the information to be sequenced.

The endeavor began with a meeting with Emerson representatives, who had asked AAA to evaluate Emerson’s packaged simulator that had recently been released to market. The Education Committee observed two AAA apprentice teams — experienced and entry-level —that had been chosen to participate in the evaluation. It didn’t take long to see that both groups found value in a hands-on teaching tool supported by a structured curriculum. The committee also recognized a need for a training tool that better represented the variety of AAA technicians’ field challenges. Over the summer of 2011, the committee continued to meet, to draft an outline for a "simulator tool," which would incorporate industry-specific valves and energy management systems (EMS).

"Once everyone agreed upon the required components, the training simulator went through an in-house engineering process, and was transferred to a CAD line drawing," Dan Steffen explains.

Trailer Concept Expands Training Outreach
The team was right on track with the design, but Donald Steffen then asked, "If we're making this investment, how do we make the training available to our offices in Connecticut and New Jersey?" For the training to be most effective, it must be available across all branches, to ensure consistency of training, which would be reflected in the type of service customers receive.

The answer was to modify a trailer into a mobile training vehicle. Jim Kirk, AAA's New Jersey supervisor, found a 14-ft. trailer with a ceiling of just over 6-ft. The committee met in AAA's Bronx shop to lay out the concept in a way that would accommodate the confined space of a trailer. After a few minor modifications the concept was again transferred to CAD drawings for both refrigeration and electrical specs, using low voltage — 120V and 220V.

The committee presented its concepts to industry vendor partners, who provided AAA with the necessary training components. From September to December of 2011, dedicated AAA committee members and associates proceeded to purchase the trailer, finalize the CAD drawings, obtain equipment and parts, and outline the five-month construction schedule.

Preparations included selecting and getting commitment from nine apprentices to participate in the 12 classes. For continued continuity over the training season, attendance was mandatory; only a medical excuse would be accepted for those who missed a class.

"It's an amazing program, says AAA apprentice, Jonathan Rey, who was a member of this inaugural class.

"The simulator assembly was very much like building a mini-supermarket, with all of the major technology you find in today's stores. It was definitely worthwhile, and very educational. And, even though I had studied much of the content, it's very true that 'practice makes perfect,'" Rey says.

From January to May, in-depth, hands-on training was provided in:

  • the refrigeration cycle and basic engineering
  • refrigeration installation
  • piping and installation of equipment
  • electrical theory
  • electrical low voltage, 220 Volts and 120 Volts wiring
  • Armoflex covering
  • refrigerant evacuation and leak checking.

June featured the simulator start-up and a barbeque graduation party.

'I' Becomes 'We'
Throughout the training, the process was improved upon as necessary. For the first week, training Supervisor Kurt Woods assigned a foreman who would be responsible for leading the team in designated tasks. The current week's foreman would assign the foreman for the following week.

After the first week, the classes became known as "The AAA Apprentice," a takeoff on the TV show, "The Apprentice." And, although no one was ever "fired," the foremen came to develop a respect and understanding for a supervisor's role and how important it is to maintain a schedule.

A training supervisor or Dan Steffen often took on the role of a customer, with questions, observations and concerns, which the team would have to address appropriately.

In three weeks, the group — which had become known as "Simulator Team 9" — had become a cohesive team.

"What started as 'I,' 'he,' or 'they,' quickly became 'we,'" says Bob Isola, vice president, construction. Steffen adds that they had developed a sense of pride in their accomplishments as a team.

"As with any real-life supermarket project, they overcame hurdles, made field modifications, experienced some delays, and learned from their mistakes. They took ownership of it and wanted to be successful. They applied a team effort and a sense of what it takes to work together, how important it is to keep crews working, and each person’s importance," Steffen says.

Kurt Woods, a AAA field supervisor for 25 years, who served as lead supervisor for the training, says the classes provided — and will continue to offer — valuable lessons in team building.

"They entered the class as individuals, and at the end, they were one unit. That's what you need in the field: a group working together," Woods says.

This summer the company’s education committee will develop a curriculum for ongoing, advanced apprentice development and entry-level apprentices.