by Ron Rajecki
It has been an interesting year for Jim Hamilton. A 10-year veteran of the HVAC industry, this service technician from Service Heating & Air Conditioning, Chattanooga, TN, won the North American Technician Excellence (NATE) Certified Technician Olympics at HVAC Comfortech in Baltimore — just one year after taking the NATE exam at HVAC Comfortech 2001 in Nashville.
Hamilton, who is NATE-certified in heat pump service and installation and gas heating service and installation, took the top honors among seven technicians from across the country who scored highest in their regions on the NATE certification exams. The Olympics included a hands-on competition on four stations fitted out with either HVAC equipment or a computer. The technicians compete to diagnose and repair the simulated problems quickly and accurately.
The path to the winner’s circle was a little winding for Hamilton. When he was in high school, vocational tests showed an aptitude for HVAC engineering or repair work. However, being a typical high school student, Hamilton was in no mood to listen to anyone else’s advice. He threw in with his father, who was doing laundry equipment repair, then ended up managing several coin-operated laundromats. When the laundry business was slow Hamilton would do maintenance work around Chattanooga, and that’s what eventually led him back to the HVAC industry.
“It seemed like all the maintenance repairs I was running into involved refrigeration, so I returned to Chattanooga State Technical College to study HVAC,” Hamilton recalls. Hamilton had attended Chattanooga State for a year after high school, then had transferred to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for a year and a half to study mechanical engineering.
Hamilton re-enrolled at Chattanooga State in 1992, and finished in the 1993-94 school year. During that final year he began working for Service Heating & Air Conditioning part-time. He’s been with the company ever since.
Hamilton says he began to get serious about taking the NATE test thanks to the company’s status as a Trane Comfort Specialist dealer, and also through discussions he had with people at the local distributor, Apex Supply.
“I knew that Trane and the other major manufacturers were becoming involved with NATE, and I figured it was only a matter of time before they would want their dealers to have someone NATE-certified on board,” Hamilton recalls. “I discussed it with my company’s owners, and we agreed I would go to Nashville to take the test. I never imagined I would end up back at Comfortech the next year as one of the top techs.”
Always humble, Hamilton still refers to himself as “one of” the top techs that took part in the competition this year. “I think we’re all winners just for being there.”
Asked to look ahead at what the next 10 years hold for the HVAC industry, Hamilton sees a return to basics.
“With the new refrigerants such as R-410A, technicians need to be more meticulous and do the things they should have been doing all along, such as purging with nitrogen when they’re welding. There’s no room for shortcuts.
“In addition, the new, high-efficiency furnaces and air conditioners are obviously more complicated than the older models, so there’s more need for technical training before you send someone into the field.
“I also think we’re going to see more mold and mildew concerns, so the emphasis must be on being careful with your designs and installations. You have to get things right the first time.”
And, of course, there’s the technician shortage. Hamilton definitely sees NATE as a step in the right direction to solving this industry-wide problem. “NATE is not only great for service technicians to advance their skills, it also helps HVAC companies when they’re hiring,” Hamilton points out. “Until now, you couldn’t be sure about a guy until you saw his work. Now, if he comes in with NATE certification, you know he has certain skills.”
While that in and of itself won’t end the technician shortage, Hamilton thinks NATE helps paint a different portrait of the HVAC service technician.
“When I was in high school, if there had been an association like NATE around to portray the service technician as more of a skilled trade, I might have been more receptive to my guidance counselor’s advice,” Hamilton says. “I always liked fixing things, and I never liked the idea of sitting around in the same office every day. This is a great industry and a great lifestyle for me, and I think a lot of kids today would feel the same way.”
Ron Rajecki is the senior editor. He can be reached at 216/931-9298 or [email protected]. For more information about NATE or the NATE Certified Technician Olympics, contact Carl Smith at 703/276-7247, ext.361.