There isn’t much to dispute about the existence of training and education in the industry. Almost everyone has sat in on a seminar at an expo, attended a continuing education course sponsored by a manufacturer or tuned in to a 101-style webinar over lunch. What is up for debate is the accessibility of industry training and education.
In this day and age of Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts, many companies have turned their attention to online opportunities that allow them to train employees without the expenses of travel and lodging. Yet, in a hands-on industry like that of plumbing, heating and cooling, sometimes there is just no substitute for face-to-face interaction.
And, that’s where Northeast Gas Specialists comes in with their 30-foot trailer featuring live-fire heating and hot water equipment for on-site training.
A little history
Northeast Gas Specialists was founded in 2013 by Carl Krause. Krause established the company after retiring from at 32-year career with National Grid, the electricity and natural gas utility for New York, Long Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. While at National Grid, he served in various roles, such as service tech and technical lead training supervisor, which allowed him to assist contractors with installing and servicing gas equipment in the area.
“Back in 2013, we were doing training basically in-house in a building in Westbury and across the region in hotels. Enrollment was slow. A lot of guys were saying, ‘If you could only get close to my shop I could attend more training,’” Krause explained. “I had always wanted to add a training trailer with live-fire equipment. So, I did. Getting the trailer fabricated down in Georgia and then doing the whole interior build here in New York took about a year to complete.”
Northeast Gas Specialists was established with the goal of educating those who were hoping to enter the trade or were already in the trade and sought to further their knowledge. The company started out training technicians, apprentices and inspectors. Soon, Krause hired Tim Warnecke as lead training instructor, to assist him. Warnecke came from Platsky, Marplat Company, a manufacturer’s representative firm for plumbing and heating products.
Together, the two have taught hundreds of industry professionals. The trailer has helped them to train at schools, business offices, hotels, conference centers and trade association headquarters. And, Northeast Gas Specialists has gained several sponsors along the way that have helped make the trailer a success. The current list of sponsors includes: Platsky, Marplat, Bosch, Buderus, R.W. Beckett, Wohler, Aquamotion, Centrotherm, Elkhart and Lifetime Chimney Supply.
“These companies offer high-quality heating and testing equipment and tooling. It is with this equipment that Northeast Gas Specialists trains its students and helps to further education in the industry,” Krause said. “We’re bringing the best equipment in the industry to get them trained.”
The company today
Currently, Northeast Gas Specialists experiences its highest training demand in the areas of Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Connecticut. At the training, attendees can choose from a full curriculum that includes basic gas safety, troubleshooting, high-efficiency boiler installation and repair, gas conversion burners, steam boilers and more.
In 2015, Northeast Gas Specialists became a training partner of a veterans initiative developed by United Way of Long Island called, “VetsBuild.” The program gives veterans opportunities in high-growth, high-demand careers. The core training is six weeks, covering energy retrofitting, green building, weatherization, HVAC and advanced manufacturing, as well as a strong emphasis on soft skills and work readiness.
Following completion of the training, VetsBuild students have available electives to choose from. The electives involve an extensive 60-hour course offered by Northeast Gas Specialists that includes both theory and hands-on learning for gas appliances with tools such as multimeters, manometers and combustion analyzers.
“The industry is hurting for HVAC technicians right now. A lot of the veterans are regimented. They’re used to getting up at a certain hour, getting to work on time and being ready to go with ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’ They’re good people who want a chance to perform and earn a living,” Krause noted.
Krause continued, “I recently provided one of the contractors we do training with, Neal Ross, with a graduate of VetsBuild. He has only been there two months, and he’s already in his own truck.”
Neal Ross is the president of NH Ross, a Long Island plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical services company founded by his father in 1971. Ross joined the family business in 1976 straight out of high school. He has grown the company to a 35-person operation focused on residential service, repair and replacement. And, Brian Pullis, the recent VetsBuild graduate Krause sent over, is the newest addition to Ross’ team.
“Brian is a top-notch guy. We’ve already put him in his own truck doing preventative maintenance. He is actually on a fast track, and we’ll be sending him to an air conditioning and refrigeration school in Arkansas for a couple of weeks to help with that,” Ross explained. “Carl plants the seed. We just get the person and take them to the next level.”
Ross continued, “The industry is very big, but it’s really slow in changing its ways. There needs to be changes to the way we recruit, train and even compensate people. Hiring vets will help our communities. They don’t only serve the country; they can serve the communities that they live in.”
Krause explained that true to the VetsBuild slogan, “Increase your knowledge, increase your business,” he aims to equip the students in his classes with robust knowledge. Not just because that’s what the industry demands, but also because he wants to help professionals to increase profits in smarter ways.
“We’re teaching the proper tools to use, how to use them, what has to be done and how an install is supposed to go to ultimately reduce callback ratios,” Krause said. “We’ve driven down a lot of expenses that companies had previously. There are a lot of attendees that call me back after saying their repeat calls are down 30 and 40 percent. That’s huge. And, when owners start seeing that, they go from sending me two technicians to train, to sending 20 or 30.”
Beyond Northeast Gas Specialists
It’s no secret that the industry is struggling with talent recruitment and retention. And, quality training has come up as one of the many causes for that issue. Yet, Krause and Warnecke haven’t heard of anyone else out there trying to fix the problem through mobile services.
“There are other schools that educate the trade but are brick and mortar only. Northeast Gas has the unique advantage of offering training at any location with students wanting to learn,” Warnecke noted. “The industry has a great need for qualified technicians. This is not a stagnant industry that requires one skill set. Technicians need to be able to work on old and new technology seamlessly.”
Krause added that there is a need for seasoned professionals, to take up the torch of training. He believes that such professionals have the breadth of business experience and wealth of knowledge needed to provide real-world training.
“For someone to put together a start-up business like this, you have to have the knowledge to do it. There aren’t many guys that even offer the type of training that I give,” Krause said.
Krause worries that without increased accessibility to high-quality training the industry will lower its standards.
“Guys can’t just reach out and get training around the corner, or even within two hours of them. Paying for flights and other costs. It’s a problem,” Krause said. “Companies are saying, “I’m not doing that.” And they end up letting new guys just learn from co-workers, and you look at the quality of the service work and installations where repeat calls are through the roof.”
Krause added, “A lot of the courses we are doing on Long Island are actually at night to help the contractors with their schedules. We break the courses into 3-hour sessions so they can be out on the road during the day keeping up with their calls and making money, and then get educated in the evening. We don’t hurt business.”
Ross worries that if company owners and leaders in the industry won’t invest in training that the task of recruiting high-quality talent into the industry will become all the more difficult.
“It’s funny that someone outside the industry like the United Way of Long Island is working with the VetsBuild program, getting individuals trained and prepared to work with the trades,” Ross said. “I think the manufacturers, especially, should help entice young people. If the manufacturers got on board, it would actually help them sell more equipment. There’s got to be a way to entice the younger generation to come into the trades. There is a lot of money to be made. Some of my plumbers will make over $100,000 this year. We just need to make people outside the industry aware.”
Ross continued, “I’m trying everything. I’ve got a big tarp outside of our building saying we need HVAC technicians. I’ve tried Craig’s List, Indeed and ads all over the Internet. But, the quality of people I’m getting is unbelievable.”
Northeast Gas Specialists is up to the challenge of making industry training more accessible. And if all goes well, one day their services will stretch beyond the northeast coast.
“I just got a call from a place in Orlando, Florida, and I had to tell them that right now it’s too far for me to go,” Krause said. “There are thoughts of franchising our model down the road and having trailers in different locations. But, we have to find people with the qualifications in those areas to do the proper training.”
For now, those interested in experiencing the training for themselves can catch Northeast Gas Specialists on the road. Their next major appearance will be May 22-26, at the Eastern Energy Expo. Krause and Warnecke will be on-hand at the Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut doing live-fire demonstrations.