In 2005, the Plumbing Heating Cooling Contractors National Association’s (PHCC) Educational Foundation assumed responsibility for all apprentice training programs at the national level. Prior to then, the training was administered by PHCC, which established a framework for the industry’s first apprenticeship system.
Today, the foundation’s apprentice training programs at the national level consist of a U.S. Department of Labor-approved curriculum used by PHCC chapters and individual employers who have in-house training programs. The programs are centered on eight textbooks published by Cengage Learning, four in plumbing and four in HVACR.
There are also eLearning courses that use the approved curriculum, which are designed for apprentices who are unable to attend classes in a traditional setting. There are a series of assessment tests that evaluate student knowledge at the end of each year over the four-year program.
In addition to formal training opportunities, the foundation hosts national annual plumbing and HVAC apprentice contests during the PHCC CONNECT convention. The foundation also organizes the national SkillsUSA Plumbing Contest.
Recently, PHC News spoke with two key team members from PHCC and its foundation, Merry Beth Hall and Laurie Crigler.
Hall has been the director of Apprentice and Journeyman Training at the PHCC Educational Foundation since 2005, after serving the association for years as the state executive for the PHCC Virginia chapter. She also currently serves as the co-chair of the technical committee for the national SkillsUSA Plumbing Contest.
Crigler is the vice president of PHCC, as well as vice president of L&D Associates Inc. For nearly a decade, she has volunteered with the SkillsUSA Plumbing Contest and served as a member of the foundation’s Plumbing Apprentice & Journeyman Training Committee.
In the following Q&A, both women discuss the efforts PHCC made on behalf of apprentices this past year, and what is to come for the program in 2016.
PHC: What is a snapshot of the PHCC Apprentice Program today?
MBH: PHCC Educational Foundation Apprentice Program national staff includes me and one part-time administrative assistant. We estimate that there are approximately 3,500 apprentices using our textbooks in 2016. PHCC Education Foundation staff across all programs (business management, technician and apprentice training) includes three full-time employees and one part-time employee. Programs exist around the country to train apprentices using our textbooks, and staff at the local level includes program administrators and instructors.
All of our programs would not be possible without the help of volunteer members and industry partners. We have a team of 27 volunteers who help operate the SkillsUSA Plumbing Contest and national plumbing and HVAC apprentice contests. These volunteers include PHCC members, industry association representatives and manufacturers. Additionally, manufacturers provide monetary support through sponsorships and in-kind donations of materials and prizes. Outside the contests, we have a separate team of nine subject matter experts who review and offer suggestions for improvement of our textbook content. Our subject matter experts include contractors, inspectors and instructors.
PHC: What were some of the highlights of the 2015 CONNECT Apprentice Competition?
MBH: In 2015, we maxed out the available space with 20 plumbing and 12 HVAC competitors. We were fortunate to work with Sheridan Technical College, in Hollywood, Florida, for the HVAC contest to host the brazing and refrigerant recovery portions of the contest. We also had tremendous support from UA Local 725, which provided us with judges and technical support for the contests. Local partnerships are always keys to a successful event!
Our sponsorship support in 2015 was at a record high. So many companies support the apprenticeships, and the contests are incredibly gratifying for myself and our volunteers. They make it possible for us to host the event and provide funding to help our apprentices with travel to the contests. More than 50 different companies supported our apprentice contests in 2015.
And then there are the winners. The scores are always close, and we are lucky to have some excellent competitors who make us all proud. Best of all, though, is the camaraderie the contestants develop with one another over the few days they are with us. They form great new friendships, learn a tremendous amount from our judges and seminar presenters, and have an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
LC: The fact that this is only the third year for the HVAC competition and we maxed out our space says a lot about how committed the foundation is to making this event happen. It was quite a challenge to run two competitions in one week, but they both were very successful. I am always amazed at the industry support we get. The more we do this, the more industry support we will get. None of the manufacturers or industry partners wants to be left out of these important competitions that help build our next generation of workers. Whether it’s product for the competition, prizes for the contest winners, or goody bags for contestants, it’s amazing how much everyone pulls together.
PHC: What were there other notable events or milestones for the apprentice program in 2015?
MBH: In 2015, we added two new troubleshooting simulators to our HVACR eLearning program through our partnership with Cengage Learning. These simulators walk apprentices through various mechanical and electrical troubleshooting scenarios, giving apprentices the opportunity to diagnose hundreds of system problems. They can make mistakes on the simulation systems that are harmless, versus learning the hard way on real equipment.
And, for both plumbing and HVACR students, we added Cengage Learning’s Building Math Skills software to the eLearning courses. We have found that math is one of the most common knowledge deficiencies of apprentices entering the program. This software supplements the math coverage in the book and provides students with the opportunity to practice their math skills for better knowledge retention.
We also published a revised second-year plumbing textbook, “Plumbing 201,” in the summer of 2015. Our textbooks receive updates on a regular basis to ensure that we are providing students with information on the latest technologies.
PHC: Are there any new initiatives, announcements or goals for the program in 2016?
MBH: In 2016, we will begin the revisions to our third-year plumbing textbook, “Plumbing 301.” It will become available in early 2017. Our plumbing and HVAC apprentice contests will be held on October 19-20, during the CONNECT 2016 event at the Marriott Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas. We are thrilled to be working with St. Philips College and UA Local 142 in San Antonio for these contests. Right now, we’re lining up sponsors for the 2016 event, and we can accept contestant applications, as well.
PHC: Industry talent recruitment is a “buzz” topic currently. Does PHCC have a stance?
MBH: Talent recruitment is an issue for the entire industry, not just for contractors. We need trained professionals at every level of the industry from field worker to manufacturer. PHCC and the PHCC Educational Foundation are active in workforce development activities and have developed a wide variety of materials that can be found on the Workforce Development Resource Center on our website at http://phccweb.org/workforce. We are continuing to develop more materials on a regular basis.
Candidly, I wish I had all the answers. I think we have to work hard to deal with education at the national level to stop the heavy focus on making all students college-bound and to de-emphasize the amount of standardized testing that is occurring. We must move education beyond the bubbles of standardized testing and refocus on teaching students how to think and work out solutions to problems. And, we must make students aware of the wide variety of options available to them upon graduation from high school.
Our industry is competing with others for talent. We must promote the positives of our industry — high demand, excellent salaries and unlimited growth opportunities. We need to emphasize that our industry is highly technical and requires extensive knowledge in all four STEM skills. And, we need to reach students and parents by middle school. Our industry is first-class and an excellent choice for a young individual to be successful in a lifelong career.
As we undertake workforce development initiatives at the national level, we are also urging contractors and other industry representatives to get involved at their local level to raise awareness about career opportunities and help change the image of the industry. The industry (contractors, wholesalers, manufacturers’ representatives, etc.) needs to work with local school systems to get technical training back into the schools and to build critical partnerships between industry and local schools.