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“Often times, it’s the first time they’ve ever had anyone genuinely describe the HVAC skilled trades profession,” says Jon Hirsch, director of business development at Auer Steel & Heating Supply Co. Inc., a wholesaler based in Milwaukee with six other Wisconsin locations, plus two others in Minnesota and North Dakota. The full-service distributor of indoor comfort products stocks more than 10,000 items and employs more than 250.
Hirsch and his team routinely visit local high schools to talk to the students about working in the HVAC and plumbing professions. Last year, Auer Steel visited 45 different high schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota, standing in front of 200 classes and more than 3,000 students, including four events for 300 high schoolers in one day.
“Our message to high school kids is that the plumbing and heating industry is something that people really need and can’t do without,” Hirsch says. “Anyone pursuing a career in this profession will, in all likelihood, always have a job. You can truly go anywhere in America and know that you will have a career in the trades.”
We were honestly surprised to find out that the wholesaler had been doing high school outreach for the past six years let alone doing it at all. We’ve written plenty about other contractors and contractor trade groups talking up the trades to high schoolers. But a wholesaler?
And, then, we also found out about Auer Steel’s brand-new 5,400-square-foot Technical Training Center that opened last September to train new and existing techs.
We first met Hirsch in the 1990s when we wrote about him and his colleagues at Indiana Supply Corp, Indianapolis, where he worked for 15 years.
A few decades later, we were glad to see him pop up on LinkedIn last May sharing his day spent at Nathan Hale High School, West Allis, Wisconsin, sharing the news about a career in the skilled trades.
We knew we needed to find out more.
“Our industry is great,” Hirsch emailed us from a hotel on Route 66 in New Mexico where he and his wife planned to travel over the nearby Texas border to climb Guadalupe Peak on their joint quest to climb the highest points in all 50 states. That would be No. 37 for Hirsch although his wife has him beat at 42. “We just need to do a better job of sharing our story. I’d love to show you the things we are doing. We’ve built an amazing network with colleges and high schools.”
We all finally got together in person last summer for our initial fact-gathering at the wholesaler’s headquarters.
“When we think why we did this,” says Jon Kriederman, director of product, engineering and technical support, “a lot has to do with being a good steward to the industry. Talk to our customers and they’ll tell you they need new people to come into the trades. We hear all the time that our customers are turning business away because they simply don’t have the workforce to do it.”
And not only do they need a new generation of tradespeople, they also need those new hires to be well trained and ready to go on Day One.
“We think we’re in a great position to be able to provide that,” Kriederman adds.
Auer’s customers include about 260 HVAC dealers with some 2,500 customer accounts in all.
“We’ve always been a ‘customer-first’ company that will do whatever we can to help our customers grow,” says Mike Curtes, president of Auer Steel, whose grandfather, Don Curtes Sr., founded Auer Steel and Furnace Supply in 1940 on Auer Avenue in Milwaukee. “It just seems to be a natural to us to this day; our customers are our friends and our coworkers are our friends. We’ve had a number of people come in here over the years and want to talk to us about our culture and get it down on paper. But I just think if you try to define it, you’re going to screw it up. You just have to be it.”
With that attitude, it’s easy to see how and why the wholesaler started with its outreach program and then built out the training center (although the two may have been slightly more in tandem, if not for the pandemic).
“We’ve only got so many customers,” Curtes explains. “And we can’t add to our HVAC dealers because they are already pretty close to one another. So how do we help them grow? We knew we had to find new people to join the trades and then train them. If we can get them a bigger well-trained workforce, then they can put in more systems, and we can sell what they need to do that.”
The outreach campaign put Hirsch into a role that hadn’t existed before at Auer Steel. While an experienced sales professional, Hirsch also says it’s a long sales cycle he wasn’t familiar with at all.
“If we start talking to high school freshmen,” he adds, “it’s another four years before they can even ever start in the trades. But we’re actively trying to persuade these kids to recognize the opportunity in the trades. So we go back the next year and then the year after that. And maybe then, some graduating seniors have decided they really want to do this and so they want to know how we can help them take the next step.”
Ideally, Hirsch says it helps to bring along one of Auer Steel’s HVAC dealers to explain about a day in the life of a professional tech. Hirsch says 20 different contractors participated in 2022.
“It’s not always easy since they are busy people,” Hirsch explains. “But in the long-run, it’s like any other networking. In this case our dealers can meet students who might just want to come work for their companies based on seeing them in the classroom that day.”
Hirsch also carries along items to demo, such as a modular floor heating system for PEX tubing or even an VR headset from Interplay Learning.
For real hands-on learning, however, Hirsch brings along some flaring tools, tubing benders, pipe cleaners, solder, Teflon tape, markers, adjustable wrenches, MAP gas, soldering torches, flux, sand paper, tubing cutters, tape measures, copper pipe, fittings and elbows, pressure gauges, black pipe reducing fittings and a push-to-connect fittings for student to learn soldering and pipe joining skills to create a pressurized closed loop system.
“Those students will leave at the end of the day, and I guarantee that when they get home they will tell their parents about the cool things they did at school,” Hirsch adds.
Tech Schools, Too
Hirsch is also active on advisory boards at various technical colleges and brought trade instructors to 10 high school visits last year. Hirsch’s travels in 2022 also took him to 15 technical colleges in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“Between annual board meetings and presentations to the new cohorts of students,” Hirsch adds, “we participated in 35 different technical college events last year.”
Since students at the tech schools are already learning the mechanical side of the business, Hirsch focuses his talks on what employers are looking for.
“Our customers want techs who aren’t there just for an hourly wage,” Hirsch explains. “Our customers want techs who are there for a career. And it is a two-way street because we also want this next generation of skilled tradespeople to work for someone who will put them into a really nice truck and provide them with the best tools to get the job done. And guess what? These are the business owners who will pay them the best wage and provide the best benefits. We’re trying to raise everybody’s level of expertise.”
Interestingly, Hirsch also discusses what he calls “industry math.” It’s far too easy for someone still learning the trades to think that field service charges minus hourly labor rates equals pure profit for the owner.
“Of course we do the industry math, and we show them that the industry as a whole might work on profit margins in the single digits,” Hirsch says.
The 5,400-square-foot Technical Training Center opened last September.
“Prior to opening our new training center, our focus was on spreading the HVAC industry and career story to high school kids,” Hirsch adds. “To this point, we have certainly had success recruiting technical college students who have pursued careers with our contractor customers. Because our training center just opened in October of last year, it’s just now becoming a more important element of our training and outreach.”
The facility features a training classroom upfront that can accommodate up to 40 people for traditional lectures. But in back is the good stuff: 12 hands-on workstations feature live HVAC equipment that techs would find out in the field. Students will service and diagnose a range of HVAC products, such as Carrier, Bryant and AirQuest furnaces, AC units and heat pumps, IAQ equipment and system controls.
In addition to the working equipment, the stations include the following benefits to enhance the training experience for students:
• Each work station has been outfitted with tools, meters and other diagnostic instruments recommended by Auer Steel.
• iPads for each work station, complete with apps for blue tooth meters and gauges.
• Field Edge operating software for dispatching work orders, closing out jobs, creating invoices and requesting reviews with a detailed database of all work performed on each training module.
• Training stations programed with real world situations that techs will face in the field.
• Installation and troubleshooting of new smart devices, thermostats and even routers.
Heading up the instruction is Mike Breem, senior manager of technical support, training and warranty. Breem is a former tech, service manager and technical college instructor who, as his title suggests, not only heads up training, but is in charge of Auer Steel’s nine-person tech support team. In fact, Breem’s longtime work with tech support has helped develop detailed curriculums at the training center using some 20,000 calls a year that go through tech support.
“I think training and tech support need to go hand-in-hand,” Breem says. “Calls we take in tech support tell us what our customers are experiencing every day during installation and service calls. If there’s a pattern of a common experience, then we will come up with a solution that we share with our customers. That way, a tech can recognize something when it comes up, and it also frees up our tech support staff to handle other problems.”
“Mike’s been a huge factor in planning our training center when it was just an idea,” Kriederman adds. “When Jon and I shared with Mike our vision for having a training center, it fit in so well with Mike’s vision for the industry and his career goals that I think it really heavily influenced his decision to join Auer.”
Some initial classes at the center include a number of five-day classes as well some one-off classes on a variety of topics. While more classes are planned, the five current classes are the following:
“After going through our five-day course, graduates will have the skills to get in a service truck and run furnace maintenance calls on the following Monday.” Breem adds. “All training classes will feature the best practices for customer service and communication ensuring that the techs know exactly what is expected of them on the job.”
While the center plans to train high school students and other people new to the skilled trades, the company initially opened up the training center to its existing customers to train its current workforce.
“When we announced this to our dealers,” Hirsch says, “they were all chomping at the bit to get their employees into this type of training.”
When we took a tour of the center last October, we caught up with 12 existing customers taking part in the Installer Pathway program. Interestingly enough, the student weren’t all techs, but a few project managers.
“They’re managing the whole project including procuring the materials, bidding the job, figuring the hours it’s going to take and then staying on top of all the needs their accounts have until the job is done,” Breem explains. “Our classroom work will help them to better interact with the techs in the field to make sure the work is done in the best way.”
As time goes on, however, Hirsch says much of the coursework is ideal for helping high schoolers get started in their careers.
“All of our five-day entry level training classes are suited for high school students,” Hirsch explains. “Additionally, we are hosting one-day workshops for high school students that double as field trips to our training center. In addition to hosting an overview of HVAC, we will also offer an introduction to HVAC electrical training and a furnace teardown class.”
During the teardown class, students completely disassemble a furnace and then rebuild it. Afterward, students then hook it up to gas, attach a thermostat, add power and fire it up.
“This is a great introduction to furnaces and a fun way for students to experience and see all of the components of a furnace,” Hirsch adds. “We also work in our hands-on soldering and copper assembly building activity, which is the center piece of our high school outreach activities. Going forward, we’ll encourage our customers to sponsor high school recruits as students at the training center. And we’ll continue to advocate and promote one-year HVAC certificate programs and two-year HVAC associate degree programs at our states’ technical colleges in conjunction with our new training center.
Currently, the center is just set up for HVAC instruction, but Hirsch showed us blueprints to expand the center to include hand-on stations for ductless systems; hydronics; IAQ products and commercial roof top equipment. l