Skills and thrills: Training program for today’s tradespeople needs to be revamped


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By George Lanthier


This article is based on a thread that was started over Thanksgiving weekend on Dan Holohan’s ‘The Wall.” The thread had to do with a question of whether or not a college education is really necessary for a tradesman today. Personally, I can’t answer that for everyone, but I love the opinions that came out of it, so here is mine.

First of all, I have to tell you that I am not a believer in a college education for a tradesperson. I think some college-level courses may be in order, but what I really believe we need is a first-class vocational education program in this country. Further, that program also must be ‘cooperative education” that involves local businessmen and industries. In this way you begin to cultivate quality future employees.

I don’t believe in the industry’s antiquated 160-hour program and haven’t since teaching it in the 1970s; it’s just not long enough to do the job right. In some states, like Massachusetts, it’s nothing but a licensing machine and all you will end up with is a very crude apprentice that may be licensed, but he’s just a baby arsonist. In my opinion, it takes a minimum of 300 hours of training to make a minimally qualified apprentice and even at that we need to have focused on four areas and not try to make a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none. We need to do this as well as we can and emphasize what I call the ‘Four C’s”: Combustion, Controls, Computers and Combustion.

Mentioning combustion twice is not an error or a joke. It’s very important because most of us think we know it all in this area and we don’t. The reason I feel so strongly about this is the amount of work I get as an ‘expert witness,” and it’s getting worse all of the time.

If you look at any hands-on industry you see a terrible shortage evolving. We tend to live in our own world, but every trade that is hands-on is hurting. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, HVAC techs and many others we know only too well about. But, did you know there’s also a shortage of barbers, cooks, truck and bus drivers, printers, auto mechanics and machinists? The funny part is that many of these trades were taught in vocational schools, but now many of those schools are gone or hurting for students.

The solution for the people in charge is to fill trade schools with disciplinary problems and that’s just not right. By the way, the people in charge are all college-educated and the first ones to scream that they have to wait four days to get their car serviced or four months to get a cleaning on their burner. Where do they think these tradespeople come from? Another funny notion from these geniuses is that if you don’t go to college you won’t make any money in the job market; they really need a good talking to, right? However, if I knew then what I know now, I would have been an electrician, more money.

As you can already see I have my personal opinions and feelings and many are due to my own experiences and I’d like to tell you about some of them so you can see where I come from.

I repeated my sophomore year in high school. Stupid? Bad luck? No, I wanted to. I’m the oldest of five children. My dad, a bindery foreman and printer, told us that if we wanted college we had to do it on our own. I put in for ‘trade school” as a 10th-grader, but back then (1961) vocational schools were hot stuff and only the best got in; there’s a switch. As a sophomore, I was doing OK, but was mature enough to know I needed a trade to financially survive in the future and so was not really a happy camper when I did not get into the program.
In February, I got called to the guidance office and was told that I was first on the list for the next year’s class at ‘the voc.” Yup, I had missed it by one slot the year before! Well, the rub was two sophomore years, but I was racking up college credits like crazy, (back to that later) so what the heck!

In September, I moved to the ‘voc” and have never looked back. While in school I had a job, but wanted a better one so I could get a car and that needed gasoline and money is oh so nice to have in your pocket. I also wanted a job in my career field and so I applied for a job at a local store that was looking for a sophomore taking that subject. I got it because the manager thought that I was smarter and maturer than the average sophomore he had interviewed. (Little did he know!)

In 1966, I graduated and thanks to my vocational training was immediately accepted into the Air Force. Not bad back then since the draft was going full-tilt and with Vietnam being a ‘no-go” place, if you had to go it was better to fly in and out then ‘pound ground.” That’s when it all changed; instead of going into any number of skills they could have put me into without training they threw me into heating. Yup, I was drafted into this crazy and beloved business. I got trained on everything: gas, oil, coal and even the steam systems attached to nukes, no kidding! With my previous training I was considered ‘a natural” at one area in this biz and moved up quickly making Staff Sergeant (E-5) in four years. Later, it took me three more years to make Tech Sergeant in the Reserves.

I had been going out with my high-school sweetheart and we got engaged and married when I came off active duty. I loved the heating business and so came into the oil business. Why? It was the easiest to get into because they were ‘hurting for help.” Sound familiar?

Over the last 37 years I’ve been through a lot of training. I’ve been to factory schools and even took some college courses. Remember those college credits? I had enough between that duplicate year and my Air Force credits to avoid taking entrance exams.

In the 1970s those college courses were in HVAC Design and Engineering and I loved the camaraderie of classmates and the campus. I learned a lot and picked a school whose night instructors worked at the trade during the day. You just can’t beat learning from someone that’s doing it, just not has done it. It’s for this reason I still go into the field and for me now it’s playtime and get paid very well, too. In the 1980s it was Business Management courses and if you want to be a manager or own your own business someday, they are a must.

I’m basically self-taught at computers, having bought my first one in 1980 and having built my latest one this year. I truly believe that a child being taught keyboarding in the third-grade is a good idea and a must-have. Knowing some computer skills is essential today and in the future every tradesperson will be required to know at least how to navigate through a computer. More and more information is available online and yet I know of no basic oilburner course being taught that even teaches computers, and that’s another reason why I feel the 160-hour program is obsolete.

I’ve been teaching since 1975 and truly love it. I love being able to pass on not only what I’ve learned, but also more importantly what the ol’ timers taught me in their words and books. I’m a devoted reader and children must be taught to love to read. That’s a must no matter what you do. In an earlier article I told you that I read a minimum of one to two hours a day, but I read technical for half of that time, the rest for pleasure. But education can be derived from the printed word in any form. If you’re a parent of little ones, read to them before you hug them and tuck them in at night and get them reading as quickly as possible and stay at them to read on their own. I know from more than just my own experience they will thank you later.

So, that’s my opinion on the subject of college for tradespeople, and if you’ve been wondering just what I took in ‘the voc,” it was electronics, which is still a hobby and why I love controls; it’s been one of my passions for a long time. That great first job in the area of electronics was at Radio Shack and that got me into a terrific job at RCA Defense Systems when I graduated and until I went into the Air Force. It even made sure that my job was still waiting for me when I got back, so there, that’s education’s value.

Well, that’s it from me for now and we are all entitled to our opinions, right?

See ya.


George Lanthier is the owner of Firedragon Enterprises, a teaching, publishing and consulting firm. He is a proctor and trainer for the HVAC Excellence, NATE and NORA Trainer’s Program and is the author of seven books on oilheating and HVAC subjects. He can be reached at 132 Lowell Street, Arlington, MA, 02474-2756. His phone is (781) 646-2584, fax at (781) 641-7099 and his e-mail is FiredragonEnt@comcast.net.

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