Just as many fuel oil dealers are diversifying to keep their businesses vital, some providers of training programs are adapting, adding to their course offerings to stay in step with a changing industry.
Basic training for oil heat technicians is popularly referred to as ‘the Bronze course,” followed by the Silver and Gold courses, signifying advanced expertise.
‘NORA originated all of those courses,” said Traci Ross, communication and education director for the National Oilheat Research Alliance, Alexandria, Va. However, the Alliance does not conduct the training sessions itself; instead it approves educators, who do the teaching. The courses are used in many states, and offered by many state associations. In Vermont, the state licensing process requires that technicians complete NORA training, said Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association (VFDA), in Montpelier.
NORA maintains a list of approved schools and technical centers, as well as individual educators and proctors, on its website (www.nora-oilheat.org); it also works with the National Oil & Energy Service Professionals to coordinate training of trainers, and it sells instruction materials for the courses.
In her role as education director for NORA, Ross manages the exams that are given upon conclusion of course work, sending them to the approved instructors who request them. The finished exams are returned to Ross, who grades them and issues a certificate to each student who passes, and a notice of failure to each student who doesn’t.
The tight control over the tests is designed to ensure the integrity of the examinations and certifications. ‘I’m the only person who has the NORA tests,” Ross said. ‘I’m the only person who distributes those tests. I’m the only person who grades those tests.”
The NORA courses had long been offered by the New England Fuel Institute at its headquarters in Watertown, Mass., but the Institute discontinued offering those courses as of January. The Institute recently agreed to sell its building in Watertown and is moving this month (August) to Waltham, Mass.
The Institute will conduct periodic one-day seminars on topics such as hazardous materials handling and the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), said Christine Vieira-Trant, the Institute’s executive vice president and controller.
As a result of the changes at NEFI, at least one state association had to adjust.
‘When NEFI stopped offering classes, we asked the New England Institute of Technology to take over the training,” said Julie Gill of the Oilheat Institute of Rhode Island. For advanced levels of licensing in Rhode Island, the technician must pass an examination administered by the state Department of Labor & Training, Gill said.
With the economy continuing in relatively slow gear, and fuel oil taking competitive hits from other energy providers, demand for training of fuel oil technicians has slackened, Gill and others said.
‘We have a course running now,” Gill said, ‘but it’s the first time we’ve run a course in two years. There are only 10 students in the class, which holds a maximum of 20 students.”
The oil heat associations in Connecticut, Maine and Pennsylvania also offer NORA courses.
The Maine Energy Marketers Association (MEMA) training facility, at its headquarters in Brunswick, is licensed with the state as a technical center, said Aimee Senatore, director of marketing and member services. The group offers a 200-hour program approved by the Maine Fuel Board, part of the state’s Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation.
The course consists of 100 hours of class time and 100 hours in a laboratory, featuring hands-on instruction. It can be taken on a day-time schedule or an evening schedule. ‘It’s six weeks if you take it during the day and it’s almost three months if you take it at night,” Senatore said
Those who finish the course are eligible to sit the exam for a journeyman technician right away, but they must do the six-months apprenticeship before applying for their journeyman’s license, Senatore said.
Alternatively, a person can do a one-year apprenticeship under a master technician, then take the exam, but Senatore said, ‘Most students will come to a program like ours because it shortens the time.”
The Maine association encourages members of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire to send students to its training center. ‘We allow their members to send their students here at our member rate,” Senatore said. ‘We have special accommodations for anyone from out of state,” she added. There are three hotels within a mile of the training center, and the Maine association works with them to arrange discounted rates, she said. Still, most of the attendees hail from within Maine.
‘It’s a drive for people,” Senatore said, adding that many dealers might not be focusing on training now ‘because the market’s kind of saturated with trained technicians. Companies are hiring, but we’re hearing it’s pretty competitive out there. Companies are doing more with less. They’re having their service managers do some of the work that an installation guy or a technician or a journeyman would do. The economic situation hasn’t necessarily led to a lot of hiring.”
Enrollment at the training center was low last year, and though it picked up this year, it remains below peak. ‘Three years ago we used to sell out our oil classes at 18 students,” Senatore said. ‘Now it’s more like eight to 10, and we’re happy with that because I’m not so sure the demand is ever going to get to where it used to be five and ten years ago.”
Like fuel oil dealers who diversify into other lines of business, the Maine group’s education center has diversified to train in other skill sets. ‘Air conditioning has been a huge growth area for us,” Senatore said. ‘It’s a natural diversification point for a lot of our members. We do BPI energy audit training here, and we have solar classes.”
Next on the agenda is development of a more robust propane program.
The propane classes currently are split into modules for prospective drivers, service techs and installers under the Certified Employee Training Program of the National Propane Gas Association, which Senatore described as ‘a series of books and a licensing program that’s been accepted by most of the states to license propane technicians.
‘For the last three or four years we’ve offered what we call our enhanced hands-on propane [program] which means we actually get technicians in the lab and we give them an introduction to the things that they need to know along with what’s in the book,” Senatore said. ‘But it’s not half as intensive as our oil program.”
There is no requirement for apprenticing, she said. ‘We’re hoping in 2013 to put a program together that is going to involve much more lab time so when a student walks out of here they not only have the classroom knowledge, but they know what they’re doing with the equipment.”
Those trainees, she said, ‘can be much more valuable to their companies.”
Gene Guilford, who once headed the Maine association, is president and chief executive officer of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association (ICPA), and it too is known for its extensive training offerings at its technical education center in Cromwell, Conn. In July, the center presented its first online webinar. Guilford said by e-mail, ‘If all goes well, there are more classes we may be able to deliver.”
Meanwhile training in specific products and systems is offered by manufacturers, manufacturers’ representatives and some wholesalers.
An example is Ed Os, Granby, Mass., manufacturers’ representatives handling HVAC product sales ‘ and training ‘ for companies including Honeywell, Hydrolevel, Rheem and Testo.
The company trains wholesalers and contractors, said Rob Paquette, heating division manager ‘ standard practice for manufacturers’ reps. But, Paquette said, Ed Os is somewhat of an exception in that it also goes to fuel oil dealers’ locations to train technicians.
‘We spend a lot of time with the end users to train them on proper installation and use of new products,” Paquette said
For some fuel oil dealers that are diversifying into propane, Paquette said, Ed Os uses a ‘suitcase trainer” fitted with a small, functioning gas burner. ‘We hook a little propane tank to it and show the techs how to do things like flame rectification,” he said.
Ed Os recently converted a portion of its warehouse building in Granby into a training center, and expects to begin holding training sessions there beginning in the fall. Those sessions will be in addition to the continuing visits to customers’ sites, Paquette emphasized. The company also has a trailer it uses for demos and some training at trade shows. Students of the Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School in Groton, Conn., helped assemble the trailer and install equipment, Paquette said.