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Hey folks, Phil Zito here and welcome back. In this post, I'm going to talk about a pretty controversial topic, which is, do apprenticeships really need to last so long. This is something that people tend to get really heated on really quickly. If you even suggest that maybe 5, 4, or 3-year apprenticeships are just way too long, and that maybe perhaps apprenticeships are happening so that you could have someone that you pay a little lower than pay someone else to do something that they could have probably learned pretty quick.

I know I've just probably upset a ton of people. My team's not going to be happy with me for saying that, but the reality is, at the end of the day, I think that apprenticeships are valuable. I think OJT is valuable, but I think we are still operating on a model that was established decades ago, that needs to change, and I don't think it's going to change because there's a financial motivation in drawing people out across many, many, many years.

So, what do I mean by all that? Well, if we look at building automation, and I'm not talking about mechanical, or electrical apprenticeships, those are completely different. I'm talking about building automation apprenticeships, so I want to be crystal clear on that. So going to building automation and looking at these multiyear programs. There's not really a union program or a true apprenticeship for building automation, there is more so these three-to-four-year community college and college programs, and then these kind of hybrid work programs that are in existence.

That largely is because we have no licensure as a building automation professional to work towards. So, since we have no licensure, and what we're doing in building automation can be very specifically narrowed down, should an apprenticeship really have to be that long? Well, I think reasonably, you should be able to train a building automation professional in three-to-six months to do a majority of what they have to do out in the field.

I know a lot of folks are going to disagree with that. We're proving them wrong in our workforce development program currently, but I'm not here to brag on our workforce development program. The reality is, a few months ago, I went on LinkedIn, and I posted about building automation and how we don't need to take three-to-five years for someone to be a technician. We had your folks who’ve been in the field 30-40 years post a laundry list of all these things you have to learn for building automation. Then as I look at that laundry list of things, I'm like, if we apply the Pareto principle to these concepts, and we ask ourselves, what do we actually have to know, then we start to cut that list down by almost a 10th.

At the end of the day, majority of the systems we work with are VAV boxes, right? We have VAV boxes, a handful of air handlers, maybe a chilled water plant, and maybe a hot water plant. Now granted, can you point to decoupled loops, can you point to heat recovery, heat pump chillers and boilers? Can you point to primary secondary tertiary loops? Can you point to complex dual duct recovery unit? Yes, you can point to all of that stuff. but how often does all of that appear on a job? And therein lies the rub.

I feel like we are making the industry inaccessible to talent, who would otherwise do quite well because we're placing these expectations upon them. These talented folks are just going to leave and go elsewhere. If I have a computer background, and in 9 months I can complete a coding bootcamp and then go work for a large software company, why in the world am I going to put in multiple years to work at a controls company for a quarter of the pay? It doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

That's why I think our approach to developing talent and apprenticeships in the building automation industry, the industry that I can speak to, because I've been in it, we should be able to take someone within three months, make them able to perform point-to-point check out, mapping and controllers, and setting up supervisory devices. That should be doable. Then within 6 to 12 months, they should be able to write baseline programs and almost run projects on their own.

If we really think about what a project takes, we break it down into the simplest parts. We should, if we're running our business correctly, have a library of control stencils for our design submittals. We should have a library of programming; we should have processes in place for installation and calibration of our sensors and of our output devices. All of this should be in place to the point where pretty much everything we do should be rinse and repeat.

So then, part of running an effective building automation business, is having the processes established in order for your team to execute. So that's step one. A lot of companies don't have that, nor if they do, do they enforce that. That’s where these multiyear apprenticeships or development programs come about. Since you have no processes for people to follow, people then are flailing about and basically reinventing everything on a job site.

So, you need this essentially “Super Tech”. On the flip side, if you have a process-driven organization, you can train people on key skills, understanding relay logic, understanding basic electrical safety, basic electrical transformer sizing, inputs and outputs, understanding basic input types, etc. There's only so many basic output types, there's only so many controller mounting series, network controller setup. So, that would be things like BACnet MSTP, Lon FT-10. Supervisory device discovery, mapping devices, adding them, all of those things put together. That is not four years of training, that is not four years of learning.

For those of you who think that is, I think you're sorely mistaken, and I think you're unnecessarily holding back the development of others, as well as holding back the development of your business. When organizations do come and talk to us about how they should implement a development program, what I often tell them is to do a job task analysis. Simply ask, when was the last time one of your companies has done a natural job task analysis? Probably not ever.

So, do a job task analysis. Figure out what actually needs to be done, train to those tasks, train to those specific tasks. You'd be surprised with some dedicated focus training, which is a mix between instructor-led training and OJT, you can get those tasks, I don't want to say mastered, but you can get competency very quickly.

Do not pursue mastery, pursue competency. If you have processes to do the programming, and you have templates to do the programming, and templates to do the graphics, you have processes for creating these things, not from scratch, but actually from preexisting templates, then you can afford to invest in those other tasks, like panel creation, or like doing a deeper functional test on your projects.

Problem is, as I mentioned, many people do not have those processes. So, this post, rather than asking do apprenticeships really need to last so long, should be titled something to the effect of, if companies had processes and procedures, could they have someone who knows a lot less, doing the exact same job as someone who knows a lot more? I know people don't like to hear that, but that's the reality with 100,000 jobs open at any given time for our industry, and people leaving faster than they're entering the industry.

That is something that we're going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable about, which is this concept of, do I need the “Super Tech” anymore? The super tech’s great. I myself was one of them, and it's an amazing thing to have on your team that can do a lot of really cool stuff, but they're expensive and they're very difficult to find.

Versus if you really want to grow your building automation organization, if you really want to grow your career, like if I'm talking to someone who's a year into their career right now. If you and I are talking over a coffee, I'm going to tell you to look at the projects you're working on right now, look at the tasks you're doing 9 times out of 10, develop a process for those tasks, and develop sub processes for those tasks for the people who are assisting you.

For example, VAV box installation, I keep coming back to this because it's so common. What you would do, you would lay out subprocesses for your electrical subs, so that they know exactly what to do. You would have a process for yourself, and that process may be something as simple as getting with the mechanical to mount the controller on the VAV box before it even gets put up in the ceiling. Yeah, that will save you a ton of time, it'll save your electrical sub a ton of time. Then, maybe have a process for how you do check out on these boxes. Maybe you can even train your electrical sub to do it, so that way, you can move on to other tasks.

That's what I would do. And if I were able to develop that, if you were able to develop that, you would become a force multiplier for your organization. By creating these processes, you wouldn't replace yourself, you would actually free yourself up to do more complex work. You would free your organization up to do more projects, because everyone is short-staffed right now, and you would become more valuable to the organization. So, when you're looking at those processes, do a job task analysis and figure that out.

At the end of the day, I challenge you to let go of this concept that a building automation training path has to be a 3-to-5-year path. You know, I was talking with the one of the VPs at a very large system integrator, and he said that if we could take a technician from a 5-year training path and train them in 3-to-6 months, that would save them hundreds of 1000s of dollars. That's crazy to think about, but it's true. He also said to me, why do we have to spend 5 years to put someone potentially, through a master's level program in engineering or programming, we're talking about computer programming, but it also takes 5 years to teach them how to install a VAV box, and controllers, and stuff like that. And I agree.

So, I'm going to lay out a plan for you that you can implement inside your own organization, or you can implement this yourself if you are a self-performing person to develop yourself in 3-to-6 months. So ideally, you would use our training programs, but I'm going to set that aside and I'm going to talk as if our training programs don't exist, and you're doing this yourself.

First thing I'm going to do is get the Honeywell Gray Manual. I would master what inputs and outputs are, and control processes, and control modes. If you learn inputs, outputs, control processes, and control modes, you're going to be ahead of the curve on most technicians who are even at the 3-year mark. There are technicians who are at the 10-year mark, who cannot tell you how a PID loop works or how to tune one. So, understand that and that's pretty straightforward.

Then from there, I would get some electrical knowledge. I would understand, obviously electrical safety, OSHA 10 stuff, right. I would understand circuitry, I would understand several simple circuits, parallel circuits, series circuits. I'd understand transformer sizing, like apparent power versus real power, those kind of things. I would understand volts DC versus milliamp versus volts AC versus ohms versus continuity, all these electrical concepts.

Once I understand those things, that's going to enable me to apply that knowledge to my inputs and outputs that I learned earlier. Additionally, I've learned some basic installation. So, I would do a job shadow and just realize how do people install airflow sensors, airflow pressure switches, water flow sensors, water pressures, water flow switches, actuators, relays, temperature sensors, averaging and probes, well sensors, etc., and status and switches, etc. So, I would learn all of those inputs and how do they get properly installed? Where do I place them?

Okay, so you have a pretty solid knowledge set there. Now you have to build upon that with some HVAC theory, not HVAC knowledge, but theory. I'd go from there, once again to the Honeywell Gray Manual, as well as the old Trane and Johnson Controls HVAC books. There's two of them, they're floating around, they're really hard to find, but both of them give really good knowledge of HVAC theory. I would learn that, and I would specifically focus in on understanding psychometrics, heat transfer, building pressure, infiltration and exfiltration.

I would understand how mechanical systems sequence, like the system tree is something that I think folks should really understand. The system tree is where you start the terminal unit in the space, you're controlling airflow, which allows you to control temperature, humidity, CO2. As you move from the VAV box, you move up to the air handler, then from the air handler, you move to the hydronic plant, and each one of these systems is symbiotic to one another. Understanding that and understanding how these systems sequence shouldn't take you very long. You should be able to have a understanding of that within a matter of weeks.

Now that you have that baseline, and that baseline knowledge should take you three to four weeks to build, if you're dedicating yourself and you're spending like three hours a night focused on that, or if you're doing it at work, you should partner that with some OJT exercises. Go out on the job site looking at stuff, then from there, you should go and actually learn processes as to how to implement these things, how to actually do installations.

Usually looking at the task matrix, job task breakdown:

  • What are you doing on a job Monday through Friday?
  • What is that 20% of stuff you're doing 80% of the time?

Do that job task breakdown and then once you've done that, and you understand what you're doing, then you just need to develop processes and repeat and drill those processes. Drill them again, and again, and again, until they become back of the hand, and then you move on to your next level set of processes.

Within 8-to-12 weeks doing this with a good mentor, you should have a solid baseline of electrical, HVAC, and BAS knowledge. You should have the processes down and know where to go, and your BAS software to implement those processes. You should find yourself like a highly contributing individual. It's not rocket science, it's not terribly difficult.

I don't know why we still do things the way we do in the industry. Why do we still take years to do this? I mean, I've been pondering this in my head for so long, like, what if an owner instead of relying on this knowledge transfer in this ridiculous long process for their maintenance staff to be able to learn, what if they had QR codes that you could scan on your phone, and it brought up a video of how to do a job. It could show like an actuator replacement, or how to change a setpoint. Like literally you could have a binder with a bunch of QR codes, you’d just scan them, and then it would bring up a video and a walk-through process.

Sure, that would take a little bit of time to set up, but if you had a process in place, where every time you did one of those, you just documented it, it’s super easy to create QR codes that link to URLs. So, you could store this video, as well as store this process on a local server in your building. If every time you executed something like a valve replacement, or a damper replacement, or a filter change, you could just take out your phone, which now are high enough resolution, film it, talk through it and then just do bullet points on the key points like how to change a filter:

  1. Step 1: Turn off the unit.
  2. Step 2: Pull out the filter.
  3. Step 3: Ensure that you are matching the filter to the flow direction.
  4. Step 4: Put the filter in.
  5. Step 5: Write the date on the filter of when you changed.
  6. Step 6: Update the filter change log.

If you just did that that, and you recorded a video boom, you now have a filter change video. You create a QR code, and anytime anyone needs to do a filter change, they just scan that QR code, and they just watch the video. You've now reduced the knowledge set that that person needs to have, in order to do that, by creating a simple process. And you could do this across the board.

Back when I ran an ops team, we would drill VAV box installs, and we would have a competition. When we would bring folks in for safety training, we'd spend 20-30 minutes seeing who could install a VAV controller on a VAV box and get it operational the fastest. We had a leaderboard as to who was doing it the fastest. That’s something else you could do; you can gamify things.

At the end of the day, I hope you're seeing it doesn't require a really extensive, long, drawn out program. So, I know it was a little provocative in the beginning of this post, but I hope you're seeing and agreeing with me at this point, that what we need to know can be condensed, and can be effectively condensed. We can put processes in place that augment for experience.

So, with that being said, this is kind of what we're going to be exploring over the next few posts. I hope you all are open minded to considering a different way to develop talent within the workforce, a different way to approach this. If this is something you're interested in, definitely let us know as we do have a workforce development program that does all of this.

So at the end of the day, this is one man's opinion. Having been self-taught in this industry, having seen a ton of people, managed a lot of operations, done a lot of different things, I believe that it is time for us to potentially do something different.

Thanks a ton and take care.

Phil Zito

Written by Phil Zito

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