As the need for qualified service technicians continues to grow, ICM publisher, Don Farrell, chatted with Ted Harris, PPA Executive VP, about their state-of-the-art training center and its mission.
ICM: PPATEC (Pennsylvania Petroleum Association Technical Education Center’) is unusual in that it is an actual brick-and-mortar school. What can you tell us about it?
Harris: When I came on-board with the Pennsylvania Petroleum Association (PPA) back in 2016, this brick-and-mortar location already existed. We already had a functioning training program. As you know, there’s a need for technical training within the industry. Unfortunately, we find many one or two-year trade school programs do not include oilheat in their curriculum.
In Pennsylvania, we have about 17% market share for oilheat. Rounding it up, almost two out of 10 homes have oilheat as their primary heat source throughout the state and technicians need to need to know how to service the equipment. We put a lot of time and effort into growing our program and offering more classes. We’ve almost tripled activities at the school compared to five years ago. Our facility is now being utilized essentially 11 months out of the year.
Because of the expansion of classes and the level of activity, in 2019 we decided to separate PPATEC from the Pennsylvania Petroleum Association (PPA). The PPATEC website (ppatec.com) is dedicated only to technical training.
As a part of that, we created a new membership category for HVAC contractors. Prior, our membership was for petroleum-based retailers, vendors or other stakeholders within the industry. We found that before 2019, 30% of our classes were attended by non-member contractors that needed additional training on oilheat equipment. As a part of expanding PPATEC, we have welcomed those contractors and given them the discounts on classes that our members get to encourage the HVAC community to work and train on oilheat systems, as opposed to recommending the customer use a different energy source.
ICM: Let’s talk about the facility itself. Where is it? What’s going on inside?
Harris: Our facility is in Middletown, PA, about 10 minutes outside of Harrisburg. It is a little over 4,000 square feet. About 12 months ago, we went through a building renovation to increase the amount of space dedicated to technical training. We added 15+ different new HVAC units, live fire units and training simulators. More space and more equipment give us more options for training. We are now dedicating over 2,500 square feet of our building towards our technical training program.
ICM: What kind of equipment do you in the classroom/lab?
Harris: We always had a hands-on training space that was, and still is, very much dedicated to oilfired equipment. The new space that we added focuses on gas- and propane-fired equipment. We also added electrical based units including mini-splits. We have various simulators that are helpful with our hands-on training, but from a different perspective.
We have been fortunate to have a great deal of support from the overall industry. Various supply houses and manufacturers stepped up to help us.
ICM: Would you care to mention some of the companies that have contributed equipment to your program?
Harris: Yes, it’s a pretty big list and we’re very happy about that: Crown Boiler, Energy Kinetics, NTI, US Boiler (Burnham), Fujitsu and Friedrich through APR Supply, Mitsubishi, Navien donated by Ferguson HVAC, Rheem donated by Sid Harvey’s and hearth equipment from Ray Murray, Inc. Taco was extremely supportive, contributing multiple circulators, switching relays and zone valve controls. R.W. Beckett, Carlin, and Riello contributed burners. Field Controls, F. W. Webb and Honeywell all contributed, as well.
ICM: Tell us more about the curriculum and courses of study.
Harris: When I came on-board, we offered our two-week NORA Bronze Certified Technician course, which is 10 days of baseline training on oilheat systems. It is highly beneficial for an individual who might have completed a two-year tech school but did not have access to oil-fired equipment training. We have 10 live-fired appliances for them to train on. It is also a great class for companies that might have hired an HVAC tech who didn’t have much experience with oilfired equipment or who may have worked in another state or company that did not have this equipment.
Upon completion, the student is qualified to take NORA’s Bronze Certified Technician exam and can take it right at the school. Over the past five years, we have averaged 90 Bronze certifications per year. We also offer a three-day oilheat class that offers NORA Continuing Education credits. We hold NORA Gold classes throughout the year, as well.
We also do air-conditioning training from March to June each year, including a full-week introduction to AC. This year, we are doing our first full-week Basic Electric Theory for HVAC Components class. We offer natural gas classes throughout the year. Approximately 35% of our members deliver propane and we have significantly increased offer Certified Employee Training Program (CETP) offerings in recent years.
Up to this point, all our training has been based on the model of an employer sending employees to a training program. Starting in 2022, we will offer a 10-week “HVAC & Energy Professional Program” with classes geared towards the general public—including veterans and the unemployed. It is going to be comprehensive and include oilheat, AC, electrical, gas and propane training. It will also offer NORA, EPA and CETP certifications.
PPA, along with PPATEC membership, includes more than 200 very eligible employers that are always looking to hire good, motivated people. Indeed, the entire HVAC industry has really struggled finding technicians, so once a student graduates, we hope he or she will find well-paying jobs and continue to be within our industry for decades to come.
To offer this type of tuition-based training in Pennsylvania, we had to be a Private Licensed School through Pennsylvania’s Department of Education. We achieved this status after a long undertaking; we believe it was very much worth the effort and feel confident about our program and what it’s going to produce. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to our Board of Directors and our leadership to be willing to pursue this initiative.
ICM: Of course, a school is only as good as its faculty.
Harris: Up until this year, we were using contractors at various capacities. At the beginning of 2021, we hired Alan Mercurio, one of those contractors, to be our full-time lead technical instructor. Mercurio’s core focus is oilheat training and he was providing us with more than 100 training days a year. It got to the point where it became an easy decision to bring him on full time. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Alan—the rapport that he builds with his students speaks for itself and he’s done an excellent job for us. Alan also gives us more capacity with other classes to support as a secondary instructor in the lab.
We work with Ed Howell for much of our air conditioning and electrical-based training. He used to be the lead technical trainer for APR Supply and is one of the most respected trainers within our local market. We just brought on this year another AC-based instructor, Trevor Brubaker, who’s also doing some gas training for us; Brubaker runs his own HVAC business.
Eric Leskinen is our CETP trainer; he’s with P3 Propane Training. Norm Anger handles our Hazmat and FMCSA/DOT training.
ICM: Do you offer any job placement services after students graduate?
Harris: As part of our upcoming 10-week program referred to earlier, a platform will be provided for students to meet with our members regarding employment.
ICM: You’ve done a lot in the last few years. What is next?
Harris: We’re also pursuing to be an approved GI Bill training provider. We feel the veteran community is going to be a very well-populated segment of our attendees for the HVAC & Energy Professional program. With their benefits, veterans may have help with paying the tuition, and then, we hope, find employment with one of our members.
We are also finalizing a new Scholarship Foundation. We expect to complete the paperwork this year and start fund raising. We want to give an in-need and motivated high school graduate a chance to come through our program and ultimately have the chance to find a well-paying job in our industry. ICM