- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

Apprentice Pat Ireland likes seeing how a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system works without having to trace the path of wires from the thermostat to the units in a house.

Mr. Ireland tinkered with a model of an HVAC system during his HVAC 1 course. The course, which ended in late April, is the first in a four-year apprenticeship program offered through Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Adult and Community Education.

“You can see controls turn on and off. You can see the actual operation of the system,” says Mr. Ireland, who works in residential HVAC installation and service by day and takes an apprenticeship class in the evenings. “When you’re starting out, when you do this at someone’s house, you can remember the board and what’s going on. And you can practice.”

The simulation boards are a learning tool that demonstrates the wiring and operation of HVAC systems.

Instructor John Compton had his HVAC 1 students build 12 simulation boards like the one Mr. Ireland studied for future students to use in their HVAC classes.

“The reason I did this is these guys are all about their hands,” says Mr. Compton, a technician for Performance Heating & Cooling in Herndon.

Mr. Compton became an instructor four years ago for FCPS Adult and Community Education after completing the Virginia State Apprenticeship Program, a work-force development program that provides classroom instruction and on-the-job training in the skilled trades.

Apprentices are required to work a minimum of 2,000 supervised hours and complete 144 hours of instruction during each year of the program (the average length is four years) to become recognized as journeymen, according to the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s (DLI) Web site, www.dli.state.va.us. The trades of HVAC, electrical and plumbing require the apprentices pass a state licensing exam, the Web site says.

After a year in the field, journeymen in the three trades can take a second exam to become masters.

Apprentices are registered with the DLI and work for employers who agree to provide training and work experience under the supervision of a skilled craftsman.

“The idea is for employers to grow their own talent as opposed to finding it in the marketplace,” says Joey Teets, apprenticeship program specialist for FCPS Adult and Community Education.

The apprenticeship program advances a green worker without experience or trade training to the level of a skilled mechanic able to work independently and supervise others, Mr. Teets says.

“It helps the new employee develop a career and not just a job, and thus it helps the employer with recruitment because of the significant benefits they’re offering this person,” he says.

The program helps with employee retention at individual companies and within an industry, says Anthony Swoope, administrator of the DLI’s office of apprenticeship.

“The method of training provides credentials and competencies for workers, but it also gives a baseline of skills employers know employees will have,” Mr. Swoope says.

Kevin Barrett of Manassas, Va., a first-year HVAC apprentice, joined the program to be able to move up through the job titles. He is working as an HVAC assistant for FCPS.

“It’s helped me learn a lot how the HVAC field works,” he says. “I like it because it’s hands-on. I like working with my hands and different tools.”

Apprentices are required to keep track of the hours they work in the different aspects of a job, Mr. Teets says.

For example, an HVAC apprentice is required to work a certain number of hours installing, servicing and maintaining air conditioning and refrigeration systems, reading and interpreting blueprints and preparing job orders.

“It’s a regimented training process where they have very specified diverse training requirements or criteria,” Mr. Teets says.

In the classroom, apprentices are taught the basic theory of the trade and the rules and regulations that govern it.

The simulation boards are designed to help connect the classroom work to what is taught at the job site. Mr. Compton’s boards demonstrate how to set up a thermostat and how control circuits work. His boards are half the size of the one developed by Mr. Ireland’s instructor, William T. “Ty” Chapman. Mr. Chapman built the board four years ago, using light bulbs to represent the units of an HVAC system. The board operates on 120 volts, enough to cause a shock if a mistake is made.

For that reason, Mr. Compton’s boards are stepped down from 120 to 24 volts. Mr. Compton supplied the boards with donated thermostats and supplies purchased at a discount, he says. The boards cost $2,000 to make, a project his students completed in the winter months during his HVAC 1 class.

The boards include a transformer that steps down electric power coming into the system to 24 volts. The power travels from the transformer to the thermostat. The thermostat sends the control voltage of 24 volts to turn on various components of the HVAC system, including fans that represent the indoor and outdoor units of the system. The two fans, along with seven light bulbs, six relays (which transfer power from the thermostat to the system units), and the transformer are all considered to be loads, and everything else is a switch.

Mr. Compton likes to be able to challenge his students, he says. “This was a big stretch for these first-year guys,” he says.

Some of his students have never seen a heat pump, and the boards give them a chance to see the sequence of operation of an HVAC system, says Mr. Chapman, an AC operator for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

“It gives them the basic understanding of how everything works,” he says.

The apprenticeship program offered through FCPS enrolls 1,250 apprentices a year and is funded by apprentices and their employer sponsors through tuition payments. FCPS has offered the program since 1962 and trains half the apprentices in Northern Virginia, with the remaining trained by union and trade organizations. The apprenticeship program has been offered statewide since 1938 and currently has 10,000 apprentices and 2,000 sponsors.

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