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Putting Skills Under the Spotlight


The nation’s top HVAC apprentices talk about how a bit of pressure on the Apprentice Contest stage leads to big confidence … and loads of opportunity.

By Cindy Sheridan
PHCC Educational Foundation Chief Operating Officer
Source: Solutions, Winter 2017

Opportunity. Networking. Confidence. Even fun. The top finishers in this year’s PHCC Educational Foundation HVAC Apprentice Contest came off the competition stage claiming some of each this year. “I learned that this business is not just all work, because I had a ton a fun at CONNECT,” says Marshall Brahm, from UA Local 601 in Wisconsin.

The two-day contest – held during CONNECT 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – tested the 12 HVAC participants on brazing, refrigerant recovery, taking readings on a package unit, troubleshooting on mechanical and electrical units, and basic electrical wiring.

On top of claiming the contest’s top prize package, first place winner Sean Dobbs from UA Local 486 in Maryland took home a big boost in confidence. “Skills and knowledge, you learn in school … but the competition forces you to take a step back and look at things logically as far as troubleshooting,” he says. “Being on that competition stage in front of judges put on a little added pressure … the kind of pressure that makes you realize you can handle it on the work site. That gives you great confidence.”

Dobbs – who also was the recipient of the Allyn Parmenter and George Bliss Award at the United Association (UA) Apprentice Contest in August – says of both opportunities: “I just love going around the country and talking to guys who do the same type of work but in other regions and gaining insights on the stuff they work on.”

Third-place winner Allen Maslo from UA Local 597 in Illinois claims the contest helps to “mold you into a better technician.” The competition is “great for finding your shortcomings and giving you the opportunity to better develop your skills,” he says. “It gives us a platform to showcase what we’ve learned … sets us apart from the rest.”

Indeed, these young professionals proved they could rise to the top under the pressure of the competition. “This is like the Olympics of our trade,” says Merry Beth Hall, PHCC Educational Foundation Assistant Vice President of Workforce Development. “Each of these apprentices is already at the top of their game at the state level. They are highly skilled, very competitive and come to our contest to win.”

Challenges. Opportunities. Or both?

While this year’s winners work in a range of professional settings – Dobbs in industrial and commercial work for Power & Combustion Inc. in Maryland; Brahm with Zone Mechanical, a commercial refrigeration company in Wisconsin; and Maslo in service with Kroeschell Engineering in Illinois – all three claim that their biggest challenge is keeping up with new technology. “When you walk into a customer’s building, they expect you to know everything there is to know about their piece of equipment, even if it’s brand new,” says Brahm. “So it’s a lot of research and reading to stay on top of that.” Adds Maslo: “Just when you think you understand something, the next best piece of equipment is developed.”

For Dobbs, “the words challenge and opportunity go hand-in-hand when you talk about the trades.” Working on any new machine is a challenge, he explains. “Just when you get an understanding of that one piece of equipment, you go into an environment where it’s the same piece of equipment but it’s controlled differently, and there’s the opportunity,” he adds. “Software and sensors may control that equipment ... controls are so advanced that you could monitor it from your desktop. That’s where we’re going with challenges technology-wise, but that’s a challenge and an opportunity all in one.”

Sharing those lessons learned with each other is yet another perk of participating with peers on a platform like the PHCC Apprentice Contests. In addition to having fun, Brahm relished the opportunity to “meet a lot of nice people from around the nation” and share trade secrets and stories. “If you ever have an opportunity like that, just say ‘yes’ and do it,” he says. “I’m 100 percent glad I did."