Mike Fowler was worried. The owner and general manager of One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning was confronting a shortage of qualified technicians. The workforce was aging, and demand outweighed supply.
“I started having this vision that the only way that we could overcome this was to train our own people,” Fowler said. “We realized that we had to start reaching out to the young people.”
His solution: A training program that could provide opportunities for workers, and skilled labor for his company.
When One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning relocated to Crump Road in 2013, Fowler spent close to $150,000 building a laboratory outfitted with equipment, so students could learn through hands-on experience. Next he needed a dedicated instructor who shared his passion.
Fowler discovered an outstanding technician on his staff had previously worked for Charles in Charge, an HVAC company owned by Charles Dixon. Fowler contacted him.
“Mike told me what he was trying to do,” says Dixon, 46. “I’m a foster parent, and I think that helping out the community is very important. So I was all in.”
Fowler hired Dixon to develop the curriculum and teach it.
Instruction for the first class of students began in October 2015. They were recruited via high school career fairs, and from Central Piedmont Community College. The youngest was 18, the oldest 37. They trained from 7 a.m. to noon, three days a week for four months.
The curriculum is half hands-on, and half written, and might include diagnosing problems on a piece of equipment Dixon intentionally sabotages.
Students are also taught how to communicate with clients. They can’t smoke or swear on the job, and must submit to random drug testing. They learn that being a technician is not a 9-to-5 job: Hours are determined by clients’ needs, and often the weather.
Students are not paid during training, but upon completion are guaranteed a job, $1,500 worth of tools, 13 sets of uniforms that get laundered on-site, and a company van from which to work.
Quatez Watford, 33, is one of the six who graduated in February 2016. Watford and her daughter moved from Virginia to Charlotte in 2013. As a high school student she’d tinkered with electronics, and was seeking a new career involving mechanical skills. She took HVAC classes at the Urban League, but without experience, was unable to find a job.
She discovered One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning through Indeed.com, when she searched the term “apprentice technician.”
Watford remembers her sense of satisfaction when she disassembled and reassembled a piece of equipment that resulted in no loose screws. “I’m glad that they are bringing awareness of the HVAC program to the high schools,” she says. She laments high school students’ lack of exposure to vocations besides “car mechanics, beauticians, and the medical field.” Her goal is to be a Level 1 technician, the most accomplished.
Reality television is bringing awareness to non-college oriented careers through shows including “Deadliest Catch.” In 2011 Mike Rowe, creator of “Dirty Jobs,” testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on changing stereotypes about blue collar jobs.
Fowler, 57, took a nontraditional path himself: He didn’t earn a college degree, but gained valuable knowledge during a career at UPS, which he said gave him “$2 million worth of management experience.” He’s been owner and general manager of One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning since he bought out his brother-in-law in 2003. The company has approximately 90 employees, about 50 who work in the field.
Fowler, whose classroom can accommodate up to 25 students, hopes to train many future technicians.
“I went to college but college was not for me,” he says. “I have been highly successful. Knowledge applied is success, knowledge not applied is nothing.”
ShopTalk focuses on Charlotte-area small businesses and how they meet challenges. Know a small business we should write about? Email Celeste Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org.