Storming the Gates to Trade Education

Before we jump into the stuff that will make folks angry, let's start with some common ground.

Most of us can probably agree that the desired result of education in the trades is:

Knowing what you are doing and doing it as safely, efficiently, and correctly as possible.

If we can agree that we all have this common goal in mind, can we also agree that any way we can achieve this result in a faster, broader, and more effective way would be a good thing?


Now, what follows is admittedly one perspective on how we can better achieve these outcomes. This isn't scientifically quantified—it certainly contains some confirmation bias—but I can state with all honesty that it comes from a desire to help the trades achieve these goals.


Ten years ago, when techs first started putting HVAC/R videos on YouTube, there was a huge backlash. For any of you who were on HVAC-Talk back then, you remember all of the doom and gloom.

Homeowners were going to use the info and kill themselves, bad practices were going to take over the trades, and guys were going to go to “YouTube University” and think they know it all.

A decade has passed, and those prophecies just haven't come to pass at any significant scale.

The reason for this (in my mind) is that the people who actively seek answers to questions are far better off than those who simply swallow what they are told by their teacher or the old-timer who trained them.

Out-in-the-light-of-day ideas have a chance to either thrive or die on their own merit rather than festering in the cold, damp corners of, “That's the way I was taught,” or, “It always worked for me.”

Sure. There have been some bad actors teaching some silly and dangerous stuff along the way. However, there have also been some excellent resources that have started discussions and brought ideas to the forefront that could have NEVER spread so quickly without the free sharing of ideas.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” ~ Mark Twain

Guess where some of the bad ideas that have persisted for generations came from before the YouTube and social media era?

In my experience, it was bad teachers and bad “senior” techs sharing poorly formulated ideas under the protection of intellectual isolation.

In other words, bad ideas formed and grew due to lack of scrutiny, or “peer review,” if you prefer an academic term.

What are the gates, and who are the gatekeepers? 

They can be trade schools, manufacturers, traditional book publishers, universities, governing bodies, regulators, educators, and the list goes on and on.

Anyone who intentionally places barriers in front of education is part of the problem in my worldview.

What I'm NOT saying:

  • Education should all be free.
  • Formal education is worthless.
  • The system is the problem.
  • Poorly prepared workers should be thrown into the workplace.

What I AM saying:

  • Learning and progress should be heralded over certifications and degrees.
  • What you know and can do is more important than how long you've been doing it.
  • A lot of time and effort is wasted in bureaucracy and red tape rather than actually reinforcing learning and a passion for learning.
  • Self-education is a lifelong skill that should be fostered at every opportunity.

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” – Socrates

Self-Education is Worth Promoting

Whether or not you are formally educated, self-education is paramount to success.

About a year ago, I received an application for a service tech apprentice position with the following listed under the previous education field:

Self Study: EPA 608, R-410a Certification, PM Tech Certification, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Technology, Commercial Refrigeration: For Air Conditioning Technicians, Blue Collar Roots Network podcasts

When he came in for an interview, he was polite and quiet. I asked him how he got the certifications if he didn't go to a formal trade school, and he replied, “I just found where I had to go and went out and got them.”

Do you think he ended up working out well? OF COURSE, HE DID!

He's a self-starter; he doesn't need a gatekeeper to tell him when or how to learn something; he just went out and learned until he understood.

Does that mean we threw him in a truck right away? NO WAY! You can't learn to ride a bike at a seminar, and you can't teach someone how to be an HVAC/R tech with a book, podcast, or video.

He had to practice and apply what he had learned before the learning could manifest itself into skills, but he came to the table with the proper mindset, which led to the inevitable result of skill and mastery.

The “CYA” or Lawyer excuse

Not long ago, I sent out an email to a well-known OEM. I was seeking approval to use small portions of their bulletin content (with attribution) for some tech tips. Last I heard, their lawyers were looking into it.

We get this a lot in the education side of the trade: a fear of “plagiarizing” or saying the wrong thing, so someone gets sued, and then out of the OTHER side of their mouths comes complaints about the “skills gap” and difficulties in education.

I have a piece of advice on the lawyer and copyright stuff surrounding trade education:


Obviously, if someone is directly copying or republishing your content as their own, that's a problem and needs to be dealt with. Other than that, WHAT IS THE PROBLEM!?

If people share excerpts from your manual or book or bulletin online, do you REALLY think that's a risk to your brand or business?

Do you honestly believe that people who are excited enough about the trade to share or excerpt from something you made are a problem?

Are you HONESTLY concerned that overeducation of the general consumer is a valid problem to protect against in comparison with the growing skills gap in our trade?

Do you think that good quality traditional HVAC/R education is at risk of being replaced by people online sharing good training materials?

“Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing” ~ Warren Buffet

Risk Aversion

I have 10 kids, and there has only been one broken bone among them over 17 years (by the grace of God).

My kids hang from trees, ride bikes around the yard and on the driveway (with no helmet at times), ride our gas-powered golf cart (too fast at times), and work with tools on all sorts of things. They cut veggies with knives for dinner, climb ladders to the attic, walk on trusses (the older ones), and ride skateboards with no kneepads.

Does this upbringing sound familiar to you? It probably does because that is how many of us were raised, and it was certainly how the generation that went to the moon strapped to a rocket was raised.

The point is that we all learn how to do fairly risky things SAFELY by being allowed to do them in reasonable low-risk environments.

But HEAVEN FORBID that we allow a 16-year-old to job-shadow, climb a ladder, or use a saw.

How did we get to be so risk-averse, especially in a trade where we melt metal with fire, run explosive gasses into buildings and set it on fire, freeze things, and make sparks regularly?

If we didn't want to take risks, we should have become hotel concierges, not HVAC/R professionals.

Now, there is no reason to be foolish, and we should look for ways to do things as safely as practically possible—but COME ON, FOLKS! Let's not kill training and education before it can begin by running everything through the lawyers. We are the experts; let peer review and some common sense solve the unwise risks associated with the trade, not a bunch of legal jargon and red tape.

It's human nature that once we have a good thing going, it's easy to get comfortable and stop taking risks. I get it, but we can no longer rely on the certificates, degrees, and processes of yesteryear to solve the staffing problems at our doorstep. We actively need to recruit, share, train, communicate, and collaborate with contractors, schools, publishers, OEMs, reps, trade publications, and industry bodies.

We need to try new things, be open to taking risks, and stop defending our little piece of turf.

“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” ~ Socrates


Do you want the trade to get better? Is it your goal to see techs progress more quickly? Make a real difference?

Tear down the gates and focus on inspiring the spark of continuous learning in the trades. 

That's what's on my mind today.






3/20/19 at 10:20 PM

What a great article about education, and our trade. It has inspired me to try to come up with a few new ways to relate info to my students. This is a great saying !!!
especially in a trade where we melt metal with fire, run explosive gasses into buildings and set it on fire, freeze things and make sparks regularly.
Hopefully you wont mind me using this I’m going recruiting for first time tomorrow and I will definitely be using this line!!!
I see a future shirt in that saying.

3/25/19 at 01:28 PM

As a licensed contractor with associates degree and NATE certification, I can tell you that, although those things are great and necessary, they are overrated. There are many people who are great at taking tests and getting certified but are terrible when working with thier hands. I used to be one of those people and overcame that by being willing to get my hands dirty. I agree with Brian our over lawyered industry does keep people with potential from getting their feet wet.


To continue you need to agree to our terms.

The HVAC School site, podcast and daily tech tips
Made possible by Generous support from