One of the greatest challenges facing the plumbing and HVAC industries is the ever-widening skills gap. As more and more industry veterans retire, the demand for plumbing and HVAC services continues to outpace the number of people entering the industry.
One often-overlooked strategy is “growing your own techs” — developing and nurturing talent from within your company. When Nexstar Network contractors complained they couldn’t find talent for the better part of a decade, the best practices organization decided to do something about it. Nexstar Network hired a plumbing coach and HVAC coach in 2017 to begin curriculum development for the launch of Nexstar’s NexTech Academy, which went live in May 2018 with plumbing, then followed with HVAC in August 2018. Electrical was added a year later.
Since its inception five years ago, NexTech Academy has graduated 1,081 students.
“Today we have three curriculums,” says Joel Ellingson, director, NexTech Academy, Nexstar Network. “After the launch of the electrical program, we launched targeted training courses for more advanced learners. We all those NexTech Select. Then, the last thing we launched was something called On-The-Go, which is an app-based collection of videos for the most common tasks you would run into in residential service. That completes the offering.”
Roughly 250 Nexstar member contractors use the NexTech Academy program consistently for training new plumbers and technicians. The academy averages about 400 to 500 graduates a year.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re hiring a plumber, electrician or HVAC tech, the contractor puts them through our program to get them up to speed on residential service,” Ellingson notes. “This past summer, we just saw our 1,000th student graduate, which felt really good to get that milestone behind us. That's 1,000 new careers that we've enabled as a result of our training. We're very proud of that.”
How it works
One of the advantages of NexTech Academy is completely online, and every student goes through the program at a different pace. Initially, students would go at a much slower pace, but Nexstar has tweaked the program to where a student can go through the entire program in about six months, Ellingson notes, though some contractors offer accelerated courses for their students.
“We provide an online experience for that self-paced content,” he says. “Our curriculum is designed to be a partnership with a member shop. That member shop has an experienced professional that will pause at logical points in the curriculum to practice skills in a lab.”
Since the NexTech Academy launched in 2018, Nexstar Network has done several things to keep the curriculum updated.
“When we started launching the program, it was really more about using books, and then digitizing that and trying to make it a digital book experience,” he explains. “We've moved completely away from that. We're now in a learning management system, and the content is built using a program that creates interactive content where you have to engage with the content, and you have to perform knowledge checks to verify that you're following along with the information you're consuming. There are formal exams that are built into the process. And probably most importantly, is we intentionally separate it out the hand skills piece where you practice. So the technicians going through the training experience have a classroom experience, they pause, then go into a skill lab and practice their skills. So we detail the skills that you should be practicing that correspond with the knowledge you've just learned in class. That's how the content is arranged today.”
NexTech has also added new content as industry trends continue to change and new products emerge.
“As we’ve gone through the curriculum, we’ve added things like more specific training on boilers and heat pumps,” Ellingson notes. “We’ve got a whole series on HVAC installation for people who are not in service, but on the install side, which is a common delineation at a shop. We've also added a series of modules on soft skills. One of the things our members tell us all the time is, ‘My technicians are competent with their hands, but they're not competent with their mouth. How do we make them more competent in front of a customer, asking the right questions, building a relationship?’ So we've got a whole series of soft skills that we've added to the curriculum.”
Ellingson says content will be something the NexTech Academy continues to tweak, but it takes time to develop. In the meantime, the program will modify its skills lab content. “For example, ProPress is a common way in the plumbing industry to terminate a piece of pipe, so we'll incorporate utilizing a ProPress in your skill lab practice, versus soldering or brazing. So that's usually how we bridge the gap while we're waiting for a content refresh.”
Additionally, NexTech supports ongoing learning and professional development for graduates who have already completed the program through its Select and On-The-Go offerings. Ellingson notes that On-The-Go apps has about 180 users who are consistently logging in, checking out a video to solve a problem and then continuing on with their day.
“A novice goes through what we call our Tech Builder curriculum, and they’re now a competent service technician,” he says. “Then, they get into the field and develop additional competencies, and a lot of them will move into installation careers. At that point, they have specific skills they’re trying to acquire, whether it be installing heat pumps or split systems. That’s what the Select class is designed for. You don’t have to go through a whole curriculum, just training on a specific area. That’s how we continue the education journey.
“On-The-Go is designed to be a ride-along tool, so you don't have to call in support from your shop and have another technician dispatched,” Ellingson continues. “You can use these collection of videos to get you through the task you need a refresher on right there in the customer's home, finish the call, be more efficient.”
On-The-Go videos are typically between three to eight minutes long in digestible chunks, and cover topics like troubleshooting a control board, verifying pressure switches and more.
NexTech Academy’s HVAC training program is NATE-certified, and Nexstar Network is currently undergoing the process of accreditation with IACET.
Justin Brock, a plumbing apprentice at Oxon Hill, Maryland-based Warner Super Service and NexTech Academy graduate, is two and a half years into his plumbing apprenticeship, having started in May 2021.
Brock went through air traffic control school and has worked in the trades in some form since he was 15 years old.
“I was doing a little construction here and there in Virginia and keeping my ears to the ground looking for a new job,” Brock says. “I got an email notification from Warner Super Service, and I applied. And here I am, thankfully. Every day is something new and different. Every customer is different. Every home is different, sometimes for better or worse. But I enjoy every day of it. Every task has different ways to do it, as well, but it's a fascinating experience every day. It's like a puzzle, and I'm a big puzzle fan.”
Brock went through the NexTech Academy plumbing program in little over a year.
“It’s like looking through a mirror to a degree,” he says. “It shows you everything you’re going to do that you may encounter on the job, and I loved it. It helps with being very attentive and being very cautious on the job, and it gives a real sense of progress to your learning and to your on-the-job training. And I loved the soft skills development as well, with how to interact and reason with customers. It helped out in so many ways.”
The most challenging part of the program was the time commitment, Brock notes, as we was completing the training while still working full time for Warner Super Service. “Remembering the material wasn’t that hard, and it got easier as I went along — just finding time to do it on long or busy days was difficult.
“I really liked the people who explain the experience in the videos and PowerPoint presentations — they were obviously part of the trades themselves,” Brock adds. “It’s like listening to a big brother or big sister showing you the ropes and warning you what to look out for — it’s great!”
Brock notes he would absolutely recommend the program to any person beginning a career in the home services industries.
“It’s very helpful to learn all you can in regards to what you’re going to be up against,” he explains. “It makes the job easier. Somedays can be overwhelming when you’re just learning the ropes and everything is new. Being able to learn this way is a tool you can’t measure or buy.
“The last two-and-a-half years of my life in general have been incredibly exciting — I wouldn't trade it for the world,” he adds. “Just thinking about the years of requirements for when you get certain licenses, at first I figured four years for a journeyman was long. But here I am now and I'm more than halfway there. Time flies.”
Farmington Hills, Michigan-based Thornton and Grooms is one of the 250 Nexstar members using the NexTech Academy, and one of 150 members with its own skills lab. The plumbing and HVAC contractor incubated the idea in 2020, and launched its training program in 2021, according to Matt Bergstrom, president of Thornton & Grooms. Since then, the contractor has had 75 graduates — roughly 30 HVAC and 45 plumbing — go through the program.
“We used NexTech Academy as our basis for our platform,” Bergstrom says. “We were able to take that program, use it and modify it if needed, so we had a curriculum to start out with. There’s so many good programs out there right now, but we really zeroed in on Nexstar Network because it’s focused on what we do and the majority of that is service repair and replacements in the residential setting.”
Thornton and Grooms students take roughly two and a half months to get through the program, with two days in the classroom and three in the field with an experienced plumber or technician.
“In the field, they're riding along with the tech,” he says. “They're able to take what they've just learned and apply it to a real job we're running. We wanted to get it more real world, knowing that most of the folks that want to go into the trades learn by doing better than classroom learning.”
Thornton and Grooms also takes a fair amount of students from Northwestern Technological Institute and MIAT College of Technology, HVAC schools located in Southfield, Michigan and Canton, Michigan, respectively. These students are also put through the NexTech Academy.
“While they learn a lot from their HVAC programs, much of it is lost because they’re not able to use it outside of a lab setting,” Bergstrom says. “It’s nice when we have those students, because we can definitely get them up and going a little bit faster. The great part about NexTech is they can go through it at their own pace, so they can move ahead if they really understand and get it. What we'll do in those cases is give them extra lab time. It's almost like an honors class or an accelerated class in what we would see in normal school.”
After a student graduates the program after that initial five-month period, they’re in a truck and running their own jobs together.
“We’ll start them out running jobs together to help them learn,” Bergstrom explains. “Generally, their first call every day is in the office reviewing what happened the previous day with one of their leaders or instructor. Most of the problems end up not being technical, but with the customer and dealing with certain situations. And they’re running almost all maintenance calls and almost all newer equipment on the HVAC side, and for plumbing, they’re mostly doing home inspections and then talking to customers about upgrades or add-ons.”
Thornton and Grooms classes are typically about five to eight people per class, and the contractor holds roughly two to three classes a year in each trade.
“We started out at five months and we actually shrunk our class periods down to two months or two-and-a-half months now of classroom learning,” Bergstrom explains. “We've learned that the five months is too much information at one time, and so we skinny the amount of calls that you're able to run and the type of calls that you're able to run. We want to get you out in the field quicker because we find that you learn a lot quicker and retain information faster, better as we do that. So, we started out five months, came down to about two-and-a-half months, and then the training continues in a different way after that. You're not graduated at that standpoint, where after the five months, we were graduating you. Now, we look at it as it's an ongoing training program up through you getting your journeyman's license here in Michigan.
“Some of the benefits have been intangible from what we've seen,” he adds. “It's a great way to introduce new blood into the trades and see people who are excited about it, especially when you have a lot of seasoned people. It's almost like having young kids at Christmas, it just makes Christmas even better, that’s what I equate it to. They ask such great questions and they’re excited about it — they want to learn. They bring energy to our team overall.”
Addressing the labor shortage
Ellingson envisions the NexTech Academy helping solve the industry’s labor shortage moving forward.
“Because the program is appealing to novices, we have this opportunity to solve a labor challenge that has been well documented — we're losing workers faster than we're replacing,” he says. “But the reason is the replacement mechanism is already geared towards the traditional worker. If you have a whole new universe of novices, of non-traditional workers in the trades that you can attract into the trades, you can solve that problem. That’s what we think our role is. We have this approachable curriculum that anybody can do, even if you knew nothing about the trades. In six months, we can be competent service technicians and turn on a brand new, sustainable career. You’re never going to see a technician lose their job to AI. People always need help with their residential systems. You're never going to see a boiler in the cloud. These are sustainable careers, and it’s a local career, so talk about having an impact on a local economy — that’s exactly what these business owners are doing.
“More and more people are coming to the U.S., not leaving, so more residential living environments will need to be built, which means more services to support those systems are always going to be needed,” Ellingson adds. “It’s a growing career — the data I saw was something like 180,000 unfilled jobs over the course of the next 10 years, and that problems going to continue to get worse. It’s an in-demand field that is a highly secure job that you don’t have to travel all over the universe to do it. And you can support a family with this career.”
Ellingson notes that Nexstar Network will be spending a lot of energy focusing on helping its members build out their NexTech Academy programs as well as get across the accreditation finish line with IACET.
“Our biggest thing is our members are the source for our curriculum,” he adds. “We spend a lot of energy trying to figure out what they need to help them grow their businesses.”