For Mike Feutz, mentoring students as they go through Ferris State University's HVACR program is his biggest accomplishment.

Mike Feutz comes from a family of sheet metal workers, not teachers. His chosen path was to follow in their footsteps and become a sheet metal worker. But recently he was named the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s 2008 Educator of the Year for his work with the HVACR students at Ferris State University (Big Rapids, Mich.). Much of that work was through the FSU student chapter of the Mechanical Service Contractors of America - the Greater Michigan MSCA Student Chapter - which won 2008 Student Chapter of the Year.

Feutz took a roundabout way to get where he is today - part of the faculty of the HVACR program at Ferris, which was started in 1945 to train World War II veterans for careers in refrigeration. Today, the program is well-known nationally and internationally for the quality of its graduates. (Until 2009, the program had a 99 percent placement rate. Feutz estimates about 60 percent placement this year.)

Visiting mechanical contracting firms to learn the business side of contracting is one of the activities that Mike Feutz coordinates for HVAC students.

After watching his father and grandfather make decent livings as sheet metal workers, Feutz took the sheet metal apprenticeship test in 1974 and passed. With a recession going on, however, no work was available.

He then enrolled in HVACR classes in Grand Rapids, Mich., and received his Associate’s degree in HVACR. He found employment and worked as a sheet metal worker in the field for 12 years. In 1989, he was asked to apply as an instructor for the sheet metal workers union’s apprenticeship program.

“I’d never thought of teaching before that,” Feutz recalls. “But I decided to take a shot at it.”

He became coordinator and instructor of the program that same year. He went through the union’s apprenticeship instructor program and was even asked to teach parts of those courses.

His education continued in the early 1990s as he worked toward his Bachelor’s degree in HVACR engineering technology through a Ferris satellite program in Grand Rapids while still coordinating the sheet metal apprenticeship program.

After obtaining his degree, he was encouraged to apply for a teaching position at Ferris. In May 1998, he started at Ferris not only as part of the faculty, but also as chair of the HVACR department, a position he has held until this summer.

Victor Ventimiglia (left) and Jamie Ambeau are appreciative of the mentoring and networking opportunities they have at Ferris State University's HVACR department.

Exceptional Educator

Feutz was nominated as Educator of the Year by the HVACR students he teaches and interacts with. His son Dave is enrolled in the Ferris HVACR program and helped get the appropriate paperwork filed with MCAA for his dad’s nomination. (He also helped nominate his chapter for student chapter of the year.)

MCAA selects the Educator of the Year based on a combination of mentoring ability, industry knowledge and involvement, and active participation in student chapter activities.

Interviews with Dave and two other students - Victor Ventimiglia and Jamie Ambeau (2008-2009 student chapter secretary) - revealed the reasons Ferris student chapter members nominated Mike Feutz as the best educator. They say he is very involved with the student chapter, and he facilitates many of the opportunities the students have to network with mechanical contractors and learn more about the industry.

This includes having contractors make on-campus visits to discuss the mechanical industry, students attending industry meetings and conventions, and off-site visits to see ongoing projects or learn about the business side of contracting. Ventimiglia, Ambeau and Dave Feutz agree that the networking and scholarship opportunities, as well as exploring career possibilities in union and nonunion firms, are “big plusses” as student chapter members.

“The whole goal of the student chapter is to get students exposed to people and projects so they know what the industry is about,” Mike Feutz explains. “It’s about getting out of the classrooms and getting into the real world of mechanical contracting.”

Giving back to the community is encouraged, and chapter members regularly participate in the HEATS ON program (Handicapped and Elderly Assistance To Service Our Neighbors), which provides free home heating equipment tune-ups to elderly and disadvantaged homeowners before the heating season begins. Homeowners are provided with free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and if a furnace is found to be faulty and must be replaced, a new one is installed for free.

Ferris MSCA student chapter members visit a project site at the University of Michigan.

At the start of the school year in September, Feutz will be a full-time faculty member. One of the advantages Feutz sees in his changed position at the university is that he’ll have more time to teach and to interact with students as student chapter advisor. His role as department chair didn’t leave him as much time as he would have liked with the students.

“I came to Ferris to teach, not be an administrator,” he says. “It’s fun to watch students go through the transition of growing up and know that I helped them along the way.”

The Ferris HVACR program is very interactive, giving students plenty of hands-on experience with equipment and tools, including hydronic and radiant heating systems. Students can work toward a two-year Associate in Applied Science degree in HVACR Technology, or a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in HVACR Engineering Technology.

Classrooms and labs are housed in The Granger Center, a 75,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility for the HVACR and construction trades. All piping, ductwork and mechanical equipment is exposed throughout the building and color-coded to help in the teaching process.

Mike Feutz and Ferris HVAC students visit the San Andreas fault line while attending the 2008 MCAA convention in California.

Attitude Adjustment

When Feutz talks about the future of education in this industry, he’s talking about more than training materials and donated equipment. He’s talking about the attitude the public has for blue-collar jobs.

“Apprenticeship programs are phenomenal,” he notes, “but there is pressure to reduce spending in career-tech programs.”

Vocational schools around the country used to teach plumbing/heating/cooling, auto mechanics, etc., yet many of these schools are shutting their doors. A number of high schools are shutting down shop classes as well.

“There’s no shortcut to training,” he says. “Research has shown that lectures are the worst way to teach, yet that is how our education system teaches students today. The hands-on training acquired through apprenticeship and career-tech programs is a very valuable component of the education of the trades.”

Feutz explains that, at one time, doctors and nurses were trained through hands-on vocational classes.

“Government has recognized throughout history the need to train for specific jobs, that a generic liberal arts education isn’t appropriate for everyone,” he says. “But in recent years, funding for these types of programs has been scarce.”

The Granger Center, which houses Ferris' HVACR department, has exposed, color-coded piping.

Feutz is heartened by President Barack Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, which calls for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020, the creation of a community college grant program, and the creation of an online skills laboratory for Web-based instruction. An influx of resources into community colleges could result in additional educational opportunities for those interested in the trades.

But funding is not the only thing needed in the industry - it needs workers. And recruiting young people into the trades is a difficult job.

“What we need in this country is a change in attitude toward blue-collar jobs,” Feutz says.

And that’s something PM readers can help with - by mentoring a plumbing or heating student at your local community college or vocational center; showing up at your son’s or daughter’s career day to talk about your job; or encouraging your own children if they express an interest in working in construction or another trade.