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Sunday, April 21, 2024

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Energy Kinetics Dealer Schools Teens


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The HVAC industry’s nationwide labor shortage is well documented, but maybe easiest to notice in less populous areas like northern Maine. According to a report from Stepwise Data Research, more than half the state’s contractors are over age 45, and a significant percentage are also over 55.

One reason for this has been a lack of exposure and training for teenagers. “The only place that has it on the high school level is Bangor, 120 miles away,” says David Harbison Jr., of Houlton. “In the whole stretch from Bangor to Fort Kent at the Maine-Canada border, none of the schools have ever had plumbing and heating programs.”

Harbison is the owner and president of Harbison Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning in his hometown of Houlton, Maine. His father, David A. Harbison Sr., founded the company as Harbison Plumbing and Heating in 1972. David Sr. passed away in 1986, at which point David Jr., who’d already been working with the company, took over and moved the business to a larger building. His son Jon Harbison has brought to the team a vast knowledge of air conditioning and now serves as general manager for the company, which is today known as Harbison Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning.

Long aware of the industry’s labor shortage, David Jr. had asked Houlton High School’s vocational partner, the Region Two School of Applied Technology, about starting up a training program on several occasions over the past 20 years. Things never quite clicked. However, Harbison’s last visit to the school proved fortuitous. Region Two Director Dave Keaton just so happened to be wondering the same thing as him: why wasn’t the school offering a heating and plumbing program?

The answer this time was a lack of space, a problem for which Harbison had a solution. His company occupied 7,500 square feet of a 25,000-square-foot building. They had renovated the facility and leased out most of the remaining space, but still had enough available for a classroom. Here, not only would students be able to get hands-on training in installing and repairing plumbing fixtures and heating equipment, but they’d also get to see how a company offering these services operates day-to-day. After checking out the facility, Keaton agreed that it would be a perfect fit.

Approaching retirement and looking to pass something down to the next generation of tradespeople, Harbison volunteered to be the program instructor. What formal training he lacked as a teacher, he could more than make up for with 45 years of professional experience, a clear passion for the job and selfless desire to give something back. Keaton again agreed, so the next step was to secure money for the program. There, they ran into a hiccup. In order for the state to fund a new vocational course, 60% of the student body had to show interest, but the survey that went out showed only about 15%.

Yet again, Harbison had a solution. Instead of the state footing the bill, he, Keaton, and rest of the program’s advisory board reached out to contractors, vendors and wholesalers operating in the region. “They’re all suffering the same labor dilemma,” Harbison reasoned, so why wouldn’t they want to support a program that could help pump new blood into the field? He was right. To date, they’ve raised over $10,000, including goods and materials — enough to get the course started as a pilot program this fall. Keaton has also been able to secure funding for the 2020-2021 school year.

In early August, Oil & Energy reached out to Harbison following a lead from Jim Pike of Energy Kinetics. The company has worked closely with Harbison Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning for decades, ever since Energy Kinetics’ founder John Marran and current president Roger Marran first drove up from New Jersey during a cold and snowy February to introduce the System 2000 — now Harbison’s best-selling boiler. Energy Kinetics has continued to be a big help for Harbison Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning on the training side as well, with dedicated technical support coming from Roger Mitchell, based in Union, Maine.

When we caught up, Harbison was putting together some worktables to be used once the school semester starts on September 3, 2019. Ten students have signed up for the 440-hour course and will be bussed to Harbison headquarters by the Region Two School of Applied Technology. The trade school offers vocational training to high school students from five districts, including a total of 48 towns and townships in the area. To help counter the stigma many young people here and elsewhere associate with plumbing, the class is being called the Mechanical Systems Technician Program, but a crash course in plumbing will cover the first half of the curriculum.

“I’ll have a lab set up where we’ll do some mockups, put some kitchen sinks together and learn everything from the names of the tools to the parts of the faucet,” Harbison says. “From there, I’ll dive into hybrid and conventional water heaters. It’ll be an intense 220 hours.” After the holiday season, the course will shift its focus to space-heating equipment, including oil- and gas-fired boilers, burners, and furnaces, as well as electric heat pumps and possibly solar and geothermal systems. Students “won’t just be looking at a picture in a book,” Harbison says. “We’ll take the jacket off the equipment and give them an overview of how everything inside works.”

In addition to working in a fully operational plumbing and heating service shop, students will have the opportunity to take field trips to some of Harbison’s biggest and most successful jobsites, like a major manufacturing plant where the company installed a total of 86 machines, including a 250-horsepower air compressor, and ran all of the facility’s coolant, air and water piping.

Harbison says that stepping into such a mechanical room is, for the seasoned tradesperson, like gazing at a fine work of art. And for students, he adds, the experience could be similarly enlightening. “That’s exposure to places they’ve never been,” Harbison says, “and some of the work we’ve done in this place is stuff you might never associate with plumbing and heating. I think there are kids out there who are techies, and this would be the right trade for them but they just don’t know it yet.”

Knowledge and exposure like this could provide just the spark those students need to take the next step in pursuing a career in the trades. “Whether it’s as a contractor or for a large mill that hires plumbing and heating techs,” Harbison sees plenty of opportunities available, and is eager to help the next generation see them too.


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