INDEPENDENCE, Va. — The future need for qualified HVACR techs is outpacing the demand for other skilled trades. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for skilled HVACR technicians is projected to grow 13% from 2018 to 2028. While this is a big concern for the industry, the good news is that many school districts are seeking to help fill this gap by providing hands-on vocational learning for their students.

One such school district lies in Grayson County, Virginia, in the southwestern part of the state. A small community surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, Grayson County High School has an enrollment of 466 students. The school district provides a traditional academic curriculum and also offers a variety of project-based learning programs through its Career & Technical Education (CATE) Center.

From 1969 until 1980, the high school offered an air conditioning and refrigeration class but hasn’t offered technical instructions in these fields since then. Recently, Grayson County CATE Center hired Chris Crooke, an HVACR professional with more than 20 years of trade industry experience, who began a new program to introduce students to these fields. In the fall of 2019, he began teaching the trades to 11 students using an online training curriculum.

“My goal is to equip these kids with the knowledge they need to get more than just a job,” said Crooke, who owned and operated his own heating and air conditioning business for more than 10 years. “I want to provide them with a ladder of opportunity to climb into a lifelong career.”

Crooke and the school created a new, 2,500-square-foot space that includes four specially crafted workstations. Unfortunately, upon completion, the space remained incomplete as the district did not have the budget for tools, equipment, and consumables.

“We are in rural Appalachia, and there is not a lot of school money available for materials for these types of programs,” said Crooke. “I utilized my relationships with a few local HVAC companies to acquire some basic used tools and equipment. The only tools I purchased initially were basic electrical hand tools for service tool bags.”

Local distributors suggested to Crooke that a manufacturer might offer direct discounts to the school, so he contacted the Harris Products Group. Harris Products, a manufacturer of equipment and alloys used in brazing, soldering, welding, cutting, heating, and gas control, serves the HVACR and plumbing markets. It also manages the retail division of Lincoln Electric, its parent company.

Harris responded to Crooke’s request with a donation of portable torch kits, air fuel torches, gloves, goggles, and brazing and soldering alloys.

In November 2019, Timothy Reading, group district manager, Harris Products Group, traveled to Grayson County to set up the equipment and provided numerous product demonstrations.

“Harris Products Group understands the critical need to train students so they have brazing and soldering skills to meet employer needs and for our country to remain globally competitive,” said Reading. “There’s a lot for these students to learn about brazing and soldering including how to set up the best flame, how to choose which alloys to use, and how to make sure the alloys and metal of the pipe fuse together properly so there are no leaks. We’re happy to help them to develop these skills, so they can use them properly and safely.”

Crooke is confident that the creation of this program and the donation of the necessary resources will have far-reaching benefits as they prepare them for good paying jobs in and around the area.

“We are very grateful to Harris for giving our students a head start in developing the skills that are very much in demand,” he said. “Their donations are an investment in our school and our community that will have long-term positive results on future generations as they serve HVACR industries.”