What You Learn from a Mentor Can Be Just as Valuable as Formal Training

In Articles by Scott Wilson

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When you ask the old hands what made their career a good one, a lot of them will mention the even older hands who helped them out along the way. Mentoring, it turns out, is as much a part of teaching new techs and installers about the HVAC profession as any training or apprenticeship program—and, if you talk to active HVAC professionals, many will tell you that what they learned from a mentor is an even more important part of their careers.

The apprentice/journeyman/master model is an ancient one, dating back to medieval times when guilds would indenture apprentices to master craftsmen to learn the arts of their trade.

Today, all union and many non-union HVAC jobs still work on an apprenticeship model, but much of the intimacy of the relationship between master and apprentice has been lost. The picture that many apprentices new to the industry have is that they will be assigned to a particular master or journeyman during their apprentice years, and work under their tutelage while learning the trade.

The reality is that modern supervision and contracting requirements are such that apprentices can end up working under many different journeymen or masters over the course of their apprenticeship. There is no guarantee that they will develop the sort of close, trusting partnership that characterized previous generations of masters and apprentices.

But although the practice of assigning each apprentice a designated mentor has fallen by the way, that doesn’t reduce the importance of mentorship in learning or advancing in the trade. And although it’s not something that is formally done, there’s no reason you can’t find a mentor—or, later, become one.

Individualized Instruction In the Unwritten Rules

A mentor is going to teach you the unwritten aspects of the trade – and the business. No trade school course will teach you how to delicately explain to a customer that their expensive, nearly new system that was installed two years ago is a pile of garbage and is never going to work properly in their home. Watching a master mechanic who has been handling customer service for twenty years is the only way to get the kind of experience it takes to manage such situations successfully. And that’s probably the same way that master learned it, following around an even older hand fifteen years in the past.

According to one retired HVAC foreman we talked to with more than thirty years in the industry under his belt…

“More than half of the things that I became proficient at, somebody mentored me in some way along the line.”

Unlike a classroom or even master-level supervision on the job, a mentor will get to know you in a way that can help them present concepts to you so you will get them. By understanding you, personally, they can spot your weak points and learn how your brain works. With their greater experience, they’ve probably seen things done or explained before in a way that you can latch onto. This provides the sort of personalized training that no classroom can match.

Mentorships don’t have to be conventional and they don’t have to be part of an apprenticeship program. You might even find yourself being mentored by someone who doesn’t even work for the same company.

Making a Friend in the Trade to Show You the Ropes

You’re on your own when it comes to finding someone to mentor you. But there are some things you can do to make it more likely to happen.

Respect is big in the trades. Coming in and acting like you know it all right out of school is a sure way to earn a terrible reputation, and possibly even an ass-chewing. Be prepared to pay your dues by handling the grunt-work without complaint for the first few years on the job. Give the old heads the respect they have earned and they’ll be more likely to give you the information you need.

Most prospective mentors like to work with guys who are engaged and interested in the job. If your motivation is low, they’ll feel that it’s a waste of their time to take you under their wing. Learn to ask questions and show interest.

“It’s important to be open to that, so you want to learn from somebody. Put out that desire to pick up information and pick up more knowledge and more skills.”

Good Mentors are Curious Lifelong Learners

Some people think that being a good mentor involves knowing everything there is to know about the trade, but that’s not necessarily the case. You don’t have to be the ultimate expert before you can give someone else a boost. In fact, something you consistently see in the best mentors is that they never lose that learning mindset themselves.

The retired foreman we talked to had this to say …

“They don’t assign you an apprentice. Instead, it’s a matter of chance and observation. “You will find somebody will be a guy that will always be looking to learn, always right there asking you questions. ‘Why are you doing it this way? How come this is the way to do it?’ They’re questioning the process.”

That’s how he ended up mentoring one of the new guys at his firm. And it’s a relationship that has lasted well past retirement—the two still talk regularly.

It’s hard to predict this sort of teamwork, of course. Whether the foreman made a great mentor because he stayed curious and kept an open mind throughout his career or because of some other innate talent is hard to say. But there are other things to suggest that staying curious is one of the keys to becoming a great mentor.

An article in Contracting Business in July of 2016 suggested that the most valuable advice for potential mentors is simply to pay attention. Watch what is happening around you; look for opportunities to use your wisdom and experience to help you. When a new technician keeps wiring up a control circuit incorrectly on a few different jobs, a mentor isn’t going to ignore it and fix the problem without saying anything, and he’s not going to chew the new guy out and humiliate him. Instead, a real mentor will quietly step in, ask a few questions, offer a few pointers, and patiently work with the apprentice until they get it right.

HVAC operations and service manager Kyle Buscher uses this subtle approach.

“I try and do some ridealongs, maybe once a week or once every two weeks with the guys. You know, when you have three callbacks on the same property a lot times I’ll work with the guys on the third time, make sure it’s done right.”

Being a Good Mentor Means Being a Good Friend

And Buscher had the same hand up when he was starting out. Another service tech in his company was a constant resource. “He said call me day or night, I could always call him on the phone.”

It’s also important to build trust. It’s always tempting to tell a few tales over beers at the kid’s expense, but sooner or later those stories get back to people. And even if they don’t, everyone you tell them to realizes they could be next. So even if it all seems to be in good fun, learn to keep things that people are sensitive about to yourself.

Let Apprentices Make Mistakes so They Can Learn From Them

You also have to be willing to let people make mistakes. Some guys think they are training apprentices by making the kid watch over their shoulder as they breeze through hooking up a compressor the right way, but all they are really doing is teaching the kid that someone else is going to do the hard parts. Even if it takes longer, you have to let guys get their hands dirty and screw things up.

Sure, you’re going to have to go back in and fix it later. But showing them how you fix it is the real learning process.

At the end, you may simply have helped out one guy on one job with a quick pointer, or you may have made a friend for life. In either case, says the retired foreman we talked to, it’s gratifying to watch someone you have mentored eventually come into their own in the industry.

“It’s a source of pride for me. I know I mentored him, I know I brought him along and helped him become what he is today.”