Whatcom company creates its own trained workforce with technician school
Hiring qualified workers remains tough in construction trades, but one Whatcom company is finding success by offering to pay people to go to school while on the job.
Last fall Barron Heating & Air Conditioning started the Barron Technician School. The school trains employees in a variety of fields, including for heating and cooling, electrical and plumbing jobs. While they are learning and do entry-level work, the students are paid about $16 an hour. Once trained, wages can be in the $45-an-hour range.
So far, 24 students have officially completed the 12 core classes, said Brad Barron, who led the development of the school. The school is at the company’s headquarters at 5100 Pacific Highway and has a separate classroom and lab area where students work on projects.
Getting through those core classes opens the door to a variety of fields, making it possible for a person in their early- to mid-20s to make a living wage while their peers are graduating four-year universities, possibly saddled with student loans, Barron said.
Four-year colleges are a great opportunity for many people, he said, adding that high school students don’t hear as often that a career in the construction trades is also an attractive option.
“We just want to build awareness to the fact that you don’t have to go to a four-year college to have a good career,” Barron said.
Barron Heating got into the training business because it couldn’t find enough qualified workers. The company has 150 employees but is trying to add more to keep up with the demand for its services. With warmer and smokier summers in Whatcom County, air conditioning and ventilation solutions are becoming priorities in local homes, Barron said. They have had a hard time hiring to fill those new jobs.
“You have to have skilled people to do this kind of work; it takes specialized training,” he said.
Technician school makes for quick career change
Jonathan Frey wanted to start his career without spending a lot of time and money on education. Frey, 24, went to Bellingham Technical College after high school and was trained in instrumentation. Now he’s completed the core classes and is doing refrigeration work for Barron.
He was hired for a job at an engineering firm even before he was finished BTC. While it was a good, well-paying office job, Frey soon realized he wanted to work outside an office. In thinking about his next career move, he wanted to work in a job that probably wouldn’t disappear because of automation. That got him thinking about installation and repair work.
He explained his situation to Barron Heating owner John Barron, who suggest several career directions he could take at Barron. It did involve a pay cut initially, but Frey said it was a great move for him as he works to become a lead on service and repair projects.
The training and the company investment also made him more apt to stick with the Barron company.
“From my perspective, they took a chance on me,” Frey said, noting that he couldn’t recall a company making this kind of offer. “It’s my turn to give back to the company.”