Online Training Takes Off Amid Social Distancing

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According to Robert O’Brien, owner at Technical Heating Co., in Mount Sinai, NY, he’s currently spending 80 percent less time working than usual. With New York appearing to be ground zero of the US COVID-19 threat, the company – and many other HVAC and mechanical contracting firms in the area – is responding to emergency calls only. Not that many customers are inviting technicians into their homes for anything less than an emergency anyhow.

O’Brien has made use of the time, though, in part by attending online training hosted by a wide variety of suppliers in the heating industry. No time like the present to sharpen the axe.

Over the past six weeks, he has logged in to webinars hosted by no less than a dozen manufacturers. O’Brien is learning for his own sake, but he’s also a NORA consultant, and wants to stay abreast of the issues, techniques and technologies affecting the industry as a whole. In the process, he’s found that some companies excel at online presentations, while others still have progress to make.

“I think the biggest pitfall for manufacturers is to turn online training into a sales pitch,” said O’Brien. “Also, our attention spans aren’t so short that a webinar can only be 20 minutes long. If I’m going block time out of my schedule, it may as well be worthwhile. The best, most compelling webinars are interesting, insightful and maybe even entertaining.

“I’m not usually a fan of webinars, but given the circumstances, there’s not much choice,” he continued. “I’ve been watching the Taco After Dark series of presentations and, without a doubt, it’s by far the best I’ve come across. Having incredibly talented trainers helps, but they’ve done a few other things right, too.” The content for these webinars comes from Taco’s full-day hydronic courses, broken into one-hour segments.

O’Brien thinks that the Wednesday night Taco After Dark series has been able to capture and hold the attention of hundreds of attendees each week for several reasons. The webinar is hosted by, increasing its visibility, and its format keeps people coming back.

“Taco After Dark is presented by John Barba, Dave Holdorf and Rick Mayo,” said O’Brien. “There’s back-and-forth discourse between these guys, so the content is conversational instead of feeling like a lecture.  Also important, viewers can see the presenters. The entire screen isn’t filled up with a graph or an image.  This lets you stay connected to what’s being said.  Boring webinars, on the other hand, take too much effort on the part of the viewer to remain engaged.”

The Taco After Dark series is one of several online training platforms currently offered by the company, including Taco Tuesdays and personalized webinars, the latter being available for reps, wholesalers, and their customers.

Taco Tuesday is a weekly webinar hosted each Tuesday at noon EST. The webinar alternates between residential and commercial topics. John Barba and Dave Holdorf host the residential webinars while Rich Medairos and Brett Zerba host the commercial webinars. These webinars last about an hour, with roughly 15 minutes dedicated to Q&A.  More than 1,500 attendees have been signed up for a single session.

“Our goal with these training sessions is to learn, socialize and have fun in an otherwise difficult time,” said Holdorf, who appears in the webinars wearing a suit and ascot necktie. “It’s always lighthearted and the feedback has been fantastic.”

Taco’s current online courses aren’t the company’s first attempt at providing online education. Far from it. Taco was an early adopter with FloPro University, beginning in 2009. They’ve been conducting webinars since 2010, all of which are archived on the Taco website. The company has provided a steady stream of online learning opportunities since; over 40,000 people have gone through one of the 12 available programs.

It’s not Mechanical-Hub’s first online education rodeo, either. They also feature Shop Talk on Monday evenings. Their Beyond The Service show on its YouTube channel helps small business owners run successful firms, and they’ve provided content online via Jobsites Plus+, Hub on the Road visits and ProStaff team reviews.

“We’ve pursued online training opportunities more aggressively since the virus showed early signs of escalating,” said John Mesenbrink, Mechanical-Hub president and director of editorial content. “In late January, I reached out to our manufacturer partners, telling them to use as a resource,” he said. “Several responded quickly, and the turnout has been great.”

“I think the success of our current online training platforms—with more than 7,000 trained over the past five weeks—is revealing of two things,” said Barba.  “Of course contractors have more time right now than usual, but there’s no doubt that we, as instructors, are finding better ways to engage the audience and present the material online. And, participants are becoming better online learners.”

“I’ve been asked if this is ‘the new normal’ for all manufacturer training,” continued Barba. “Definitely not. Online training will never completely replace classroom training. This business has a major hands-on element, and a human element.  Relationships are so vital to the trade, and it’s much harder to build those through a computer screen. Though, under the circumstances, we’re doing the best we can.”