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Been there, (shoulda) learned that

November 2012

They say experience is the best teacher, and hindsight is 20-20. No matter how you put it, the world seems to agree that time on the job teaches us a lot.

That’s why, when Fluke wanted to know what skills and tools would be most valuable to someone starting out, we asked experienced professionals: the readers of Fluke News Plus.

In July we asked readers to voice their views on these three quick questions:

  • What measurements does someone starting in your field today need to take?
  • What skills do you wish you had when you started working?
  • What tool do you wish you’d learned to use?

To sweeten the deal, we entered participants in a drawing to win a Fluke C550 Premium Toolbag. And from across the world, some 45 electricians, HVAC technicians, electrical engineers and technicians shared their views on what they wished they’d learned and used when they got their start.

A global group of experts

Of our respondents, more than one in three (35 percent) listed their field as electrician - most with a sub-specialty such as industrial/commercial electrician, service electrician, maintenance electrician, or lighting electrician. Seven (16 percent) said they work in heating, ventilation, air conditioning or refrigeration (HVAC/R) installation, commissioning or maintenance. Six of our professionals (13 percent) listed engineering as their job: utility system engineer, automotive controls engineer, design engineer, test systems engineer and industrial chief engineer. Several work at least part time as instructors. This was an impressive group.

If you are new here, know this…

Most of our expert team agreed that someone starting out in their field must be able to measure the basics of electricity: voltage, current (amps) and resistance (ohms). Some 33 of our experts - nearly three out of four - mentioned one or more of these electrical characteristics, and most cited all three. Others added voltage drop and low voltage to the list, while some cited ac/dc voltage.

Not surprisingly, their professional specialties help determine what measurements the pros think are important. Rob, a fire maintenance tech and maintenance electrician from the USA, said that measuring dc 24-48 volts, dc millivolts, ohm readings on end-of-line devices, supervisory voltages, and continuity on field wiring are all required for success in his field. Antonio, a vibration analyst in the Philippines, said an understanding of vibration displacements is what’s needed. Orson, a commercial HVAC technician from the US, said measuring temperature and pressure are baseline skills.

We also asked survey participants to look back at their own careers, and say what skills they wish they’d had when starting out. Again, many cited the basics: “better math,” said Kenneth, a cathodic protection technician from the US. “Better computer skills,” said Paul, manager of technical operations in a Canadian electronics manufacturing/marketing company. “How to use a multimeter,” said Michael, a commercial office electrician in the US. He was one of several who said they started out with a deficit in taking basic measurements. For Orson, the HVAC technician, it was “troubleshooting skills, how to take measurements and accurately determine what the readings are trying to tell me.” Systems technician Wain said he would have preferred to start with “on-the-job experience.” Wouldn’t we all.

Others wished they’d started out with higher skills and deeper understanding. “Low-voltage circuits and the programming behind it,” said Donald, a commercial HVAC tech. RK, a utility system engineer in India, mentioned “system lay-outs, troubleshooting in process and instruments, plant performance analysis techniques.” And Robert, an electrician, inspector and instructor in the US, said he wished he’d started out “understanding ‘ghost voltages’ that show up on meters.”

Shoulda…coulda…

As respondents looked back to the start of their careers, they voiced some clear ideas about what tools they wished they had learned to use before they entered the job market. Standing at the top of the list, cited by 13 of the pros (29 percent) in our survey: the portable oscilloscope.

But nine people - one in five - said they wished they had started out knowing how to use an even more basic test tool: the digital multimeter (DMM). “I wish, in a perfect world, I would have made the jump from an analog (brand X) to my digital DMM before having to learn on the fly how to use it effectively,” said Donald, an HVAC tech in the US. “I also would have been better equipped had I bought a Fluke first and had the benefit of the online training that is available today.”

Next, with four mentions, was the megohmmeter (insulation tester), followed by the power quality meter, cited by three respondents. Other baseline tools mentioned were the vibration analyzer (two mentions), laser distance meter (two mentions) phase rotation indicator, thermal imager, spectrum analyzer, and vacuum leak detector.

As with any such group, our team of experts included at least one big thinker. Jim, an American pro in facility maintenance, said the most important tool of all is the one he wished he’d learned to use before he entered the job market.

That tool: “my mind.”