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From tech to teacher: Steve Milbrook has been working on furnaces and heat pumps his whole adult life. Now, as training manager for SMO, he helps other people, new helpers and seasoned technicians alike, learn to work on them, too.

Milbrook started his career straight out of high school, as a helper with Besche Oil Co. in Waldorf. Over 33 years, he progressed “from helper to service technician to installer to service manager to operations manager,” his title in July, when SMO bought out most of the Besche business. SMO kept him on to run the Shymansky Institute, SMO’s La Plata teaching facility, named for a retired longtime employee.

“Today, I’ve got the luxury of being a trainer. I can take what I’ve learned out here, over the years, and be able to share that with our guys, our personnel. And then I’ve always enjoyed learning about the new technology and being able to share that, as well,” he said.

Milbrook has mastered the technical side of his trade, but teaching required a new set of skills, he said. Not only did he have to keep up with a variety of new technologies, but he had to learn how to show them to people who knew far less than he did.

“You have to learn, and you’re constantly learning, the skills of being able to communicate,” Milbrook said. “It’s basically, you’ve got to be able to put it in words, yet put it in layman’s terms so it’s understandable to someone who may not quite understand what you’re trying to teach them.”

But at least he can marshal the resources of the Shymansky Institute, which has 29 working heating and air-conditioning units permanently installed for students to practice on. There’s “no comparison” between it and the facilities of other companies, Milbrook said. “Most places have a little, small room with one or two pieces that they switch out.”

Changing times: Once, furnaces and heat pumps didn’t change much; the technology remained basically the same from year to year. But in recent years, an emphasis on energy efficiency has made the units more complex, Milbrook said.

He keeps up with shifts in technology by attending manufacturers’ demonstrations and by reading technical documentation.

One advance has been “two-stage” heat pumps, which contain two compressors of different capabilities. It’s more efficient because the smaller, thriftier one can run most of the time, with the larger one taking over as necessary.

“With variable speed equipment, the motor ramps up and down depending on what the sensors are sending back; the thermostat, the controller is telling it what to do,” Milbrook said.

People also now have the ability to control their thermostats remotely, introducing new circuitry into existing technology, he said.

“There’s been a lot of movement on humidifiers, UV lights as well as air cleaners. We’ve also got people who’ve got the capability of going on the Internet from their office or out on the street and turning the air conditioning up or down or the heat up or down. That technology didn’t exist a few years ago,” Milbrook said.

SMO’s workers need to understand it all, and it’s his responsibility to make sure they do.

“If it’s going to be installed, if we don’t install it, somebody else does. And we walk in there and have to work on it or be able to work on it, I should say,” Milbrook said.

His students enjoy learning about the new machines.

“Both groups,” new workers and experienced technicians, “really enjoy putting their hands on in the training center so they’re prepared to go into the customer’s home, the client’s home, and meeting their needs. They enjoy having a lot of hands-on training,” he said.

Unexpected is rare: Most calls are routine, but there are a few surprises, Milbrook said.

“The only thing I remember being unusual is one time having to go out to a service call. I found flying squirrels in the oil furnace,” he recalled. “I put on some big leather gloves and opened up the unit. It came out of the unit, out of the flue pipe, and out the door.”


Got an idea for someone to profile in On the job? Send your suggestions to Angela Breck at or 7 Industrial Park Drive, Waldorf, MD 20602. Call 301-764-2847.