Union Training Tackles HVAC Labor Shortage
July 9, 2007
HAZLET, N.J. - For the past several years HVACR contractors across the United States have struggled to find and retain good service technicians. For some, the struggles continue to get worse and they are hamstrung in their efforts to line up new projects or complete existing projects on time. It is nothing new - finding and retaining qualified techs annually appears in the top three on lists of HVACR contractors’ business concerns.
On top of that, there still are some misconceptions about the trade from the outside world. “There are people who believe in the concept that the HVACR trade is a dumping ground for people who don’t go to college,” said Nick Sapnar, president of Sunnyfield Corp., Eatontown, N.J., and president of Mechanical Contractors Association of New Jersey (MCANJ). “There is no room for that concept here.”
“Here” is one part of the United States where there seems to be no shortage of well-trained techs. In fact, there is no shortage of people who want to be well-trained techs.
The United Association of New Jersey (UANJ) has been welcoming young people to their union apprenticeship training facility in Hazlet, N.J., where apprentices study hands-on and classroom HVAC and refrigeration courses over a five-year training program. The Edward R. Gehm Training Center was dedicated in 1990 and there are currently 270 students in the program.
“This is the state-of-the-art training facility for union techs in New Jersey,” said Alan O’Shea, MCANJ executive director.
The five-year apprenticeship period is divided into one-year segments, each of which includes 1,700 to 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and a minimum of 160 hours of related classroom instruction. UANJ apprentices attend school for classroom, computer, and shop instruction for a full eight-hour day every two weeks, and work for a signatory HVACR contractor for on-the-job training the other nine days.
For enrollment into the 2008 apprenticeship program, there will be openings for 200 applicants, which are equally divided between four local N.J. unions: UA Locals 9, 274, 322, and 475. Annually, that number may vary.
“The number of positions that are open in the school are based on the demand from the contractors,” said O’Shea. He added that there are currently 85 member companies and 250 other union contractors that MCANJ represents.
Once each applicant provides the required documents, their application is reviewed and accepted or rejected by the 10 education committee members. Finding the applicants does not seem to be much of a problem.
“We have not had any recruitment problems in our locals,” said Tom Manning, business manager for the Steamfitters Pipefitters & Apprentices Local Union 475. “The real problem has been with the outside world and what they think of our industry.”
WHAT APPRENTICES CAN EXPECTIn return for their enrollment in the apprenticeship training, which is paid for by union dues and member contractors, students can expect to earn $30,000 in their first year, along with medical benefits, and membership in pension and annuity funds. They can expect automatic raises through their negotiated contracts and often drive company- supplied vehicles.
“That’s pretty significant,” said O’Shea. “And this is only a baseline wage, not including overtime. Their training can be applied to college credits, too.”
Apprentices not only learn mechanical skills and theory, including basic refrigeration, basic electricity, and math, they also learn about soft skills, i.e. sales training and about Occupational, Safety, and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.
But not everyone is cut out to be a union apprentice, which in the long run, really benefits union contractor members. By the third year of the training, there is at least a 20 percent attrition rate, and MCANJ contractors have a zero tolerance policy toward bad driving records and drug use.
Employees are initially and randomly tested throughout their apprenticeship to ensure compliance with zero tolerance policies.
Manning said that some applicants choose the apprenticeship training “because they heard there are high-paying jobs in HVACR.”
But he noted, “In our trade, education is never over. And you have the opportunity to advance to other career positions.”
One contractor, Manny Santos of United Cooling & Refrigeration (UCR), Roselle, N.J., and MCANJ board member, said that he takes an active role in the ongoing education of his apprentices. “I check up on what they are doing,” he said. “I often take them to dinner to show how much I care about their careers.”
Not only do MCANJ contractors support careers of their apprentices and journeymen, they also support the professionalism of the HVACR trade and what it can mean to customers. These contractors have begun to encourage their techs to become MSCA STAR certified.
MSCA STAR is an achievement designation for service excellence awarded to an elite group of mechanical service contractors by the Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA). MSCA STAR companies have demonstrated they offer commercial business and facilities customers unsurpassed support, quality workmanship, and safe and reliable service.
In order for a company to achieve MSCA STAR certification, 25 percent of its technicians must be MSCA STAR certified.
“We are promoting this certification program very heavily,” said O’Shea. “We want to have at least a dozen contractors that are certified before our big advertising push for the program.”
The UANJ apprenticeship program is doing well because of its commitment to ongoing training and the level of professionalism among its members - two strong reasons why problems of recruitment and retention are almost unheard of in this part of the Northeast. Santos’ company is a good microcosm of this story.
“When we bought UCR in 1987, it was a non-union company,” he said. “And there was no formalized training in the non-union sector. There were no good sources for service techs. That isn’t true any more.”
If the model works in New Jersey, it might work in other parts of the United States as well, which might resurrect interest in the HVACR trade among young people. As Sapnar noted, “In our program, apprentices and journeymen can go as far as they want to go.”
Visit www.uanj.org for more information on the apprenticeship training program. For information on the MSANJ, visit www.mcanj.org and for MSCA Star Certification visit www.msca.org.
Sidebar: Tech Experiences Both SidesJames Macario has seen both sides of the union and non-union HVACR contracting world. The view is pretty good from his side now, as a union journeyman working as a service technician for Monsen Engineering Co., Fairfield, N.J., Macario works for The NEWS’ contractor consultant Jeff Somers.
Macario went through apprenticeship training with the United Association of New Jersey (UANJ) at its Edward R. Gehm Training Center beginning in his third year. He became a journeyman in 2003 and has worked for Monsen Engineering since 2001.
Prior to his apprenticeship training, Macario worked for a non-union contractor. “When I went to work for Monsen, I couldn’t believe the difference in wages that a third-year apprentice was making compared to non-union shops,” he said.
But Macario said that not everyone can get as lucky as him. “It is tough to get into a union training program,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have field knowledge to test into the apprenticeship program at third-year level.”
He acknowledges that there is a lot of physical work involved but the good far outweighs the not-so-good. “I like the freedom I have,” he said. “I don’t have to report to my boss every day. And I’m not going to the same places every day - it doesn’t get boring. It is far different from working in a cubicle.”
“Days like today are great. The weather is perfect for working on a rooftop.”
The weather wasn’t the only good thing that Macario had to talk about. He also has good things to say about the union shop. “There is never a question about the pay rates for a person with my training,” he said. “We always know when we are getting a raise because of our contract. The benefits are very good, too. The union is always looking out for our best interests.”
CHOOSING A CAREER PATH
Macario noted that he wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do after graduating from high school. He worked in retail sales for a while but knew that wasn’t going to be his career. “Anybody can stock a shelf or run a cash register,” he said. “These people are easily replaceable.
“Now mechanics, well, good ones are hard to find.”
As a child, Macario said he was a handyman at home, playing around with wiring and plumbing. But he didn’t know much about HVAC.
He attended local votech school Lincoln Tech and went into residential HVAC service. Once he left to start his apprenticeship training, Macario knew he had found his niche. “If you are going to do this [HVAC work] for a living, then being a union technician for a commercial service company is definitely the way to go,” he said.
Macario likes the knowledge that he is in a business where his employment is secure and the possibility of layoffs is very slim. “If I wanted to collect unemployment I could collect it,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be because of the shortage of work that is available.”
Macario acknowledged that the working conditions aren’t always the best. But he enjoys working at Monsen and the perks that come with the job. “At the end of the day, nobody wants to get dirty,” he said. “So what? I have a blue collar job and make a good living at it.”
That attitude will probably keep Macario in the HVAC field for the foreseeable future, although he doubts it will include a career of field work. “I’m hoping that one day I will get the opportunity to take on a supervisory or management position,” he said. “ When you’re older, this work can take a toll on you.”
“By then, I would be better suited for a field supervisor position, or possibly sales.”
Since part of Macario’s job involves some type of selling, he is certainly getting a lot of on-the-job-training. “Technicians actually propose extensive repairs to equipment to customers,” he said. “If I see a bad compressor on a rooftop unit, I’ll recommend its replacement and follow through with the repair.”
For now, Macario is right where he wants to be, which is anywhere but an office.
Sidebar: MSCA BrochureROCKVILLE, Md. - A new brochure illustrating the benefits of a career as an HVACR technician is now available from the Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA).
The “A 5 STAR Career in the HVACR Service Industry” brochure provides guidance counselors and school administrators with an overview of the HVACR service industry as an attractive and rewarding profession. The growing need for HVACR service technicians is illustrated along with long-range industry need and employment opportunities.
In addition, the brochure covers technician attributes, work performed by HVACR service technicians and opportunities for career advancement and skills development. How aspiring HVACR technicians can attain training, college credits, and industry certification is also covered.
The brochure is part of 5 STAR Careers, a new campaign from MSCA and the United Association of the Plumbing, Pipefitting and Sprinkler Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada (the UA), to raise awareness for a career as a HVACR service technician. MSCA and the UA recognize the need for new service technicians and created 5 STAR Careers to recruit the next generation of technicians and to enable experienced technicians to maximize their career potential.
To receive a copy of the brochure or for more information, visit the 5 STAR Careers Website at www.5STARCareers.com or e-mail MSCA at email@example.com.
Sidebar: Special Skills NeededFor young people entering apprenticeship training in the Detroit area, the key to success is going above and beyond being average. According to some area contractors, the need is great for the specialized skills and leadership-management. That’s where someone can set themselves apart from others in the same field.
“There aren’t enough skilled young people in our trade,” said John O’Neil of the W.J. O’Neil Co., Livonia, Mich. His company works with Pipefitters, Steamfitters, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Local 636 in Farmington Hills, Mich. He added that people with the desire to move up in the trade can be very successful. “Some people would rather be a cog in a wheel and not assume leadership,” he said. “There are many opportunities for those who wish to step up.”
Todd Hill of Ventcon, Allen Park, Mich., said that there are good career paths available. Ventcon works with the Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 in Warren, Mich. Hill, who began his career as a “tin knocker” said that there is a great need for people with computer-aided design (CAD) skills.
Along with CAD skills, the successful apprentices will have good people skills, too. “Service techs have a good deal of independence,” said Hill. “The job involves a lot of self-motivation and customer relations skills are very important.”
If a service tech likes what he does, it shows in front of the customer. O’Neil said that most techs he has met fit that category. “Most service techs I know love their job,” he said.
The working conditions often dictate the love of the job, e.g., working face-to-face with customers every day or not seeing the customers at all. Mary Marble of the J.A. Marble Co., Beverly Hills, Mich. and NEWS’ contractor consultant, said there is a big difference in the work done in service and new construction. “They are totally different animals,” she said. “The life of a service tech includes being in different places all of the time - a lot of variety.”
Not everyone who wants to be a service tech or installer gets to be a service tech or installer. For example, apprenticeship training for Local 636 involves a written exam for entry, which O’Neil said usually eliminates a good number of the applicants.
After that point each are given a separate face-to-face interview and the candidates are selected from that pool of talent. “It is a real investment to bring someone into this program,” he said. “So we have to be sure we get the right people.”
O’Neil is confident in the union’s ability to find and train people with special skills, so much so that he would like to see a 50 percent increase in the training available at the Local 636 Pipefitting Industry Training Center.
For young people with a desire to stand out from the crowd, a career in the pipefitting or sheet metal trades in the Detroit area can be promising and rewarding. As Marble said, “You can make a good living in this business.”
For more information on Local 636, visit www.pipefitters636.org. For more information on Local 80, visit www.smw80jac.org.
Publication date: 07/09/2007