News / Training & Education

Critical Skills Gap Still Widening

October 10, 2011
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Even though the worst recession in recent memory officially ended in June 2009, the unemployment rate has remained above 9 percent, and jobs have not bounced back as quickly as anticipated. One of the reasons for that, noted the not-for-profit organization, ACT (www.act.org), is that a significant segment of today’s labor force does not have the requisite skills that employers demand.

This information probably does not come as a surprise to HVAC contractors, many of whom have complained for years that it is extremely difficult to find skilled workers to fill job openings. There is plenty of blame to go around as some point the finger at high schools, trade schools, or the contractors themselves. Many in the industry have ideas on what can be done differently to ensure there is a larger pool of well-educated, skilled service technicians ready to enter the workforce.

Mind The Gap

There are many opinions floating around concerning why there are not enough skilled individuals entering the HVAC industry. Some blame contractors, noting that they need to pick up the slack on training if they want a reputation for providing quality work.

In addition, some say contractors themselves do not promote the trade, as they often discourage family members from entering the industry, because the work can be difficult and dangerous.

Some blame the schools, saying high schools place far too little emphasis on the value of blue collar work, and trade schools paint an unrealistic earning potential for service technicians entering the field. In addition, some believe high schools do a poor job teaching students the basics (e.g., math, reading, problem solving), while trade schools do not cover the more advanced HVAC technology currently available. Some blame the individuals entering the industry, saying that the younger generation is motivated by money alone, and they do not see the value in working hard in order to build a career in the HVAC industry.

Stephen Schmid, vice president, Interstate Plumbing and Air Conditioning LLC, Las Vegas, noted that most new service technicians not only do not have the basic skills he’s looking for, they also expect a large paycheck right off the bat. “I expect new hires to be able to read electrical diagrams, understand equipment sequence of operation, and have some proficiency in troubleshooting. Instead, I see people apply with no experience and tell me they expect to be paid $60,000 to $80,000 immediately, as that was what their instructors told them they would make as a service technician. Based on this, I believe many students aren’t serious about making this a career but rather a chance to make some money quickly.”

Ray Grimm, president, A.W.E. (Air, Water, Energy) Inc., Carol Stream, Ill., is not sure what the schools are telling graduates about starting salaries, but he has found that the younger generation is more motivated by money and not necessarily a career. “They are working for one reason and that’s for money, which in my opinion, is different than the way it was 30 years ago. Back then, we worked to become skilled technicians first, then we expected to receive financial compensation for our growth.”

Aside from unrealistic salary expectations, the technical training received at some trade schools can also be problematic. When interviewing recent trade school graduates, Adam Gloss, vice president, Bel Red Energy Solutions, Mukilteo, Wash., often finds the training is either focused too much on book knowledge and theory with too little practical experience, or it is too hands-on and does not provide enough understanding of the fundamentals. “This is sometimes exacerbated by a bias towards commercial applications in these programs. Subsequently, these new graduates do not have the broad knowledge required to work on residential equipment.”

Darrick Philp, service manager, Bel Red Energy Solutions, added that the training students receive from the school can also just be inadequate. “Sometimes we find the schools rushing through their programs and not verifying the students have mastered the subject material. After a short time, it is evident these new technicians may lack even a basic understanding of electricity, the combustion process, or how refrigeration works. This is disappointing because instead of focusing on advanced skills, we must start training from scratch.”

It’s not just recent trade school graduates who are missing the technical skills; contractors often see seasoned technicians lacking those abilities as well. “While technicians can have years of ‘experience,’ they often lack a basic understanding of the underlying principles needed to diagnose, repair, or commission equipment,” said Gloss. “They have learned a way to do things based on repeating a pattern they’ve observed, and unfortunately, it is often not the right way.”

Some experienced technicians have also failed to keep their skills and knowledge current, noted Philp. “When they come to us, they may lack some certifications or licenses that, while not required at one time, now are. They typically have more than enough job experience and work hours to qualify for the required licenses or certifications, but for one reason or another have not obtained them.”

Soft On Skills

While the lack of technical skills can be a problem, a good attitude and people skills — so-called soft skills — are other attributes that contractors often find missing in job applicants. “Some individuals seem to have gotten into the industry because they like to fix things, and they don’t like interacting with people,” said Greg Benua, manager of human resources, Atlas Butler Heating & Cooling, Columbus, Ohio. “This certainly does not mean they aren’t a good person, just that Atlas Butler wouldn’t be a good fit for their skill set. We believe we are more than technicians — we are consultants. We are not only at a client’s house to fix a specific problem, but also to look at their whole system, as well as IAQ, to see what other products and services we can offer to help the client be more comfortable.”

Technicians today need to have great communication skills because the HVAC business is all about interpersonal relationships, noted Grimm. “Communication skills and interpersonal relationships are probably more important than the technical training itself. Technicians have to be able to talk to a client, listen to a client, pay attention to what that client has to say, and acknowledge the client in a very positive manner. I can take a person with the right attitude and make him a good service technician, but I can’t teach someone how to have a good attitude.”

That being said, Grimm spends countless hours with his employees, teaching them everything from how to greet customers at the door to where to set their tool bag down and which questions they should ask to determine the type of problem the customer is having. “We always talk in terms of the clients’ interests and not the interests of the service technicians. We are selling ourselves, and we don’t want that client to feel that we’re more important than they are.”

Gloss has found his most successful new hires have turned out to be those who may not have all the technical training or experience needed, but they do have the character and attitude he wants. “We’ve found that if we hire based on who we need, we can train for what we need. We send these new technicians to several local technical schools and provide them with tuition assistance so they can obtain the core knowledge they will need.”

In addition, these new hires are provided with in-house classroom and field training to give them the practical experience to apply that knowledge, said Philp. “We provide them with clear procedures to follow, along with the tools and training they need to be successful. While this process isn’t perfect, and we still have technicians who go through this process and are not successful here, we have found our greatest percentage of success using this model.”

Filling The Gap

While most contractors acknowledge that it is necessary to provide (sometimes substantial) additional training for new hires, schools around the country have also listened to contractors’ concerns about how they can increase the skills of graduating students. At Upper Valley Career Center, Piqua, Ohio, which is a high school dedicated to technical education, 40 local HVAC employers are part of the advisory board that provides input on the school’s program.

“We’re fortunate to have numerous employers in this area who are willing to support our program,” said Scott Naill, HVACR instructor, Upper Valley Career Center. “Our local HVAC businesses all help us out in a lot of different ways. We have employers who give money to the program, we have those who give time, and we have those who mentor the students. And they all give their advice on how we can make the program better.”

Upper Valley HVACR instructor Tony Trapp noted that due to the school’s relationship with local manufacturers, they are often able to obtain HVAC equipment before it is rolled out to the public. “UV lights, thermostats, zoning — we get all the latest and greatest equipment. Manufacturers often want our students to install and test new products, so they can fix any issues that may crop up in the field. In addition, we were getting certified to do home energy audits before many of our local contractors, so we were able to provide guidance to those companies, which we felt was a great way to give back to the community.”

Naill added that the HVAC employers in his area understand that if they don’t help out with the technical program at Upper Valley, they are not going to get a good quality student in the workforce after graduation. “If they expect the teacher to send students out after two years of being in the program, and the contractor or employer doesn’t have any connection to the school or to the student prior to that, then the success rate on that student doing well is going to be really low.”

The advisory committee at Fresno City College, Fresno, Calif., is also critical to ensuring students who satisfactorily complete the HVAC program are well prepared for the workplace, said air conditioning instructor Doug Barnard. “If students are willing to put in the time and effort to succeed in our program, it is a good indicator that they will be successful in the workplace. The critical thinking skills needed for troubleshooting can be tough to teach, but if we can give the student a strong enough background in the basics, the problem solving skills will come with experience.”

That experience is usually the result of contractors taking the time to train new service technicians about brand-specific equipment, as well as other issues specific to that firm. “Our trade encompasses such a wide range of skills it is not possible for students to be completely proficient in all areas,” said Barnard. “I would like to see the contractors encourage their employees of all levels to be more engaged with the various trade organizations which can provide a lot of the continuing training needed by service technicians.”

Teaching technical skills is extremely important at Oconee Fall Line Technical College’s (OFTC) South Campus, Dublin, Ga., which is why the school has an exit exam that requires documentation of competency or student attainment of an industry-recognized credential. This is also a requirement by the school’s credentialing agency, HVAC Excellence. But the school does more than just teach the technical skills for a career in HVAC, said Kevin Livingston, the air conditioning technology instructor at OFTC.

“A core piece of the curriculum at OFTC is the focus on work ethics — teaching students how to be a good employee and how to work well with others. The program focuses on attendance, character, teamwork, appearance, attitude, productivity, organization, communication, cooperation, and respect. It’s these skills that keep a highly skilled individual employed.”

HVAC students also need more opportunities to gain real-world work experience, stressed Livingston, so they can apply what they learn in class in order to become better prepared for employment. “We need contractors to help sponsor mentoring programs, internships, and permanent job commitments for our students in air conditioning programs nationwide. While the government can provide a framework for success and recognition for the best of our air conditioning programs, it is up to the private sector to back up our programs and commit to the future workforce we all so desperately need.”

Ultimately, creating this future workforce in the HVAC industry is going to require more extensive partnerships between schools, contractors, and manufacturers. Those in industry — contractors and manufacturers — are in a position to provide input on the HVAC skills needed, while schools have the means to tailor their programs to fill those needs. Creating more internships and apprenticeship programs would also help teach real-world skills that cannot be taught in the classroom. In addition, those who have been successful in HVAC could do a better job of promoting the trade in order to get people interested.

Only by working together will it be possible for the HVAC industry to create a larger number of skilled, professional service technicians who are ready to become valuable employees at numerous businesses around the country.

ACT’s report — http://bit.ly/nc4jQI

Publication date: 10/10/2011

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