Industry ponders shortfall in vo-tech grads

September 14, 2000
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RESTON, Va. — The hvacr industry faces a shortfall of tens of thousands of trained technicians, which comes as no surprise to the contractors who badly need their skills. In survey after survey, hvacr contractors cite getting good employees as their number-one problem.

The graph on this page shows a 71% decline in the number of vo-tech graduates in the past decade. Even more worrisome is the projected need for a 29% growth in hvacr technicians to fill tomorrow’s jobs, which would total more than 60,000 employment slots.

The market has never demanded more qualified technicians. Tens of millions of heating and cooling units are installed, serviced, and replaced each year in the United States, and that base of equipment grows annually.

That dip is just the most extreme in the larger decline in vo-tech graduations across all sectors of the country. Today, skilled workers make up 45% of the workforce — a number expected to rise to 65%.

Mixed causes

What accounts for this troublesome problem? At a roundtable sponsored by the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), manufacturers, educators, and the trade press discussed the subject at length.

Don’t blame the contractors, said one participant. Despite reports of low wages paid to technicians, “The contractors will pay whatever it takes to get good young people into the fold,” he said. “Plus, they’ll pay for the tools.”

The message was definitely mixed from educator Tim Lawrence, of Skills USA-VICA. His organization sponsors competition among young technicians in national and international forums.

Part of the problem is school guidance counselors, who don’t understand the technical sector. Despite the good wages available to the technically trained, the cultural environment funnels students into the professional (college-graduated) sector.

Even the White House’s attempt to give all of American youngsters a chance at college works against tech schools. However, many community colleges have vocational curricula, which might alleviate the problem.

Sliver of funding

In addition, vocational training gets only a sliver of the national educational expenditure of more than $60 billion, Lawrence said.

There is also what he called the “10-year-walking-around” factor: High school graduates usually spend a decade looking for the right niche.

He cited a dramatic illustration of this trend: a large Richmond, Va. high school whose enrollment has dropped from 2,000 to less than half that. The school’s tech lab has been closed during the day, but it opens for a crowded night class.

However, the larger truth is that, “If we don’t grab them in high school, they probably won’t come back to the industry,” Lawrence said.

Other industries, like the automotive sector, have banded together to address the problem, he continued. “We see Toyota and Chrysler sitting across the table to improve the situation in an effort spearheaded by Jack Smith, chairman of General Motors.”

Students go to work in dealerships under the direction of a mentor — an idea based on the German apprentice program.

Lawrence’s organization has developed an impressive national promotional plan to put young technicians seeking endorsements (and proclamations) for technical training from mayors, governors, and state legislators. All of these endorsements will be presented to the Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of Education.

ARI and eight other trade associations have developed a seven-minute career video that is sent to educators. The video can be personalized for any organization that wants to use it, said Leslie Sandler, ARI’s manager of education. Industry-based certification programs and competency examinations also have helped.

Japanese boys want to build desk, not work behind it

TOKYO — There may be a shortfall in the next generation of building trades labor, but the generation after that could pick up, if a study from Japan is any indicator. Young Japanese boys do not envision themselves working behind a desk.

In a study of career preferences, “Carpenter” was the number-one choice for boys in kindergarten and primary school, according to an annual poll taken by Dai-ichi Mutual Life Insurance Co. “Carpenter” ranked number 10 in last year’s survey.

Japan’s economic recession is fueling the surge in carpentry as a career choice, with the country’s youth looking for more practical job choices as opposed to chasing dream careers, the survey takers said.

Or, it could be that these little boys simply like the idea of pounding wood as opposed to sitting at a PC.

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