ACHRNEWS

Is There a Tech Shortage?

May 31, 2010


Technicians coming out of school can’t find a job. Laid off technicians can’t find a job. Contractors struggling to hire can’t find HVACR technicians.

These are three common scenarios currently occurring across the nation. Contradictory at best, the issues bring to light a question that has surfaced again in the HVACR industry, “Is there a technician shortage?” There is no cut and dried answer to this question, but there are some key factors that help explain the atmosphere in which some technicians continue to search for work, while some contractors continue to search for technicians: Baby Boomers, lack of interest, economy, and technician quality.

BABY BOOMERS

Baby Boomers help hold off the shortages that have been predicted across the HVACR industry. As early predictions came in, “The Boomers are leaving,” rang out like Chicken Little’s cry, “The sky is falling.”

Theories held that when the majority of Baby Boomers retired, it would create an incredible workforce shift. In turn, the shift would yield a sharp drop in experienced technicians. In essence, this Baby Boomer effect was creating pent up technician demand that would inspire steep shortages. Some regions are experiencing shortages, others are not finding this to be the case, and the intensity predicted has yet been felt industry wide.

Some theories about the effect retiring Boomers will have are changing, especially with the growing trend of Boomers delaying their retirements - perhaps because of their dwindled retirement nest egg. According to an employment projections summary issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workers 55 years and older are expected to make up almost 25 percent of the labor force in 2018.

“As the members of the large Baby Boom generation grow older and continue their trend of increased labor force participation, the number of persons age 55 years and older in the labor force is expected to increase by 12 million, or 43 percent during the 2008-18 periods,” explained the BLS summary.

The Congressional report - “Retiring Baby Boomers = A Labor Shortage?” - discusses the actuality of severe shortages in Baby-Boomer dependent industries.

“Those who assert that the need to replace retiring Baby Boomers will result in a shortage of workers usually consider only the labor supplied by the Baby Bust generation [Generation X],” explained the report. “This 45 million Birth-Cohort, which immediately followed the 76 million Baby Boomers into the labor force, is not the only source of replacement workers: the 72 million members of the Echo Boom [Generation Y] began to enter the workforce in the 1990’s.”

LACK OF INTEREST

Even with the slowed retirement of the Baby Boomers and Generations X and Y poised to help fill the gap, HVACR industry contractors are concerned about the lack of interest in the HVACR trade.

“Fewer of the X and Y generations are joining our industry,” pointed out Louis Hobaica, president of Hobaica Services in Phoenix. “It seems as though their work ethic doesn’t necessarily meet our industry’s demands.”

Russ Donnici, president of Mechanical Air Service Inc., San Jose, Calif., was concerned as to how the different generations perceived the HVACR trade.

“There are some manual labor aspects of the industry that may seem unappealing,” he said. “There is a shortage, and there will continue to be one until we really start promoting our industry as an exciting industry that can have a substantial effect on our environment in many different ways and provide a higher than average standard of living for its workers.”

Lack of interest, however, is not found only in Generations X and Y. Many of the current secondary education programs nationwide disappoint diverse trades as they fail to endorse them as widely as other, more traditional programs of study.

“I think there will be a shortage for years to come due to lack of interest by high school graduates and vocational/technical schools closing HVAC classes,” warned David Hutchins, president and owner of Bay Area A/C in Crystal River and New Port Richey, Fla. “Too few of our high school graduates have any interest in working with their hands. They aren’t interested in the trades, factory work, etc. They value white collar jobs more highly, even if they pay less money.”

ECONOMY

The economy has been a significant hurdle for most U.S. businesses, especially small businesses. The recession, which was officially declared to have begun in late 2007, brought new challenges that were heightened for diverse trades because of the burst residential housing bubble. Some contractors struggled to survive and were forced to lay off employees. Others grew through maintenance contracts and acquisitions.

As these growing contractors looked to hire employees, what they found was that the HVACR technician labor pool had received a good mixing. Residential, light commercial, and commercial market lines were crossed as the residential housing market slumped first, followed less drastically by the commercial market. The labor pool was further muddied by an influx of alleged independent contractors - many technicians who had been laid off began working for themselves. In this crowded, muddied market, competition became fierce and the overall employment balance in the HVACR industry suffered.

As the 2010 recovery heads into the second quarter, however, the economy is slowly balancing. Many trades seemingly have experienced the slowest of recovery rates in the United States, but as new business trickles in and HVACR contractors begin to hire, the question of finding a technician may be better posed as, “Is there a qualified technician available?”

TECHNICIAN QUALITY

To answer that question, Donnici suggested that a definitive line be drawn between technician and qualified technician.

“There are many technicians out there looking for work. Unfortunately, many have little or no experience, which generally isn’t a problem if they have the attitude and aptitude for the job,” he explained. “The hard fact is that many try to be a technician but will never be a qualified one. Unless we really police our trade, the poor quality of workmanship will always be an issue.”

Donnici is not experiencing a qualified technician shortage at this time. “Due to our benefits and training opportunities, we typically have many more applicants for a position than we can hire.”

Technician quality and availability is regionally different. On the opposite side of the United States in Orlando, Fla., Ken Bodwell, operations manager, Innovative Service Solutions, is looking for some quality technicians. His company recently lost two technicians to competitors and due to growth was already in the market for two additional technicians.

“What we hear is that there is massive unemployment, so there shouldn’t be a technician shortage,” said Bodwell. “But, the good technicians didn’t lose their jobs in the downturn. Contractors found ways to keep them. What technician candidates are left in the market doesn’t always make for a good hire.”

IS THERE A TECHNICIAN SHORTAGE?

The answer to this question truly depends on many factors, even beyond the keys covered above. The future of this issue is unknown, but for now, The NEWS would like to know what your answer is to this question. Find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ACHRNews and tell us your technician shortage story.

Publication date: 05/31/2010