ACHRNEWS

Tulsa Contractors Lament Labor Problems

January 21, 2008

TULSA, Okla. - It shouldn’t come as any surprise that a meeting of contractors would inevitably result in discussions about the labor problems facing the HVAC trade and the lack of professionalism in the trade. And Tulsa was no exception as contractors in the area participated in a recent roundtable meeting hosted by The NEWS. The discussion involved four Tulsa-area contractors including Keith Deaver of Airco Services Inc., Kieth Hilligross of Air Solutions, Tim Smith of Triad Service Co., and Joel Kinsch of Elite Service.

FINDING AND TRAINING SERVICE TECHS

The key topic during the luncheon meeting centered on the lack of qualified service technicians. “Where are our future techs going to come from?” asked Deaver.

Kinsch replied that the problem is not finding enough people to act as more than bodies. “You can always find bodies,” he said. “But the problem is finding intelligent ones.”

Deaver said the problem starts with the lack of understanding about the trade - and the lack of people willing to talk about the job opportunities. “Nobody is promoting the trades,” he said.

“Nobody is saying that our trade is more than working in sweaty attics and chasing turds. We need to be in junior high schools talking to kids.”

Hilligross said it isn’t just the lack of information that is keeping people away from the trade; it is also the lack of good pay and benefits. “We haven’t done a good job of paying our technicians a good wage,” he said. “We need to increase salaries while we glorify our trade, too.”

One of the issues facing HVAC contractors in the Tulsa area is some pending changes in job requirements, making the trade even less attractive for new people. “The local union is pushing for mandatory apprenticeship training in order to get licensed,” he said. “The problem is, who is going to pay for that training?”

Smith agreed. “Some kids don’t know what they want to do in their first year and we are telling them they have to take mandatory apprentice training? The cost of the training will probably have to be passed along to our customers.”

Deaver added, “We are all in favor of training. But it has to be all about a person wanting to learn, not being forced into learning.”

Skill levels are a lot different today with technicians having to learn a number of different disciplines. Some of the contractors commented on the number of young people who are entering the computer and software design/programming trade be-cause they spend so much time playing video games. Jobs that used to require a lot of manual skills are being replaced with jobs that require fewer workers and less “craftsmanship.”

“What makes our trade so great is that kids have to learn a combination of many things,” said Deaver.

Getting young people into the trade who are qualified and want to make HVAC a career is one big hurdle - another is finding people who will pass a drug test or criminal background check.

Drug testing, more than a clean driving record or criminal background, seems to be the biggest problem facing these Tulsa-area contractors. One contractor said some of the local contractors do not drug test and most of the unemployable people wind up working for those contractors. “Since we started drug testing, we don’t get any more of the riff-raff coming in to apply for work,” said Hilligross.

Participants in the Tulsa roundtable included (from left) Tim Smith of Triad Service Co., Keith Deaver of Airco Services Inc., Kieth Hilligross of Air Solutions, and Joel Kinsch of Elite Service.

WHERE'S PROFESSIONALISM?

The lack of professionalism was another topic discussed during the roundtable. Deaver said that he recently looked at the number of HVAC businesses listed as contractors in the telephone directory and came up with some interesting statistics. “There are probably 300 listings and of that total, I’d say that only about 20 promote a professional appearance,” he said.

Kinsch added, “The majority of the trucks you see on the road don’t even have a name or telephone number on them.”

All of the contractors agreed that the situation will continue to worsen in the next five years, citing a “horrendous” attrition rate among HVAC contractors in the area. “Fifty percent of the contractors in our market could drop out and it wouldn’t hurt us at all,” said Kinsch. “There are still contractors in our area who price a job by the ton.”

Having fewer nonprofessional contractors would suit Hilligross just fine, too. “It seems that the general public sees our trade as unskilled and not profitable, but in reality, there is unlimited income for skilled technicians.”

THE SCOURGE OF FLEX DUCT

The contractors noted that a lot of the unskilled technicians - and their bosses - show their true colors when it comes to installing flexible duct, another topic that struck a nerve with this group of contractors. “Flex duct is the one component or material that has caused the poorest installations and poorest quality work than anything else,” said Kinsch.

“Flex duct is taking us down the wrong road. We, as contractors, can make a lot more money by installing sheet metal duct.”

Deaver said, “The problem is that schools do not teach the principles of good airflow. If you could see some of the flex duct installations, it’s a wonder if there is any airflow at all in these systems.” He acknowledged that every contractor in the area has to include flex duct in his or her product line - reluctantly. “Either outlaw it or make inspectors enforce its proper installation.”

Contractors like Smith said that if installed correctly, flex duct can help with comfort and efficiency. “We do flex duct because we know how to,” he said. “Customers are asking for it and we need to be competitive.”

Another topic covered during the discussions was the increasing costs of doing business - namely the rising insurance costs and workman’s compensation. All of the contractors agreed that there is a need for health care reform in Oklahoma.

But amid all of the negative problems discussed at the roundtable meeting came one very positive comment: the rewarding part of the job. The contractors all agreed that fixing a problem and making a customer happy was one of the best things about being an HVAC contractor. And there are many ways and opportunities to do that if you are an HVAC service tech.

“There is always something new - every day - for the service techs to work on,” said Smith.

Publication date: 01/21/2008