Young Guns Aim to Offer Words of Wisdom

June 25, 2007
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In Parts 1 and 2 of this series on the “Young Guns of HVAC,” The NEWS looked at reasons why some of the up-and-coming stars of the trade have been attracted to the business, both as owners and managers, and why they have remained in the business. The future of HVAC in the communities where they work can be summed up in one word: bright.

But is the future bright for other young people coming into the HVAC trade - if there are enough young people coming into the trade?

According to Renee Fiorelli of Peterson Service Co. Inc., Medford, N.J., “The future can be summed up in the following: increased use of computerized tools and diagnostic systems, the lack of skilled labor going into the trade, more time should be spent educating the kids in high school, and the apprenticeship program should complete with an accredited degree.”

Attracting young labor probably will continue to be an Achilles’ heal for the HVAC trade.

“It is not easy being a young person in this very demanding industry,” said 33-year-old Tim Schires of Air Associates Inc., Sussex, Wis. “It is especially difficult when you are the level of someone who should be in their 40s or 50s.

“The obstacles us young guys face today certainly differ from those of past generations. The industry moves at a much faster pace, with technology changing daily.”

Changing technology may be the real key to bringing in future generations of HVAC owners and managers. It will take more than lip service. “The future of the industry lacks good, qualified employees,” said Aaron Ollinger of Chuck Ollinger Plumbing and Heating, Erie, Pa. “I would like to be involved in a mentor program geared toward the younger generation, to let them truly see the opportunities present in the trades. When I was in high school, the tech school kids were looked down upon.

“We need to present the whole picture to kids - let them know that being a skilled technician is a desirable career. I think that tech schools should also incorporate the business basics to tie together with the skills kids learn. Even the most skilled technician may have no clue on what to charge and how to manage a business. A program that encourages learning both the business basics and HVAC is a must.”

TRAINING IS A KEY

What do some of the young guns feel is the best way to learn the many nuances of working in the field? For most interviewed by The NEWS, a solid classroom understanding of HVAC, combined with a heavy dose of on-the-job-training, is the best combination. Giving a young person the opportunity to touch and feel HVAC equipment could be the deciding factor in their career choice.

“The tech of today needs an equal portion of both field and classroom training,” said Jeffrey Lane of JTL Air Conditioning & Refrigeration Inc., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “There is so much new stuff coming out every day, and if you are not sending your people to classroom training, you will be tomorrow’s out-of-business contractor.

“It shows employees that their company believes in them and is willing to invest money to see they get the training they need to reach their full potential.”

A good blend of classroom and field training can also keep young people from being discouraged, hopefully preventing that “thrown-to-the-wolves” feeling.

“The foundation of technical training and customer service training should start in the classroom, but a mentoring program is a good way to move into the field,” said Steven Long of Gastonia Sheet Metal, Heating, Air Conditioning & Roofing, Gastonia, N.C.

“Most new persons in the industry are thrown into the field too soon, out of desperation to have someone out there getting something done,” Long said. “This causes a domino or cyclical effect, where poor-quality work results. The individual becomes discouraged about his employer and the industry and moves on to something else.”

Prospective students line up for more information at the Team-Pro-Air-Services booth (Decatur, Ala.) at a recent career day.

It may take an effort to change people’s opinions of HVAC work, but actual hands-on training can change a lot of preconceptions. “Not many young people find manual labor appealing,” said Josh Poole of J.E. Poole Inc., Highstown, N.J. “I feel that trying to erase the stigma that manual labor is looked down upon will help to encourage younger, more highly educated people to join the HVAC world.

“I help my company by continually educating our employees in the latest technology, and to let them know that they are working with a company that is on the cutting edge,” Poole said.

“This has changed our company’s climate into a more employee-friendly place, and has in turn sparked more interest among our mechanics. This interest has had a positive effect on younger people who start working here, by letting them know how rewarding it can be to work at a company that values employee growth just as much as we value turning a profit.”

Successful young guns have found that not only is it important to train young people about HVAC and their own company procedures, it is just as important to maintain an ongoing training program. The HVAC trade will continue to remind young people that training does not stop with a degree or certificate. In fact, it never stops.

“In my company, ongoing training is not only encouraged, it is mandatory,” said Rich Morgan of Magic Touch Mechanical Inc., Gilbert, Ariz. “Even my service manager, who has almost 20 years of field experience, is required to earn continuing education credits. The technician who feels he is beyond even basic refresher courses is foolish.

“We pay for and require training from trade schools, manufacturers, trade organizations, etc. It is a win times three as far as I’m concerned,” Morgan said. “The consumer, company, and technician all benefit from it, and the knowledge gained more than pays for the cost.”

“Our company requires each employee to attend weekly on-site training classes,” said Tommy Sinn of The Service Company, Greer, S.C. “Once technicians have proven they can and will do the job, we invest in sending them to week-long classes where they work 50 percent of the time in a classroom and 50 percent of the time on mock installation/service scenarios.”

Keeping up with changing technology can have financial rewards for young guns. “Most of our field personnel will go through no less than 50 hours of ongoing training each year with our organization,” said Jeffrey Ford of Columbus/Worthington Air & Columbus Mechanical, Hilliard, Ohio. “Whether they are on a jobsite with a manager, in the office with a manufacturer’s rep, or sent to a manufacturing facility for class work, they are constantly learning and keeping ahead of technology.

“Not only does this training improve their skill sets and allow for more growth in the HVAC trade, but it increases their own personal net worth. This is a win-win in my book.”

Young gun Eric Detmer, operations manager for Detmer and Sons, Fairborn, Ohio, presides over a staff meeting.

GOOD ADVICE

Many young gun contractors make it a practice to pair up new employees with seasoned veterans who can mentor them on how to work better and smarter. Mentoring is also an important part of business owners’ and managers’ regular routines. Some choose to network with their peers; others are happy to give advice freely to up-and-coming business owners.

“Number one is maintaining a good attitude,” said Adam Sater of Commercial Service of Bloomington Inc., Bloomington, Ind. “Without a good attitude and the right focus, you will not succeed. There are many trying times in this industry, or with any service you provide to a customer. There will be times in which you must bite your tongue to save face so to speak.

“Number two is work hard,” he said. “Hard work pays off, right? It has for our company and me.

“Number three is loading the bus,” Sater said. “That is a term I was taught by my mentor. Understand that you must have the right people on your team in order to grow and maintain your existing work. Don’t turn down a qualified technician/installer with good skills and experience, and say you don’t have the work. Hire the person and find the work!”

Steve Breitkreuz of Ace Plumbing, Heating, & Electric, Saint Joseph, Mich., said, “Work hard and compliment your workers daily. Working 8-5 Monday-Friday will not cut it if you want to succeed in today’s business climate. I never work less than 10-12 hours each day. When you get a customer, keep them at all costs - unless they don’t pay you. If they don’t pay, recommend them to the guy who talks trash about you. They will be a perfect match for each other.”

Michael Goater of Air Conditioning by Jay, Mesa, Ariz., advised young people to hook up with forward-thinking HVAC business owners and managers. “There are no young guns without the culture and vision of a solid general manager and owner,” he said. “I once heard that ‘a fish stinks from the head.’ This makes a lot of sense when you look at HVAC contractors. You can never outgrow your leadership’s vision.”

Good leadership and a good business plan are keys to successful HVAC contracting. So is maintaining high-quality work. “We live in an area that has a lot of small, close-knit communities, and word of mouth has been our best friend and our competition’s worst enemy,” said Kevin Smith of Total Comfort Systems, Rhinelander, Wis.

“Our prices are generally on the higher end of the business,” he continued, “and it doesn’t seem to cost us too much work. People in this area would rather pay more to have it done correctly, than always looking for the cheapest price.”

“Stay focused on the small goals that are set in front of you,” advised Scott Crescenze, Crescenze Cooling & Heating, LLC, Massillon, Ohio. “The large goals will eventually fall into place. It may seem like a rollercoaster ride at times. Be prepared to make a lot of time and financial sacrifice.

“You must be able to step up when cash flow is slow,” he said. “Treat customers with great respect and knowledge. Good word of mouth will take its course. It consumes many hours of my time just for the business, but when another job is completed and another customer is impressed, there is no greater satisfaction. It makes it all worth it to be a young gun.”

Publication date: 06/25/2007

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