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Skaer-Tactics: A Few Answers to the Initial $6 Million Questions

October 8, 2008
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Since posting a first batch of questions on this blog September 1, I have been receiving more and more interesting comments, as well as answers, from readers. The first question I asked was simply if you wanted your son or daughter to work in the HVACR trade, and the majority of you said flat-out “N-o.”

And, you know what? That scares me.

“My son does work in the trade, but I’ve made it clear to him that there are easier ways to make a living,” responded Bruce Dix of Dix Air Conditioning and Heating, Bradenton, Fla. “It’s not for everybody, but I love it.”

Replied Illinois contractor Harry James, “I don’t think I could persuade my son or daughter to join the HVACR trade. They see me work long hours and it’s not them.”

“Are you crazy?” was another short e-mailed answer, but the sender refrained from revealing his (or her) identity.

It’s kind of numbing. The opportunities in this field seem to be endless. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 22,000 job opportunities in the HVACR-related skilled trades that will go unfilled annually between 2008 and 2012. So, another question I posed that drew fire was this: “Why is this happening when this industry has so much to offer?”

Dix had a strong answer for that one.

“Let’s see, you need the technical expertise of an engineer, the physical stamina of a football player, the flexibility of a yoga instructor, the bedside manner of a family doctor, mechanical aptitude of an auto mechanic, be willing to endure working conditions of an oil rig worker and collect the wages of a mailman,” he wrote. “Does that sound like a great deal to you?”

Bob Blanchard of Busby’s Inc., Augusta, Ga., by far and away gave the longest answer. He noted that he worked for Honeywell for 17 year, moved over to the Information Technology business for seven years, before being “dragged back in the business seven years ago to consult a small HVAC owner.”

“I was amazed after seven years how nothing had changed,” wrote Blanchard. “The trade magazines still complained about the same old things. None of the part numbers had changed. It was like I had never left.

“With that, there are many reasons the industry can’t attract or keep new employees. But having had the view in an industry that completely changes every six months, I think it is about how HVAC contractors treat their helpers/apprentices. Most HVAC contractors are small, family businesses, formed by dad after World War II. Their sons or daughters were raised by that generation, and those Baby Boomers allow some very abrasive employee practices. The electrical, plumbing, and HVAC trades are modeled on the old apprenticeship/journeyman program that dictates the helper cleans tools and fetches equipment for the first two years, because that is the way the lead was trained.”

Blanchard went on to add, “Generation Xers and the Millennial generations need a sense of worth at the onset instead of just being a gofer. The apprentices/helpers who are happy being a gofer for the first two years are not the can-do people sought. Contrast that with the call center and Information Technology businesses, as onerous as some of those jobs can be, the employee can experience worth nearly on the first day.

“Unfortunately, the majority of these small HVAC business owners are very resistant to change and are subservient to the lead technicians, who were sometimes father figures during their early years in the business. Therefore, this horrible journeyman/apprentice model is perpetuated. “In contrast, the medical industry had to change their model. No longer do interns work 80 hours a week just because their boss did it. The fatigue the intern suffers tends to kill people. The litigation costs forced the change.

“The electrical, plumbing, and HVAC industries don’t kill people. Therefore, nothing has changed. The consequence is the apprentice just doesn’t stay. Today’s young people are very different from today’s leads (the senior technicians), and the work circumstances are very different from 20-30 years ago when they were helpers/apprentices.”

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