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HVAC Outlook Got a Little Brighter

December 13, 2010
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Barb Checket-Hanks

Of all the things the industry can do to goose the new construction market, maybe the most significant to date has been the emphasis on home efficiency. Between the National Model Energy Code, the residential energy standard (with the joined forces of ASHRAE and the IES), Standard for the Design of High-Performance, Green Buildings (except low-rise residential buildings), and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Home Energy Score pilot program, it seems that multiple forces are working toward a common goal.

We don’t often see this kind of synchronicity affecting our industry, but there it is. A combination of the effects of the economy, rising energy costs, and the well-documented facts that virtually every building could improve its efficiency, have come together in a way that bodes well for HVAC contractors. Add the newly available labor pool and we may need to put on some shades.

The key, though, is to think beyond the box - way beyond it. When it comes to total home efficiency, “the box” can’t just be the condensing unit and indoor coils, or the furnace. In today’s reality, the box is the building.

HVAC contractors may find themselves making decisions about the direction of their business. If they decide not to perform energy audits, however, they should try to make a business connection with a company that does perform them - a company looking for a reliable firm to help improve the HVAC/mechanical systems, including air handling and controls.

MORE GOOD NEWS

Another unexpected piece of good news arising from changes related to the economy involves our industry’s longstanding need for good technicians. U.S .News & World Report recently identified HVAC technicians as “one of the best careers for 2011.” (Nice plug, eh?)

“There’s a universal and growing need for workers who can install, maintain, and repair the machines that heat and cool our homes, businesses, and other buildings,” the Dec. 6 article stated.

Stephen Yurek, president of the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), pointed out that the industry has evolved well beyond pipes and wrenches. It requires people who understand computers and programming - and a lot of people who were laid off during this recession meet that description. However, they also need to be able to learn how to combine that knowledge with a new understanding of how mechanical systems operate.

The article cited the Labor Department, stating that “Employment of heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration technicians is expected to increase by 86,600 jobs, or 28 percent, between 2008 and 2018 …” With a glut of existing homes, an increased demand for improved efficiency and a reduced carbon foot print, and a number of technicians reaching retirement age, the article predicted the trade is a good place to be.

The article also stated that pay ranges from “less than $12.38 per hour, while the highest-paid 10 percent earned upwards of $31.53.” We don’t think that a new, relatively unskilled worker would walk in expecting anything near that top pay. However, if you can provide health care coverage, that’s what these folks are looking for.

So now we add another synchronous element to these good HVAC signs: an available labor pool. Sure, if the former programmers and office types come knocking at your door, they won’t be ready to go straight to work in the field. Training will be required - targeted training for people with an understanding of computers and programming. I’m thinking that if the trainer could explain the workings of mechanical systems using computer/programming analogies, which would be a good thing. The article recommended potential employees to seek training through trade schools, community colleges, or apprenticeships, that may be more attractive because they offer simultaneous paid work and training.

What about the laid off factory line workers? We’ve got room for them, too. They probably are accustomed to working under quality control guidelines, and with a little training they, too, could add to a contractor’s bottom line.

Investing in training could open many doors, whether they lead to new markets or new employees. But we need each other. As the pieces of the recovery puzzle start to come together, it looks like the HVAC industry contains several missing pieces.

Publication date: 12/13/2010
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