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The Fight for Future Workers

June 7, 2010
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Kimberly Schwartz

Before I joined The NEWS, I reported on other industries also dominated by men in their 50s. So for the past several years I’ve heard a lot of dire warnings about what will happen when the Baby Boomers retire. For a while, this gave me mini anxiety attacks as I pondered a future labor shortage.

For instance, what if all the stalwarts of the HVACR contracting world retire by 2020 or, at the latest, 2025? What will happen 10 to 15 years from now when a homeowner wakes up on a humid summer day to discover his a/c has gone kaput?

Today he picks up the phone and expects a contractor to come and save the day - before the end of the day. But if there is a dearth of HVAC workers in the future, will he make an emergency call only to wind up on a six-to-12-month waiting list?

Obviously, this is a paranoid customer’s point of view. But this issue can be just as worrisome from the contractor’s perspective. It’s impossible to properly manage a business and provide the services customers demand if you’re always short on workers.

However, my anxiety lessened when I investigated the assumptions behind the “sky is falling” prophecies of a future labor shortage.

For instance, take a closer look at the supposition that all the Baby Boomers in HVAC will retire by 2025. How likely is that, really? Look around and you can see that more and more people are working beyond typically accepted retirement ages, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects this trend to continue.

Plus, the U.S. population is not increasing as rapidly as in the past, so while that may mean there will be fewer future workers, there will also be less demand for goods and services.

The best source I found for clearing up false assumptions like these was a 2008 report prepared for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. It reported that an actual shortage of workers is unlikely in the long run but - and this is the kicker for HVAC - industries with older workforces could “face especially intense competition for labor in the short run.”

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

With the unemployment rate currently hovering just under 10 percent, it may be relatively easy to find workers right now. But, considering the aging national demographics, you may want to evaluate your company’s readiness for a tight labor market. Here are some questions to consider:

• Do you know the projected retirement dates of your employees?

• Have you developed a strategy to encourage the old hands to stick around and pass along their knowledge and wisdom to the next generation?

• Do you have a succession plan in place for replacing older workers currently in management positions?

• Do you have a recruitment plan for finding and hiring younger workers?

If you’re serious about finding those younger-generation workers, you may have to start looking for them sooner rather than later. From what I’ve seen in other industries, it’s shaping up to be a serious battle for the best and brightest.

Other trades that seek the same type of recruit (smart, likes to work with hands, doesn’t want to sit in an office all day) are trying hard to lure the younger generation to their ranks. Their efforts include scholarships, nationwide competitions, mentor programs, and more.

The HVAC industry has similar initiatives, but have you personally gotten involved in them? Do you participate in efforts to foster awareness of career opportunities in HVAC? Working with national associations, technical schools, and apprenticeship programs is probably a good place to start. It might also be wise to look in new places for future workers because, according to BLS, the “labor force in 2018 will be more diverse.”

Becoming aware of how the shifting demographics will individually influence your workforce should help you to plan for the future. Ultimately, an approach that balances retention and recruitment - keeping the best workers at their posts while seeking out the brightest new recruits - will aid you in the fierce fight for future workers.

Publication date: 06/07/2010
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