[This guest editorial is in response to John R. Hall's column "You Can Fog a Mirror? You're Hired!" in the Aug. 21 issue of The NEWS.]

In my opinion the seeds of the problem - finding qualified employees - were sown in the mid-1980s. It was then that a fierce battle was waged over student funding at the postsecondary level. The result was that congressional federal legislation and regulation laid the groundwork for several scores of schools to either go out of business or drop HVACR programs.

The prosperity of the 1990s exacerbated this situation by providing numerous job opportunities that would allow someone with no training of any kind to earn a wage higher than entry wages in the HVACR field. Many of the schools that survived the 80s dropped their HVACR training because there were just too few people who would attend.

These courses are expensive, so schools dropped them when they became unprofitable. Thus, with fewer schools recruiting, and other opportunities abundant, we have seen a resulting severe shortage of entry-level technicians.

The result is that employers have become so desperate to have a warm body, some will convince themselves that they can hire a "mirror fogger" and change the job to accommodate the lack of capability. In fact, I have often said that if you can fog a mirror, and you don't cripple yourself too badly with your tools, you can go to work today in the HVACR field.

So now that we are in this mess, how do we fix it? At this point I will revert to type and shamelessly plug my own industry. I will probably also reveal a great degree of ignorance in the process. However, I think that the only way to begin to resolve this is for employers and private, for-profit trade schools to join together in recruitment efforts.

I say this because I have yet to see a community college, a union apprenticeship program, or a high school votech program that commits adequate resources or creative effort to recruitment. They may do a great job of training people once they get them, but they simply don't have effective outreach programs.

In fact, I know of some public schools that openly state that their mission is not to recruit, but to train those who find their way to the school's doors. Trade schools survive - or don't - based on how well they recruit new entrants into the field. In our case, we spend around $30,000 per month to attract new HVACR trainees. It is something that doesn't just happen, we make it happen. Trade schools are also much more flexible and can respond to changes in market conditions more quickly than their more bureaucratic counterparts.

One of the outcomes of the actions of Congress I mentioned earlier is that we are prohibited from recruiting in ways we used to. Congressional intent was not misguided, but the result is that we are not as efficient in our recruitment efforts as we used to be. Therefore, as we stand, the remaining schools are doing well but the employers are hurting and will continue to hurt unless they lend their assistance (they are not restricted by federal edict as we are) to the recruitment effort.

As if this wasn't enough to put on employers, I think they also need to hold schools accountable for quality training. "Quality training" can be hard to identify, but every accredited school must have a publicly stated mission and an outline of what skills they promise to develop in their students. If employers would take the time to discover what a school's mission involves and then evaluate graduates to see if they meet this standard, they can then offer feedback on how well the school is doing.

I would recommend that when graduates don't measure up, the feedback should be very public and vocal, and include regulators and accrediting commissions in addition to the school itself. This is a lot of responsibility to place on an employer.

However, if there were a public forum for how well a school meets its mission (as opposed to an employer's belief of what the mission should be), it would be amazing how quickly schools would respond if they were lacking.

Additionally, employers generally, but contractors specifically, need to abandon the idea that schools should weed out those who don't belong in this field. Over the years the litany seems to vacillate between not being able to find anyone to go to work, to not being able to find anyone qualified for an entry-level position, and that we (the school) should fail those students who don't measure up to a preconceived personality standard.

The fact is that we need more people in this trade, and if schools decide to play God and chase students away, the need won't be met. The talented mechanic with the personality of a prune is certainly not suited to be a front-line technician who meets the public. However, every ice plant, manufacturing facility, power plant, grocery store, food processor, etc., also needs our graduates, and these employers don't always need Mr. Personality to be successful.

This doesn't mean that we don't grieve for the employers who hire one of our graduates, and that graduate lies, steals, and destroys customer relationships. However, I can't count the times that I have developed a very negative opinion about a student, only to have him or her become a very valuable asset to an employer. The bottom line is that we need more people in this field, and they will not all conform to anyone's preconceived notion of what a quality technician should be. We need them nonetheless.

Publication date:09/18/2006