According to several recent surveys, most small business owners around the country do not plan to hire due to the uncertain economic outlook. The 2011 U.S. Bank Small Business Annual Survey showed that while small business owners are seeing some signs of improvement, they remain cautious about the future, with economic uncertainty being their biggest concern (followed by poor sales and federal regulations). As a result, 70 percent of small business owners surveyed expect to keep staffing levels the same over the next 12 months, with only 22 percent planning to hire.

Parts of the HVAC industry seem to be trending in the opposite direction, however, as many contractors say they are planning to hire over the next 12 months — if they can find the qualified people.

Hiring Trends

One contractor who is looking to add to his staff is Kevin Walsh, president, Schaafsma Heating and Cooling, Grand Rapids, Mich. The company specializes in residential retrofit and service and currently employs 31 people. “Our sales struggled in 2009 but rebounded in 2010, and this year we are on pace with last year. We foresee sales increasing over the next 12 months, because I think our local economy is rebounding, and people are feeling more confident in the future.”

Even though Walsh did have to lay off some people and reduce hours for others at the height of the downturn, he has since hired them back and all are working full time. He just recently hired a new installer and service technician, and he plans to hire sales, service, installation, and office staff over the next 12 months. “We definitely see an opportunity to grow,” he said.

Laura DiFilippo, vice president, DiFilippo’s Service Co., Paoli, Pa., is also in the hiring mode. The residential retrofit and service company currently has 11 employees and plans to add a service technician position. “The service department is trending 10 percent higher than last year, and an additional technician will help with the workload. We are encouraging our installation techs to consider this position, and if that occurs, then we will need to hire an installation tech. What I have learned is that it is easier to promote from within and train an installation crew versus finding the perfect service technician.”

DiFilippo has also learned that sometimes finding the perfect person to fill a job doesn’t happen at the exact time one is needed. “We run want ads year round, reviewing resumes all the time. This step is even more important in a down economy, because many companies are downsizing or going out of business, and it is a rare time to capture qualified individuals who might otherwise not be looking.”

Rich Morgan, president and CEO, Magic Touch Mechanical, Mesa, Ariz., has multiple positions available, including service technicians, installation technicians, energy auditors, and warehouse/parts-runner. “We are adding positions due to increased sales and demand, as well as filling open positions. While we do not expect to see very much improvement in our local economy within the next 12 months, we do expect business as a whole to increase modestly over the remainder of this year.”

W.L. Gary Co., Washington, D.C., is an 87-year-old company that focuses on total mechanical service, which includes HVAC and plumbing. “We got into the energy services business about 18 months ago, and it’s been a great addition to what we’re doing,” said Woody Woodall, director of business development. “When you stop and think about energy services, truly, it’s what we mechanical contractors have been doing for years. Now it’s just got a pretty ribbon on it.”

The company currently has about 150 employees, and Woodall said a few more will be hired in the near future. “We will be looking for HVAC and plumbing technicians, because we believe we will have the work, and our existing clients are asking us to help them more. We think our business will improve, and we see sales on the rise. It won’t be a huge increase, but we are going in the right direction.”

Even in Nevada, which is “ground zero” for foreclosures and bankruptcies, some HVAC companies are still hiring. Ron Ford, president and owner, Sierra Air Inc., Reno, Nev., noted that his commercial design/build company will hire at least one more person in the near future. “We currently have 35 employees, which is down from the 65 we had at the start of the recession. But we have hired two new employees in the last three months and plan on hiring at least one more soon. We are building our commercial and residential service sectors, so the new hires will most likely be technicians. The reason for this is sales are way behind pre-recession years, and most new customers are from the service side.”

Travis Smith, owner/manager, Sky Heating and Air Conditioning, Portland, Ore., currently employs 15 people, compared to the 50 employees who were working there at the height of the new construction boom. Smith noted that he has recently hired a service technician and service manager, and he may add a few more staff members over the next year, depending on demand.

“With the $1,500 tax credit ending last year, we expected things to drop more than they did,” said Smith. “But we are actually up for the year and very optimistic about the coming years. We do see the economy improving, as most of our clients are purchasing to avoid future breakdowns, and they are upgrading to higher efficiency equipment. We do not have as many customers purchasing out of necessity.”

At Welsch Heating and Cooling, St. Louis, staffing is down to 75 people, due to the economic downturn, but company president Butch Welsch recently hired one new sheet metal apprentice and one new sheet metal specialist to replace two journeymen. “We may add one additional apprentice or specialist to lower the average labor cost, but we don’t anticipate any other additions until perhaps the second quarter of next year. That’s because the new construction portion of our business does not appear to be increasing and probably won’t until perhaps 2013. With the personnel we have, we should be able to handle our replacement business for the foreseeable future.”

The industrial/commercial mechanical service firm, Innovative Service Solutions, Orlando, Fla., has experienced a significant increase in retrofit and expansion projects that started in the spring. Sales of maintenance agreements are up, too, which is why company COO/CFO Ken Bodwell recently hired two service technicians and is looking for one more very experienced technician for the Orlando area. “Therein lies the problem. Orlando has a very shallow well of experienced skilled technicians. We rely primarily on word of mouth to find the techs.”

Shallow Labor Pool

Even though many HVAC contractors would like to hire, most say that applicants are simply not qualified. As Bodwell noted, “There are a lot of residential guys looking, as well as techs with fewer than five years of experience. We usually keep two trainees hired, but because of the uncertainty of the economy, we are not hiring for those positions. What we did do was hire a fairly skilled warehouse person who wants to enter the industry. We use him as a helper and have enrolled him in a three-year HVAC apprenticeship class.”

Smith does not feel there are many qualified people in the HVAC industry either, noting that not too long ago when he put an ad in the newspaper, he would have 20 qualified installers apply over the course of a week. “Now we put an ad in the paper and get applicants who have MBAs looking for ductwork installation positions. We had many people apply for our open service position when we were hiring, yet few had any actual experience.”

The majority of applicants whom Morgan has seen over the last 12 months have had little to no experience in the field and are typically recent trade school graduates looking for their first shot in HVAC. “Many perform poorly on our field aptitude test and have little to no tools needed to work as either an install or service tech.”

Most of the applications that Welsch has received over the past few months are also from recent graduates of vocational schools, and he has noticed two trends. “First, most have come from some other industry, which has no future in our area. For example, both Ford and Chrysler have closed large plants, and those former employees are getting an education and seeking to move into our industry. Second, while the applicants seem to have some basic technical skills, it doesn’t appear that the schools are teaching them much about people skills. When we look for service technicians, we feel that at least 50 percent of their competency must come in the area of dealing with the customer. I would prefer to have a technician who may not be the very best technically, but is excellent with the customers, as opposed to the technical wizard who is unable to talk appropriately to the customer.”

DiFilippo agreed, noting that she regularly sees individuals who look amazing on paper, only to find out they lack customer service skills or have poor troubleshooting experience. “We have seen a trend in lack of customer service skills from younger applicants. When your business focus is residential consumers, good communication skills are a must. In addition, this industry has changed more in the last five years than in the previous 10 before that; technicians most possess the skills to work on advanced equipment, understand the fundamentals of proper duct-work, and know how to use the advanced tools available today.”

Even though many small businesses may be putting the brakes on hiring over the next year, HVAC companies are looking at the poor economy as an opportunity to hire the most qualified people currently in the market. Unfortunately, there are too few qualified individuals for these open positions, but contractors will no doubt keep up the search for quality employees who can add value to their companies over the next year.

Publication date: 09/26/2011