“HVAC equipment has no idea what is going on in the economy and never will. Replacement and repairs are inevitable — kind of like death and taxes. The problem will continue to be finding younger workers who have the desire and motivation to do more than point and click in a comfort-controlled environment.”

Those are the words of contractor Paul Sammataro, president of Samm’s Heating and Air Conditioning in Plano, Texas. He and other contractors across the nation are finding that although the HVAC industry has experienced change in the recent economic crisis, its need for skilled labor and certified technicians has not been completely abated by the influx of displaced workers from the economic downturn.

Other trade industries as well as the federal government have noticed this problem, too. Despite the positive growth in employment reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for January 2012, there is a widening gap between the jobs that are available and the number of those who possess the skills and desire to fill the positions.

Problem Solved?

Blame for the skills gap does not rest only on the shoulders of the economy. In an interview with CNN.com, Rob Akers, vice president of the National Tooling and Machining Association, said that part of the explanation of the shortage comes from the fact that technical school enrollment for multiple trades have been down for some time.

An HVAC contractor The NEWS interviewed concurred with these sentiments, noting that the future of HVAC looked like it was in trouble for manpower, too.

According to Luis Villafania, president of Advanced Heating and Cooling LLC in Reisterstown, Md., “I am concerned that one day we are going to have a major shortage of field technicians. We had a taste of it a few years back when the economy was better. As the economy improves, I believe that the lack of technicians will become a reality once again.”

To help address the lack of skilled workers problem in the nation, President Obama rolled out a blueprint to train “two million workers with skills that will lead directly to a job,” during his Jan. 24 State of the Union address. On Feb. 13 he announced a new $8 billion Community College to Career Fund.

“It provides funding for community colleges and states to partner with businesses to train workers in a range of high-growth and in-demand areas,” said a release from the office of the press secretary.

“These investments will give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers where people learn crucial skills that local businesses are looking for right now, ensuring that employers have the skilled workforce they need and workers are gaining industry-recognized credentials to build strong careers.”

Attracting a Younger Crowd

Obama’s plan will take some time to fully implement and there are questions as to what specific industry sectors will obtain actual funding. In the meantime, the HVAC industry continues to search for a source of skilled, motivated workers.

According to the Pew Research Center, the prime targets for finding new labor candidates could be young adults, 18 to 24 years old. Employment statistics show they were the hardest-hit group during the economic downturn and that they continue to struggle to find employment.

“The employment rate for young adults fell more than for any other age group. Just over half of 18- to 24-year-olds (54.3 percent) were employed in 2011, compared with 62.4 percent in 2007, a 13 percent decrease,” Pew reported. “The current employment rate, along with a nearly identical one in 2010 (54 percent), marked the lowest employment-to-population ratio for young adults since 1948.”

How can the HVAC industry convince this group of candidates to choose its trade?

Mike Beaver, president of Beaver Brothers Inc. in Salisbury, N.C., explained, “We aren’t attracting the right people into our industry, partially because we don’t do enough to make HVAC attractive enough.”

One thing contractors believe is helping to make HVAC more attractive are the advances being made in the equipment, system design, installation standards, and maintenance procedures.

“I can see in the near future more college-degree-holding field personnel with advanced training in circuitry, thermal dynamics, and design because of the increase in green applications, IAQ, and building management challenges that HVAC technicians are faced with,” said Fred Kobie, president, CEO, and COO of Kobie Kooling Inc., Fort Myers, Fla. “We have a product whose need is ever increasing, technology ever changing, and growth opportunity is endless. It is rewarding as a profession and a solid way to make an honest living.”

HVAC Seeks Professionals

Addressing the need for skilled HVAC technicians has been an ongoing process for the industry. The problem of aging boomers and uninterested millenials will likely take more time to fix. In filling the technician gap, however, Skip Ronan, owner of Abell’s One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, in Scituate, Mass., cautioned other contractors to be careful when they hire new employees.

“We’ve got an industry that’s flooded with hacks and wannabes when we need solid techs who understand science, physics, math, and mechanics,” he said.

“If the entry-level techs have a ‘can do’ attitude and the desire to continuously learn, then they’re in the right industry. If they just want to punch a time clock and head for the fishin’ hole at quitting time, then I’d recommend they do something else. We need pros, not wannabes.”

What are you doing to recruit and train the next generation of HVAC technicians? Go to www.facebook.com/achrnews and let us know.

Sidebar: Putting America Back to Work

What does President Obama have to say about America’s job situation? At www.whitehouse.gov, he sums up five things the public should know about jobs and the economy.

• Businesses have created nearly 3.7 million private-sector jobs in the past 23 months.

• American manufacturers have added 334,000 jobs in the past two years, growing for the first time since the 1990s.

• Since 2009, the Small Business Administration has helped distribute more than $70 billion in loans for 150,000 small businesses.

• Obama’s middle-class tax cuts, signed into law in Dec. 2010, provided tax relief for 160 million workers to help jumpstart the economy.

Publication date: 03/26/2012