More than 130 industry educators and professionals recently gathered at the base of the picturesque Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Colo., for the 2013 HVACR & Mechanical Conference for Education Professionals. But they were not there to admire the scenery or take in a round of golf — they were there to learn from each other and discuss ways to shape the future of the industry.

Over three days, conference-goers attended classes on subjects like how to teach hydrocarbons safety, how to teach commercial HVACR without a commercial lab, and how to most effectively instruct today’s generation of HVACR students. But the much broader underlying theme of the conference was the understanding that the industry, especially educators, must do something to attract new talent.

Bye-Bye, Boomers

As members of the baby boomer generation transition into retirement, more and more qualified individuals are needed to take their places in the workforce. Currently, the number of jobs opening up in the industry far outpaces the number of workers available to fill them.

Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, the nonprofit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, highlighted the need for new talent in her keynote speech.

“Eighty-two percent of our nation’s manufacturers can’t find qualified workers — that equates to 600,000 open jobs,” McNelly said. “Manufacturers need a highly skilled workforce.”

But the shortage of talent does not only apply to manufacturing jobs. In a recent survey conducted by Fluke Corp. of more than 1,600 HVAC educators, professionals, and employers, an astounding 85 percent of employers reported it was difficult or very difficult to find entry-level technicians with acceptable skills.

“We have a tremendous work shortage coming up,” said Warren Lupson, director of education for the Air-Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), during his keynote address. “And that is on top of the problem that already exists.”

Don Frendberg, executive director, HVACR Workforce Development, believes the problem is that the industry is simply not attracting students as it should.

“We haven’t, as an industry, done a very good job of getting the word out about our industry, but the potential is there,” Frendberg told conference attendees during the closing keynote address. “Our goal is to go out to the high schools, middle schools, and junior highs, talk to those students and counselors, and get the word out to the parents about our industry and the careers that are available.”

Fixing a Broken Image

McNelly said students simply are not drawn to the industry in the same way they are drawn to other careers, in part because secondary schools often perpetuate that a four-year degree is more useful than an associate’s degree or vocational training.

“A four-year degree no longer defines success, but for many families, it’s not even a question that their children will go to college,” McNelly said. “However, individuals graduating with technical degrees are making more than four-year baccalaureate graduates.”

The disparity between the perception of industry jobs and the reality is so significant, she added, that only three out of 10 parents today would encourage their own children to pursue a career in manufacturing.

“The parents say, ‘let’s make more manufacturing jobs, but let’s not encourage our kids to pursue them,’” McNelly said. “The supply chain of workers is broken, and we have to stop talking about it and act on it.”

Fixing that supply chain, however, will take time and a coordinated effort from businesses, industry organizations, and educators.

“It’s really about parents, teachers, and counselors, and it’s about the people who influence parents,” McNelly said. “How do we tap into that market?”

Putting on Make-Up

One of the most effective ways to cultivate interest in HVACR industry jobs is by getting into the schools and talking to students, parents, and counselors about the benefits of working in the HVAC industry — something McNelly said is not being done nearly as well or as often as it should be.

“This is a ground game in public relations,” McNelly said, adding that many small- to medium-sized manufacturing businesses, which comprise 80 percent of the manufacturing industry, often do not have the means to employ individuals who are dedicated to acquiring new talent. “Education in this country is, by nature, driven at a local level,” she added.

In an effort to change public perception of industry jobs, McNelly said the Manufacturing Institute established the industry’s first-ever national education council. “We started listening to educators,” she said. “We assembled representation from the K-12 system, community colleges, technical colleges, and four-year institutions.”

The Manufacturing Institute recently organized the first Manufacturing Day, in which 250 manufacturers participated. “Part of our responsibility is to inspire the next generation, to help them understand the opportunities,” McNelly said.

McNelly isn’t alone in the fight to allure the next generation into the HVACR industry. Greg Josefchuk, strategic programs leader for Trane/Ingersoll Rand, said his company is also doing its part to attract new talent.

“We’ve decided as a company to get into the game and really support career and technical education,” Josefchuk said. “This is a complex issue, and it really has to do with the prosperity of our country.”

Lupson also appealed to educators at the conference to do their part to attract new students, too. “The people who come to these types of conferences, we need your help connecting with your administrators. We need your help getting the students, parents, and everybody else involved in this industry.”

“We need to own this image problem and start by changing it one school at a time, one parent at a time, one child at a time,” McNelly said. “We need to promote a positive image, we need to stand as policy leaders when it is questioned if technical education needs to be funded — and the answer is yes. We need to talk to our peers. In the end, you have to be a champion in your community.”

Lupson stressed that time is of the essence. “We can’t afford not to do something now.” Lupson agreed. “The future of our industry depends on it. It depends on us.”

Publication date: 4/15/2013