Donald "Don" FrendbergThe U.S. Department of Labor has predicted that the market for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers will grow 34 percent between 2010 and 2020, a rate much faster than the average of all occupations. If accurate, that’s over 90,000 jobs in those specialties alone and, if extrapolated to all jobs in the industry, we face countless more vacancies that will need to be filled just to keep pace with attrition and expansion. It’s obvious the current rate of graduates from technical schools, colleges, and apprenticeship programs will be unable to fulfill the demand.

Unfortunately, the lack of skilled workers is not limited to the HVACR industry, but is rampant in virtually all other areas of the North American workforce, including our factories. The latest ManpowerGroup annual Talent Shortage Survey indicates that 49 percent of U.S. employers are finding it difficult to fill mission-critical positions. Further, Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), noted recently that “82 percent of U.S. manufacturers cannot find a sufficient number of qualified workers, which equates to 600,000 open jobs.”

The fact that the shortage extends well beyond our industry means that we must compete with other trades for the same shrinking pool of potential workers.

So, why is there such a shortage? Recent educational studies have found the current U.S. educational system is failing millions of young adults because of the system’s focus on a one-size-fits-all approach with an emphasis on four-year degrees. A two-year study by the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard University found that in spite of the emphasis on high school students going on to a four-year college, only 30 percent complete a bachelor’s degree. And a 2012 Rutgers University study showed that only 51 percent of those graduating college since 2006 had a full-time job, while 11 percent were unemployed or not working at all. So, it’s not surprising that 20 percent of the students in career and technical schools have a four-year degree and are back in school, this time seeking the skills to attain a technical career. The well-intentioned, but misguided approach by the educational establishment has left many students by the wayside, burdened with debt and without a degree or a certificate.

Long thought to be the path to reasonable financial independence, a four-year degree no longer defines success, as countless individuals with associate degrees from career and technical schools and community colleges are making more money and carrying less debt than those with four-year college degrees.

With the growth of foreign competition and the collapse of the steel and peripheral industries in the 1980s, the idea of lifetime employment in factories faded, and the importance of a college degree for success took over. Families who had grown and prospered in manufacturing and skilled employment changed their outlook and even today only three in 10 parents would encourage their own children to pursue a career in manufacturing or technical occupations. In the same vein, secondary schools moved away from technical course work such as drafting, machine, and auto shop, and put their focus into college preparation studies. This approach ignored the reality that existed then and still exists today, namely that a significant number of high school students are either not inclined toward higher education or are not educationally suited for it. And the push toward college for all has wasted valuable time and resources for those students. At the same time, the emphasis on four-year degrees and the preparation that it entails has left millions of non-college-bound students without the knowledge of career opportunities and encouragement to attain a post-secondary education to ensure career success.

For our industry’s workforce development efforts, the issue becomes one of changing the image of skilled careers in the mechanical trade both with parents and with the secondary education establishment. We need to promote careers in our industry in such a way as to make them attractive to today’s teenagers — pointing out, for example, the high-tech nature of today’s HVACR and water heating equipment, and stressing the enduring nature of the work (everyone will always need this equipment and these jobs cannot be outsourced to other nations) and the tremendous opportunities for success.

If the educational community, including guidance counselors, kept a more open mind and spent more time working with students to identify their interests and goals, more could be guided toward fulfilling careers in the mechanical trades, at a fraction of the cost and to the great benefit of ours and many other industries.

When the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation was conceptualized, three primary objectives were established: To raise the awareness of the HVACR industry and the importance it plays in daily lives; to lead in the recruitment of new entrants into the industry; and to develop programs and materials to promote careers in HVACR.

Given the challenges of changing the perception of the HVACR industry and educating those who are influential in students’ career decisions following high school, several target groups were identified. The first is secondary school counselors, teachers, and administrators, which have virtually no knowledge of the HVACR industry and its career opportunities. With the dismal statistics on college graduation rates and the critical demand for skilled workers, there is an increasing interest in finding ways to turn the course of education to serve all students equally. To be successful, the industry will need to take the HVACR message to educators and students, a task that will require the active and sustained involvement of many in the industry to make an impact. Speaking opportunities, field visits, career fairs, and other interactions with schools can be arranged and coordinated with talking points and collateral materials for those interested in getting involved.

The next target group is parents, and while many may think that will be the most difficult to impact, it may be relatively easy because much of the information can flow from the students. In fact, many parents will be reached through the aforementioned activities. By creating an excitement and interest in students, and providing information about job opportunities, salary ranges, work environments, advancement opportunities, and the portability of skills and knowledge, parents will readily understand the advantages and provide encouragement. Career HVACR personnel can easily contribute to this effort by talking to friends, parents, and church and social groups about the industry. Their enthusiasm will be infectious.

The third primary target group is veterans. The foundation is already interacting with some of these groups, and that effort will continue to expand with job boards and the coordination of Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) with skill and technical requirements in HVACR. The need to locate jobs for returning military veterans and spouses is critical, and there are many ways to contact and engage with them including through the foundation.

The foundation also sponsors an annual HVACR and Mechanical Conference for Education Professionals which brings together 250–300 teachers, trainers, and administrators of secondary and post-secondary career and technical schools and community colleges. The educators interact with industry representatives and network with peers to learn about new advances in HVACR products and technology, enhanced teaching techniques, techniques for attracting talent to their schools, and how the skills gap can and is being impacted.

In summary, there is a tremendous demand for skilled workers in manufacturing, contracting, and distribution, and there is no short-term fix. It will take years for us to make a significant impact on this problem. Working together, however, with a coordinated plan, we can ensure our industry’s growth and viability. Please join us, and let’s get started.

Publication date: 9/9/2013 

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