While a shortage of competent HVAC technicians has plagued the industry for more than a decade, one national contractor has uncovered a very effective way to fill that void.

Comfort Systems USA, a Houston-based HVAC commercial contracting company that has grown its nationwide presence by acquiring and growing mechanical contractors and uniting them in a matrix that serves both local and national accounts, has found great success in utilizing our country’s great military system.

“Finding an ample supply of qualified technicians has been an issue for our industry for years,” said Brian Lane, president and CEO, Comfort Systems USA. “Within Comfort Systems, we went deep into this topic and found that many of our more successful operating companies were recruiting from the military as a best practice. They also had military sites as clients and as such had strong relationships.

“We recognized there was an untapped wealth of highly trained, detail-oriented talent. Although we might have to train them in commercial HVAC, they already had the kind of committed, focused background we were looking for. In the not-too-distant future, we can see a point where a larger share of hires are veterans.”

The Veteran Advantage

One of Comfort Systems’ operating companies that has benefited immensely from hiring vets is Comfort Systems Syracuse – Woodcock & Armani, a mechanical contracting firm with locations in Syracuse and Rochester, New York. “Not only do we rub shoulders with military technicians and engineers on a daily basis while working on their bases, but our president, Denys Thompson, is retired from the Navy’s Construction Battalion, better known as the Sea Bees. He is also a master chief in the Naval Reserve,” said Jack Mutter, vice president of construction, Comfort Systems Syracuse – Woodcock & Armani.

Comfort Systems’ focus on hiring veterans hasn’t been lost on the veterans they’ve already hired. Van Linnartz is a master refrigeration mechanic for Comfort Systems in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Before joining the team, he served 21 years in the Air Force as an aircraft mechanic. “Comfort Systems is a perfect fit for me,” he said. “The systems, company, and management are similar to what we had in the service.”

Intelligent Recruiting

“It isn’t like we hire people just because they’re veterans,” said Ethan Graham, operations manager for ColonialWebb, a Comfort Systems company with eight locations in North Carolina; South Carolina; Virginia; and Washington, District of Columbia. “Almost all veterans are detail-oriented, organized, and disciplined, so we look for individuals with experience that translates to what we do. For instance, we recently hired two vets. One was an electrician and the other a nuclear machinist. The electrician’s useful skill set is obvious. The machinist has experience that translates nicely to our design-build programs.

“Also, since we service a lot of local bases and shipyards, we are able to evaluate the soldiers and sailors we work with and talk to them about their future after the service. That’s where a lot of our veterans come from.

“My specialty is building automation so I look for more advanced skills. In my experience with on-the-job training, we can have a new veteran employee contributing productively in three to six months. That’s a lot more efficient than a five-year apprentice program.”

A New Approach

“While we’ve always encouraged veteran recruitment at the local level, we’ve decided to make it easier for our local Comfort Systems companies and our potential veteran employees to connect through our website,” said Lindsey Harris, marketing manager, Comfort Systems USA. “That’s why on Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11, 2014, we launched a new Web page dedicated to veteran recruitment. It will honor our veterans’ service and give them an opportunity to submit their resumes, listen to other veterans who are working with us tell their stories and share their experiences, and connect to independent veterans associations such as Soldiers for Life, US Military Pipeline, and Veterans Hired.

To help them with their transition, Comfort Systems is investing in online training for new HVAC technicians.

“We’ve realized that education delivery has evolved over the past 20 years and, in today’s environment, we need to find better ways to bring the training to our techs. With an online approach, we can make classes available to current and future technicians in a way that fits their schedule.”

Perhaps one veteran’s own comments sums it up best. Mike Jennings has worked his way up to operations manager at Comfort Systems South Central in Houston after serving four years in the Air Force as a nuclear ICBM Minuteman 3 Technician. “The training and educational opportunities are structured very much like the military,” said Jennings. “The most important thing that keeps me here at Comfort Systems is the core values that this company stands for. Also, it’s important to me that I see our leaders here walk the walk. It brings a great sense of pride; like the pride I still carry for the men and women in our armed services in our country.”

Lane said there is great support for this initiative inside of Comfort Systems. “We’re pretty excited about what this will do for our ability to better serve our customers moving forward. A focus on helping veterans transition into HVAC positions makes great business sense for us. It’s the right thing to put some energy behind.”

Publication date: 11/10/2014

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