E360 Roundtable Focuses on Tech Shortage
Forum concentrates on refrigerants, regulations, and the lack of qualified workers
ATLANTA — Through its E360 Forums, Emerson Climate Technologies Inc. offers all links of the HVAC supply chain an opportunity to discuss the future of the commercial refrigeration industry. This is made possible through a diverse audience that includes contractors, wholesalers, OEMs, facility managers, end users, and more.
The latest forum was held Feb. 18 in Atlanta and was highlighted by Drusilla Hufford, director, stratospheric protection division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who gave a national and global regulatory update, as well as Rajan Rajendran, vice president, systems innovation center and sustainability, Emerson Climate Technologies, who briefed attendees on refrigerant and energy regulations.
“As we navigate the next few years, ongoing industry participation in regulatory decisions will continue to be critical,” Rajendran said.
Perhaps the most spirited conversation took place during the panel discussion, where individuals addressed the challenges of the qualified technician shortage. This session started with the recognition that current demand far outstrips the supply of qualified HVACR employees. This will only get worse as baby boomers continue to retire in the near future.
Dan Steffen, vice president of AAA Refrigeration Service Inc. in Bronx, New York, believes the industry can sometimes be its own worst enemy.
“I have attended many trade shows and heard a lot of peers say they don’t want their kids going into this job. Why? At the end of the day, you may not be the wealthiest man in the cemetery, but this is a great industry full of smart people. Until they find another way to preserve food, this industry is recession-proof. This is a career path that people can take, and we need to change the stigma from within,” Steffen said.
Steffen shared how his son went to a private school in the Northeast, and while many of his classmates went on to Notre Dame and Boston College, his kid is studying commercial refrigeration and air conditioning at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan.
“A lot of kids look at it as a dead-end street, but it is not,” Steffen said.
Jim Alexander, chief technical officer at Epic Services LLC in Saint George, Utah, said his company is trying to break that stigma by meeting the younger generation on social media. Like many others, Alexander tripped upon HVAC because a relative was involved in it. He believes it’s well past time to broaden that reach.
“The industry does not have nearly enough exposure. We need to do a better job getting our message out to the public,” Alexander said. “Our company utilizes social media because that is how the younger generation communicates. Sometimes, the older generation does not understand that. We post a lot of pictures to show what we do. From very young ages, these kids’ faces are buried in electronic devices.”
In addition to Facebook and Twitter, Epic Services is involved with Instagram, Visco, and others.
“While attending high school, this industry was never mentioned to me,” said Ross Fazio, service director of Fazio Mechanical Services in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. “When I told my friends I was a refrigeration contractor, they thought I fixed refrigerators. This is a rewarding career. High schools need to do a better job of informing kids about the trades rather than offering college as the only option.”
Fazio said widespread awareness will require participation from the entire industry — contractors, manufacturers, and distributors. He suggested billboards, commercials, and social media as ways to inform the general public of the opportunities HVACR offers.
According to some on the panel, part of that stigma is that mechanical work is often viewed as a young person’s last resort. This is especially true after the economic downturn that started in 2008.
“The recession caused an influx of people to consider HVACR as a way to start their careers over,” said Jermaine Johnson, operations manager for Mainline Mechanical Services LLC in Jonesboro, Georgia. “Maybe they were in real estate, but, now, because they’re broke, they don’t have anything else to do so they’re trying HVAC out. It’s not for everybody. You have to have mechanical ingenuity and a willingness to do the job in the elements. The key is attracting young people who are excited about this kind of work. This is an industry where you can go as far as you want to — you can reach any level you want, if you work for it.”
Also on the panel was George Nicholson, cofounder of Vet2Tech. The group’s sole purpose is to connect U.S. military veterans with jobs in the HVACR, commercial food equipment, and residential appliance repair industries.
Last year, the company connected 400 veterans to jobs. That number reached 117 in January and exceeded 200 in February.
Nicholson said veterans coming back into the workforce want more than just a job.
“They want a career path, so it’s important managers show them just that. They’ll start as techs, but most don’t want to spend the next 40 years in that role,” Nicholson said. “Show them where they can go and give them a road map. That is one way the industry can recruit more people, by showing them all the different places they can go.”
Numerous other solutions were suggested by the panel, including wooing them with technology.
“We’re not dealing with a work problem, we’re dealing with a problem of getting the right guys in the right places to do the right jobs. That’s what is preventing our growth. Technology entices the next generation of workers, but they still need to know the basics,” Alexander said. “We’ve created a division in the company where all they do is work on advertising to attract new techs.”
Nicholson promoted the importance of having the older generation serve as role models.
“The younger generation can benefit greatly from mentorship. The aging technician group in your organization can be used to mentor the younger guys you are bringing in,” Nicholson said. “They have a lot of knowledge they can share with the younger generation and that can be used to get people to come to your company and stay there.”
The next E360 Forum is scheduled for Oct. 12 at the Westin La Paloma in Tuscon, Arizona. For more information, visit www.emersonclimate.com.
Publication date: 4/25/2016