There are far more questions than answers when it comes to attracting the next generation of students into the skilled trades. Contractors, manufacturers, and industry organizations may have varying approaches when it comes to generating interest and excitement in young people about mechanical contracting, but all sectors agree the available value and opportunity present in HVAC make it an easy sell.

The Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) has taken a unique and intriguing approach to ensuring HVAC’s future success through its student chapters program.


“The idea for the program originated at Purdue University in the early 1990s,” said Troy Aichele, chairman, career development committee, MCAA, and business unit leader, Hermanson Co. in Kent, Washington. “Professor John Koontz, who is now the director of MCAA’s National Education Initiative, believed that mechanical, electrical, and plumbing [M-E-P] students learn best when they can actually see mechanical systems’ installation or operating equipment.”

In the program’s infancy, Koontz arranged tours of construction sites and finished installations with a group of Indiana contractors. He also established a relationship between the local MCA of Indiana and its students, which helped the program secure internships and full-time professional employment. He arranged for one or two students to attend the MCAA convention to meet contractors and learn more about the industry.

The proverbial ball began rolling from there.

“The Purdue model worked so well that it became the basis for the MCAA student chapter program, which was established in 1998,” said Aichele.

MCAA’s Board of Directors established the program to attract well-educated, well-qualified future young professionals into the industry to keep it growing and thriving.

“In effect, the board wanted to create a wellspring of talent and energy to not only replace an aging workforce, but who would also bring fresh ideas and approaches to the industry, said Koontz. “And, by the way, this is actually working pretty well.”


According to Aichele, there are several goals within the program designed to help both MCAA’s contractor members and the students:

• Learn more about the industry and the business of mechanical and mechanical service contracting;

• Gain professional experience through internships; and

• Secure a full-time professional position with an MCAA member company.

In its 18 years of existence, the program has grown to 52 chapters across the country.

“The program is administered by MCAA’s Career Development Committee, which consists of about a dozen very committed contractors who believe strongly in its mission and goals,” said Aichele. “The program works closely with local affiliated associations that sponsor student chapters at nearby colleges and universities. Local associations are motivated to start programs to help teach, mentor, and attract young professionals to their member companies. With so much competition for smart, well-educated young professionals among various industries combined with an aging workforce, the need to bring these young people into our industry is becoming more important. MCAA’s local affiliated associations have grown increasingly more appreciative of the value of student chapters as a great resource for their members.”

Those resources showcase themselves through student internship grants that MCAA makes available to its members in an effort to encourage the recruitment and hiring of students for temporary, summer, and part-time positions.

“The practical experience that the students gain helps their career advancement, and the injection of fresh ideas and outlooks benefits the contractors,” said Aichele. “It’s truly a win-win for all involved.”

In addition to practical experience, two years ago, MCAA established the GreatFutures website to provide students with a forum to post résumés for internships and full-time jobs. More than 200 students have posted profiles complete with résumés, career interests, and location preferences. MCAA members use the site to search for and recruit students in a variety of employment opportunities.


These student chapters have also been encouraged to take part in a healthy competition every year since 2000-2001. According to Aichele, the projects that make up the Student Chapters Competition are based on actual construction projects, either in construction or finished.

For example, the 2016-2017 competition features 24 student chapters working on renovating the Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, wastewater treatment plant. The successful team will act as a general contractor and be charged with assisting and coordinating the design of new improvements to the facility as well as planning and executing the construction effort using all the necessary trades without causing the existing plant to shut down.

They use the actual drawings and background information from the original projects. The prizes are $10,000 for first place, $5,000 for second place, and $2,500 for the other two finalists as four teams are selected to deliver oral presentations at the MCAA convention.

“The Career Development Committee sponsors the competition each year and provides much of the legwork for the project and administration,” said Aichele. “The project for each competition is announced at the MCAA Student Chapter and Mechanical Contractors Summit, usually in October. Chapter teams have until mid-December to prepare and submit a project bid. They also have until the end of November to submit requests for information (RFIs), which one or two committee members answer. The judges are given about two to three weeks to judge around 25 to 30 submissions.”

In early January, the judges meet at MCAA’s office to review and evaluate all the submissions based on objective scoring. The four top scoring teams are then invited to deliver oral presentations in a general session at the next MCAA convention. They are given 15 minutes to make their presentations and then submit to five minutes of Q&A from the judges.

There are five judges for the final competition — three on stage and two in the audience. The on-stage judges ask the questions while the audience judges view and rate the overall presentation. After the competition, the judges retreat for 90 minutes to discuss and choose the winners. The results are announced at the Annual Awards of Excellence Ceremony.

The student chapters program and its annual competition are continuing to expand. In the last two years, MCAA has charted three new chapters at Western Illinois University, Ball State University, and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Two more are in the works at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and Missouri State University.

The next MCAA convention will take place March 5-9 in San Diego. For more information, visit

Publication date: 1/30/2017

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