The late, great D. Brian Baker, president of Custom Vac Ltd. in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and a frequent contributor to The NEWS, once said the labor shortage in the HVAC industry could be attributed, at least in part, to families having fewer children these days.
“Our parents and grandparents had so many kids, because they worked on a farm or had their own small businesses that required skilled labor, so they produced their own labor,” Baker said. “When I grew up, it was not uncommon for families to have four or more kids, and most worked in the family business.”
Those days are long gone, as families have fewer offspring, and those children now have the option to choose vocations that differ from their parents. Even with the plethora of career choices available, most in the HVAC world are hopeful their kids follow in their footsteps, noting that even though the industry isn’t perfect, it can provide ample opportunities and a great career path to those willing to work hard and earn it.
Donald W. Steward Jr., president, W.B. Steward & Son, Woodbury Heights, New Jersey, followed his father into the HVAC business and would encourage his children to do the same.
As the third-generation owner and the only family member left in the business, Steward said there will always be a need for heating and cooling services, which validates HVAC as a solid career path.
“There is a great potential to earn a lot of money as a professional in the business,” he said. “My job has allowed my wife to stay at home and raise three children without day care expenses. And because of my flexible schedule, I am able to attend my children’s activities at any time.”
Beyond the earning potential and flexible schedule, Steward likes being able to solve problems and deal with clients on a daily basis.
“Thanks to my father, I am the type of person who believes anything can be fixed,” he said. “This job can be very rewarding when your clients are satisfied, and it is continually challenging because everything is always changing.”
Chris Hunter, president and co-owner, Hunter Supertechs, Ardmore, Oklahoma, was thrilled when his son, Austin Hunter, decided to join the family business.
“Austin graduated high school this year, and I’ve always encouraged him to do whatever he wanted. That being said, I wanted him to work the summers at our company and also take HVAC classes at the technology center just in case he did elect to come to work with us.”
Being the son of a business owner, Austin Hunter grew up seeing how hard it could be, said Chris Hunter, because everything concerning the business affects the whole family.
“But, Austin also saw how our work can truly make a difference and how many lives are touched by our influence,” Chris Hunter said. “Ultimately, he decided to join our team. He is doing a great job and will be getting his license soon.”
Hunter’s son-in-law, Jacob Lindsey, also works for the company, serving as its service leader.
“Jacob is doing an awesome job leading a multi-million dollar service department at the age of 22,” said Chris Hunter. “And even though my daughter doesn’t officially work for the company, she is very involved. She’ll go on service calls with Jacob after hours, organize company events, and is always looking out for what’s best for the team.”
Chris Hunter loves working with both his son and son-in-law, noting there is nothing better than being able to spend his life with those who mean the most to him.
“I love knowing that all the hard work we are putting in will be a generational legacy,” he said. “It’s extremely rewarding to be able to pass the torch and be a mentor, so they can take our business to even higher levels.”
The numerous career opportunities within every level of the HVAC industry are the reasons why Patti Ellingson, director of HVACR sales, North America, Cooper-Atkins Corp., would encourage young people to enter the trade.
“I have a passion for this industry,” she said. “The people I work with are not just coworkers but more like a family. Once you have the foundation and understanding of the HVACR system and how it works, you are able to transition that knowledge into any product and help provide solutions to customers. Whether or not you are college bound, the HVACR industry offers tremendous career opportunities.”
In a previous life, Ellingson worked as a business development specialist in a credit union but after giving a corporate presentation, she was offered a job in the air filtration industry.
“I knew nothing of HVACR or IAQ, but the president of the company saw something in me that he said could not be taught,” she said. “I took a chance by leaving a successful job in banking, and through training and education, I became very successful in HVACR.”
Paul Kuiper, general manager of Wolff Mechanical in Tempe, Arizona, would also encourage his kids to pursue a career in HVAC as this would allow them to be on the cutting-edge of an innovative industry.
“I would not only encourage my children to be a part of it but to carry the torch for their generation to make a/c contracting cool again,” he said. “There is so much opportunity in our industry and so many awesome products being developed and engineered; I absolutely support being part of the push to get folks back into trade schools.”
Attending a high-quality trade school is a great alternative to going to college, because it allows individuals to find good jobs and make great money with a fraction of the investment needed to attend a traditional four-year school, Kuiper said.
“My kids will be encouraged to pursue their passions, no matter the industry or career, but if their passions are consistent with my passion of creating high-quality HVAC companies focused on innovation, technology, and energy savings, then I would be all for it and support that 100 percent,” he said.
Passion for the trade is also what John Boylan, general manager of Lakeside Service Co. in Brighton, Michigan, would like to see from his kids before encouraging them to enter the HVAC industry.
“It would need to be their choice first,” he said. “This industry has so much potential, but it needs men and women who are passionate about the trades and professional services. If my children have the desire and interest, I would support them with all of my heart.”
Don Gillis, outside sales, Plumbers Supply, Louisville, Kentucky, has served as a service technician for more than 25 years and while he absolutely loves this industry, he’s very concerned about its future.
“One of my sons entered the HVAC industry right out of high school, and the pay scale is not even close to what it should be,” he said. “There are many easier paths young people can take that offer better pay and benefits, and those in the industry need to start figuring out quickly what they can do to help. We also need to be approaching young men and women about careers in HVAC before they ever reach high school. We need to make mechanicals cool again.”
Perhaps part of making the industry cool is changing the job title of service technician to thermodynamic energy specialist, said Joe Kokinda, president and CEO of Professional HVAC/R Services Inc. in Avon Lake, Ohio. “There is a lack of understanding as to what we actually do, and the title of HVAC tech is not one that draws interest any longer, as it is much too broad a description.”
Kokinda came into the HVAC industry as a result of a stint in the Navy, and his two sons, Joey and Bryan, followed him into the business as well.
“I never pushed them to pursue refrigeration or the mechanical trades while they were growing up, and they never approached me during these formative years with questions,” he said. “They worked with me during their summers, though, and Joey and Bryan now serve as COO and CIO of our businesses. I am proud of their efforts.”
Still, Kokinda’s sons have expressed some frustration with the industry.
“As far as being happy with their career choices, I think that might be a stretch,” he said. “That said, they are drinking from the fire hose that I consistently preach, and they are learning how to teach and change the paradigm. Motivation and passion are what they are learning about now, identifying and then eliminating waste to constantly improve our processes. Getting passionate staff for field work remains our No. 1 effort. Sadly, this seems to be what the future bodes for all of those involved in our trades.”
Getting young people passionate about the trade may first mean letting them know it exists.
“We are a well-kept secret,” said Jon Hirsch, director of business development, Auer Steel & Heating Supply Co. in Milwaukee. “We’re behind the scenes. We’re not a glamourous industry, and like many skilled trades, there is a negative stigma associated with us. Parents are misinformed and don’t realize or recognize the tremendous opportunity our industry can provide.”
And the reason why many do not know about these opportunities is because the industry has not done a good job of telling its story, he said.
“People don’t realize our industry offers careers in every professional area, including marketing, management, accounting, finance, human resources, social media, customer service, sales, operations, information technology (IT), business ownership, and executive management,” said Hirsch. “They don’t realize the tremendous job security available in our industry. They don’t know that we spend our days helping people. They don’t realize how important the HVAC industry is to everyone. We need to do a better job of sharing our story. We need moms and dads to know our industry is not dirty, dark, and dangerous. We need to proudly espouse the importance of what we do.”
Sharing the story is much harder these days as many schools no longer offer vocational programs, which often introduced students to the HVAC industry.
“California has eliminated vocational education from its high schools, and only a fraction of students go on to four-year colleges,” said Mike Greany, service manager, All Pro Plumbing Heating and Air, Ontario, California. “Most go to community colleges, and only a small percentage actually graduate. Fewer, still, will be able to get jobs. That leaves the market flooded with people who don’t know what they’re going to do, which leaves a gaping hole in our industry.”
Greany would love to see his daughters go into HVAC, but he acknowledges it’s unlikely.
“My two girls are definitely college bound, but should they decide that’s not for them, I would absolutely welcome them into the industry that has provided for my family and I for the last 30 years,” he said. “I am always eager and excited at the possibility of increasing the number of female heating and air conditioning techs in our industry.”
Greany is less excited about the caliber of most recent graduates seeking employment with his company.
“Every time I run an ad, I get somewhere between 30 and 50 applicants from the local trade schools, and these guys come in full of entitlement,” he said. “They were misled and told they were going to be a tech the first year, and that’s not the case. At my company, everyone — including myself — does installations. My new hires have to work at least one season in install before I’ll even consider them for maintenance positions, let alone as service techs. Even though they have some knowledge, they don’t have any hands-on experience right out of school.”
Many trade schools also do not give students the full picture when it comes to employment opportunities in HVAC, said Rob Sexton, mechanical maintenance, Delta College, Bay City, Michigan.
“I think schools do a great disservice to students by basically setting them up to only be service technicians,” he said. “What I learned in school was essential and valuable, but I never felt like we had many career options presented to us.”
In particular, Sexton would like to see schools better educate students about all the career paths associated with building automation systems and controls, as that kind of technology is appealing to young people. He would also like to see schools cover steam and process piping more thoroughly.
“There’s a shortage of boiler operators and powerhouse workers,” continued Sexton. “I feel this is largely due to the irreplaceable generation that’s getting ready to retire,” continued Sexton. “Steam might seem old-fashioned, but it’s everywhere. Really, the field is so huge and has so many possibilities, I think everyone can find a niche.”
Sexton says he feels lucky to have transitioned out of field/service work into a boiler operator/maintenance position for a community college.
“Contracting is physically demanding, and I’ve met a lot of guys in their early 30s to mid-40s who are in rough shape,” he said. “Would I want my kid going into this industry? Personally, no, as there are easier ways to earn a living. I have three daughters, and I’d rather not see them marry contractors.”
With fewer kids following their parents into HVAC, the labor shortage in the trade is likely to continue, which means every industry member, from schools to contractors to distributors to manufacturers, will need to do their part to educate young people about the numerous career opportunities that await in HVAC.
Publication date: 8/7/2017