The labor shortage in the skilled trades has turned the search for new talent into a treasure hunt. However, the fact remains that employment of HVACR technicians and installers is projected to grow 15 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations, per the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, the HVAC Workforce Development Foundation estimates the U.S. will need 115,000 HVACR technicians by the year 2022. So, with these numbers in mind, it’s hard not to wonder where exactly the “X” that marks the spot is — where are HVACR contractors finding new employees?
Finding new employees is not the problem, it’s finding new employees with experience, noted Scott Merritt, owner of Fire & Ice Heating & Air Conditioning, Columbus, Ohio.
“Finding employees with experience is almost an impossibility, even with $5,000 sign-on bonuses available,” Merritt said. “We have searched far and wide for the answer to this problem. We had no other choice but to train new technicians from scratch. If you have a good work ethic and a good attitude, we will train you on the rest.”
Fire & Ice hired 15 new employees in 2017. The last new hire came straight out of HVAC tech school.
“There are two technical schools in our area, and we sit on the board of advisors on both,” Merritt said. “We advertise on Craigslist, ZipRecruiter, at the local tech schools, on the radio, and put magnets on our vans. Recruiting is a full-time job these days.”
Because of the shortage of experienced personnel, Fire & Ice is investing heavily into the future, Merritt noted.
“We have built the largest HVAC training lab in our market,” he said. “We now employ a full-time instructor, and we take guys directly out of HVAC school and put them through our own training program in order to make them a viable company asset. In our new, 17,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility, we invest heavily in the latest technological diagnostic equipment. Most companies are forced to train you on-site at a customer’s home. We are able to now train in a safe, non-threatening environment that allows for mistakes and a more thorough learning process.”
Additionally, Fire & Ice employees all know exactly what they need to complete in order to get to their next wage increase, and all technicians have some degree of incentive-based pay as well.
“The biggest advantage we have over most competitors is every employee has a voice,” he said. “Every employee has regular one-on-one meetings with their manager as well as department meetings where they are encouraged to share ideas and problem solving skills. When you give the employees ownership of the process, they will continually drive to make it better. The last item that differentiates us from others is we continually develop the leader within. If you have goals, we help you achieve those goals, whether they be personal or career-oriented.”
According to Merritt, the industry needs better outreach to the younger generation, informing them the trades pay well and pay sooner in life than college degrees.
“There is no single answer to solving the [labor shortage] problem,” he said. “If you want to solve your company’s labor shortage, don’t wait on others. Build your own program, recruit for your own program, and train your own long-term staff. Build it into the costs of doing business, or go out of business.”
Ken Misiewicz, CEO, Pleune Service Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, agreed that finding employees with the requisite skills and character has been an ongoing challenge.
“As an employee-owned company, our hiring practices are fairly stringent,” Misiewicz said. “Referrals account for over 80 percent of our hiring. Advertising on LinkedIn has been the most successful for office positions; however, most roles throughout the company are filled through our referral network. Because we are 100 percent employee owned and operated, we invest in people’s long-term success through mentoring, on-the-job training, formal education, industry events, and apprenticeship programs.
“I think contractors need to work on being more attractive regardless of the labor shortage or economic ups and downs,” Misiewicz continued. “Recruiting, hiring, and development are year-round activities. While I’m glad schools in many areas have geared up to meet our needs, I’m also disappointed with how many are calling on government programs/funding to help instead of owning it. These are our businesses and our needs, if we can’t invest our own time and money into developing people, the problem can’t be solved.”
As painful as the labor shortage is, Misiewicz said he is not concerned with the issue overall.
“This is a normal pendulum swing in an up market — the opposite of where we were 10 years ago — and the market will correct itself,” Misiewicz explained. “I do have concerns about the generational changes taking place. As an employee-owned company, we tend to look at employment as long-term, this thinking drives our investment into people development that is expensive on the front side [we see it as making investments]. I’m concerned that as employment becomes more modular, our team will want to hold back on training and development, thinking people will leave anyway … I’m not sure how to solve the riddle right now, but I can see the tension between short- and long-term thinking. My plan is to keep looking for people who align with our mission and values, believing that when people fit in, they will stay regardless of the generational changes taking place.”
Matt Bergstrom, president, Thornton & Grooms, Farmington Hills, Michigan, said it has been a tight job market for all employees, including field, administration, and managers.
“We made it someone’s job to just recruit,” Bergstrom said. “We’ve hired well over 10 new people in 2017; a few were replacements, but most were new team members. We have had a few come from retail and a few from trade schools. We are also growing our own employees. We have two main places new hires come from: online job boards and referrals from employees and friends.”
Bergstrom said HVAC companies need to get back to charging enough money to grow their own apprentices as well as spend money to grow current employees in order to solve the labor shortage issue.
“The trades are a great place to be, and we need to each work at communicating that to our local schools and community colleges,” he said. “I heard or read a great quote the other day. It was in the form of a question, and it asked, ‘When is the best time to plant a 30-year-old mature tree?’ The answer, of course, is 30 years ago. Then when is the second best time? Today!
“Stop lamenting about how hard and long it takes to make a great tech, plumber, or installer — start training a great ‘green’ character of a person today, and you will have a great tech, installer, or plumber before you know it,” Bergstrom continued. “You just have to invest.”
Magic Touch Mechanical Inc. in Mesa, Arizona, has also had difficulty finding new employees. The company hired nine new employees last year by utilizing social media, online job boards, local trade schools, its website, newspaper ads, and a rewards program for referrals from employees.
“We have more demand for HVAC and energy audits/efficiency improvements than we have the manpower to complete it all,” said Rich Morgan, president, Magic Touch Mechanical. “Since ‘someone moved the cheese,’ we decided to step back and look at how we could do things differently. As a result, we recently hired an in-house human resources/recruiter with vast experience in this arena. She is tasked with not only constant recruitment but also employee retention and all things associated with those responsibilities.”
The company also created an apprenticeship program to build its own technicians, installers, energy auditors, and salespeople, Morgan said.
“Upon graduation from apprenticeship to journeymen, we have created levels, each with its own set of goals and achievements that need to be mastered before progressing,” he said. “I think more companies that haven’t already are going to move toward apprenticeships and building technicians from the ground up, like we are. There is no choice really. We have to reach out to the younger generations and show them that this industry is lucrative and rewarding. We all need to make sure we are doing our part to offer defined advancement opportunities, so the ones we train are the ones training the newcomers behind them.”
San Jose, California-based Mechanical Air Service Inc. also struggles to find good potential employees, noted Russ Donnici, president of the company.
“We get a lot of applicants, but very few are potential new hires,” he said. “We are screening and testing our applicants better. We had three new hires last year, and the last one came from Craigslist. We typically use Craigslist and put the word out to vendors, etc. We also have people referred to us.
“The industry needs to be more vocal about the employment opportunities and promote itself to high schools,” Donnici added. “People don’t realize that journeymen, service techs, and installers can earn a great deal more than a typical college graduate and continue to do so throughout their careers. It’s really unfortunate because the HVAC trade provides a high level of job satisfaction, an opportunity to improve the environment people live and work in, as well as opportunities to help protect our outdoor environment and excellent pay.”
NO BIG DEAL
Unlike most, Rob Minnick, CEO and president, Minnick’s Inc., Laurel, Maryland, is not having trouble finding new employees. Minnick’s hired seven new employees last year, the last one coming from an Indeed.com ad.
“We use Indeed, ZipRecruiter, and Local Headhunter to advertise open positions,” Minnick said. “What I hear from everyone I interview and hire is that I have a structured process. And to top it all off, we are all about training and do this in-house. I hear, more than anything else, that these guys never receive specific training — maybe some generic training at a vendor but not specific as to what they need. We offer the training, and that helps make us more attractive.”
Minnick recommends never hiring on the first interview.
“Keep searching — the people are out there,” he said. “Pay attention to the résumé and how many jobs they have had in the past five years. Do a short assessment — DiSC is what we use to make sure we’re not putting a square peg in a round hole. The old slogan, ‘hire slow; fire fast,’ still works.”
St. Louis-based Welsch Heating & Cooling Co. also has no trouble finding new employees, according to its owner, Butch Welsch.
“We are a union shop, so that helps because there is a pre-qualified list of people who have signed up and are on the list, waiting to be taken by a company,” Welsch explained. “During the summer, we typically find a friend and/or relative of an employee to work on our delivery truck. We may go through two or three of them during the summer, but if we find one that seems to have the right attitude and characteristics for which we are looking, we will have him sign up for the Apprentice Program and, in the meantime, keep him in on our Residential Specialist category, where he can begin to learn the trade.
“We also steal from other companies,” he continued. “We have our existing technicians keep their eyes and ears open, especially when attending training classes.”
Welsch Heating & Cooling hired five new people last year — one was stolen from a competitor, three came through the Apprentice Program, and one was a helper on the delivery truck, waiting to be indentured into the Apprentice Program.
“We are very fortunate that we have very little turnover,” Welsch said. “In fact, nearly half of our 90 employees have been with us 15 years or more. Therefore, the need to add people typically only occurs if we are growing. So, we don’t have any formal recruiting or advertising program for new hires. We put the word out through the vendors’ sales people that call on us and through friends, etc. So far, we have always managed to come up with the people we need.”
M.L. Building Technologies, Millsboro, Delaware, is a veteran-owned company. Paul Ainsworth, owner, uses career boards through his local Veterans Affairs office.
“For the most part, I have found really good people who are more than willing and able to first learn and then apply that knowledge,” Ainsworth said. “I have three technicians. My three people started as ‘helpers’ or apprentices and had great aptitude, ability, and work ethic. I worked them into their own trucks.”
Ainsworth said the HVAC industry has done a horrific job of staying relevant with today’s workforce.
“The major reason why I started my own company is because I was tired of being taken advantage of, working 12 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week for really ungrateful owners/managers,” he said.
Ainsworth believes the needs and wants of the workforce have changed and evolved, but the industry has not.
“Young people today want and need future opportunity, a good salary, benefits, and to feel as if they are valued,” he said. “It makes me a little crazy when I hear owners complaining about the fact that they can’t find anyone who wants to work these days. It’s ridiculous — there are plenty of people who want and are fully capable of doing these jobs, but the owners have to be willing to invest in them, train them, and give them the tools and equipment that they need to do the job correctly. It’s time for the industry to do a better job at making sure the people who are told to fix the equipment are properly and completely trained, equipped, and taken care of. Only then will there be a renewed interest in the skilled trades and especially in the HVACR industry.”
Publication date: 3/5/2018