The HVAC industry has struggled for years with a skilled labor shortage. Various explanations for why this is happening run the gamut from lack of vocational training in high schools to an aging population to parents pushing their children to attend college rather than trade school.

But it’s not just the HVAC industry that is struggling to find workers, as labor force participation in the U.S. has slipped from 67.3 percent in 2000 to 62.7 percent in January 2018. The reason for this decline may be a result of increased drug use, noted Alan Krueger, Princeton University economist. His study, “Where Have All the Workers Gone? An Inquiry Into the U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate,” posits that a national increase in prescriptions for opioids between 1999 and 2015 could account for a 20 percent decline in labor force participation among men in their prime working ages of 25-54.

Adding to this weak labor force participation rate is the rise in potential new hires, as well as existing employees, who are testing positive for drug use. According to Quest Diagnostics’ Drug Testing Index, increases in illicit drug use drove workforce drug positivity to its highest rate in 12 years in 2017, with both cocaine and marijuana positivity increasing significantly over the last four years.

None of this is good news for contractors, who are continually looking for new employees in a shrinking pool of qualified, drug-free workers. But many have thought outside the box, devising new and creative ways of securing good people who do not use drugs.


Despite all the dire statistics, most contractors report they are not seeing an uptick in the number of potential new hires testing positive for drug use. One of the reasons may be that many are changing their practices so that addicts opt out of the hiring process after learning they have to take a drug test.

That’s the case at Air Services Heating and Air Conditioning and All Service Plumbing, Springfield, Missouri, where Rich Callahan, general manager, has instituted a multi-interview process designed to weed out drug users as well as those who would not be a good fit at the company. The first interview consists of a job fair, which is open to anyone who has expressed interest in the company. There, Callahan explains the culture of the company, the importance of excellent customer service, and what each job entails. He also talks about how new hires will have to undergo an initial drug test (and random drug tests after being hired) and a criminal background check if they want to work for him.

“Some people decide right then and there that they can’t work for us, and they walk out,” said Callahan. “We don’t know if it’s because they don’t like the customer service side of it or they don’t like our uniforms or if they can’t pass a drug test. We don’t ask why they’re leaving, but we have quite a few who just walk out and never come back.”

Those who stay are invited to a second interview, where they fill out an application that asks whether they can pass a criminal background check and if they give consent for a drug test. If they answer affirmatively to both questions, they are invited to a third interview, during which time they can ride along with technicians, ask questions, and see what a typical day looks like.

“After that, if we still like them and all the managers agree, we offer them a job, provided they can pass the drug test and a criminal background check,” said Callahan. “Marijuana is not legal in Missouri, and only about 5 percent of potential new hires fail the drug test. That rate hasn’t changed much over the years. I think many self-select out of the process because they know they can’t pass the test. Still, we’ve had some people surprise us. We think they’re top candidates, then they can’t pass the drug test.”

Potential new hires at AAA Heating & Air Conditioning in Kent, Washington, also have to go through a multistage vetting process before becoming employees. Marijuana is legal in the state of Washington, but Angie White, director of human resources, has not seen a spike in positive drug tests, thanks to her comprehensive screening process that eliminates candidates before they reach the drug-testing stage.

“There are no silver bullets when it comes to finding drug-free workers,” said White. “However, since I started working at this company in 2009, I have created and refined my hiring process to find the best candidates. In my process, I let candidates know in three of the steps that they have to be able to pass the drug test before they even make it to the actual drug screening. This eliminates, in advance, many of the applicants who might have tested positive if they had made it to the final step of the drug test.”

An extensive interviewing process is also par for the course at Nice Home Services, Springfield, Virginia. According to CEO Craig Elliott, the company’s recruiting process is rigorous and starts with a phone screening and ends in a panel interview.

“Many candidates won’t even make it to the point where a drug test would be required,” he said. “We administer a drug screening after we send a job offer but before the candidate is hired. We have had a good track record when it comes to hiring. We have never had a current employee fail a drug test, but we have had to turn quite a few candidates away.”

Marijuana is illegal in Virginia, so Elliott hasn’t noticed an increase in potential new hires testing positive for drug use.

“We understand the importance to our clients and our team members to ensure that we keep our work place drug free,” he said. “That’s why we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to illegal drugs.”


Kevin Walsh, president, Schaafsma Heating & Cooling, Grand Rapids, Michigan, said the best way to find drug-free workers is to look for people who have a great attitude and want to work hard but have little to no experience in the industry.

“Hiring experienced HVAC people is really difficult, so we have been hiring them with no experience and then training them,” he said. “Most are referrals from current employees, which is a good thing, because when we look for new people, we don’t get many applicants. Our employees always seem to know a friend or relative who they would recommend, though.”

Medical marijuana is legal in Michigan, and there is a push to make recreational use legal as well, but Walsh has not noticed an impact in positive drug tests. Still, his position is that employees can’t use marijuana — period.

“The potential problem I see is if a person uses it at home on a Friday night and gets in an accident Monday in a company truck, I can’t prove that the employee wasn’t impaired at the time of the accident,” he said. “In a serious accident, I have no idea how that would play out in court, so I would rather not be in that position. Plus, we deal with a flammable product that produces a deadly gas (CO), and I think the liability is too great to allow off-time use.”

Callahan has also found success in growing his own talent pool. To make sure everyone is properly trained, he built a new 1,400-square-foot lab and furnished it with fully operational air conditioners and furnaces.

“We start with basic electrical concepts and just continue from there” he said. “It’s a significant investment. I figure it costs about $10,000 to get somebody trained to clean and tune an air conditioner. But the work is there — the people are not. And the good thing is, once we train them, they stay. I very seldom lose anyone anymore.”

While all the contractors here have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to active drug use, none are opposed to hiring recovering addicts.

“Just because someone is a recovering addict doesn’t mean that they would be a bad employee,” White said. “As long as they can pass our extensive interview process, drug testing, and background check just like every other candidate is required to, I see no reason not to hire them.”  



According to Angie White, director of human resources, AAA Heating & Air Conditioning, Kent, Washington, a rigorous vetting process can almost guarantee all potential new hires who are sent for a drug test will pass, which saves contractors valuable time and money.

Her step-by-step process is as follows:

1. Place the right job ad — White has spent much time refining the wording of job ads for each position to attract the right candidates.

“In our ads, I state that our company is drug-free, with the hope that people who use drugs will disqualify themselves,” she said. “I pay JobScore, a hiring candidate management system, to place all of my ads on Craigslist and Indeed as well as 16 other sites that JobScore automatically posts to for free.”

2. Screen the candidates’ resumes — When candidates apply, they submit their resume through JobScore, and White reviews them to determine who fits the criteria that she is looking for in that specific job.

3. Phone interviews — If there are candidates who fit White’s criteria for a particular position, she will call and interview them.

“My phone interviews are fairly extensive and can take 15-30 minutes to complete,” she explained. “I treat all candidates the same and ask the exact same questions of everyone. During the interview, I ask them if they are able to pass a drug screen, and if they say no, that’s an easy disqualification (and trust me, it happens). If they pause before they say yes, I delve deeper and ask more follow-up questions. At times, those follow-up questions will reveal that they are unable to pass the test and they are disqualified.”

4. In-person interview with White — Because she screens so extensively in the phone interview, only about one out of every 20 candidates from that stage passes and is invited in to interview at her office.

“Again, every candidate receives the same set of questions that I have refined over years of research and testing in interviews,” she said.

5. In-person interview with department manager — Approximately 25 percent of the candidates White interviews in person will make it to the next stage, where they will interview with the manager of the department in which they will potentially be working.

6. Job offer — If the department manager agrees the candidate would be a good fit, he/she is extended a conditional job offer that depends on the results of the drug screen, background check, and driving record.

“I provide another opportunity for someone to disqualify themselves before the screenings when I ask if there is anything that we need to know before we run these checks,” said White. “I explain that it looks much better for them if they are truthful up front than if they try to explain away results afterwards. I have found that people generally are honest in their responses at this stage.”

7. Screenings — At this point, almost everyone passes through the checks due to how diligent White has been during the process.

“It’s extremely rare for someone to not pass a drug screen at this point,” she said.

Publication date: 3/26/2018

Want more HVAC industry news and information? Join The NEWS on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn today!