With a national unemployment rate of 8 percent, you might think finding good workers wouldn't be a problem for HVACR wholesalers.
But you'd be wrong. Just ask Rhonda Wight, vice president of Valley View, Ohio-based Refrigeration Sales Corp.
"We're struggling," she said. "We're really struggling to find people."
And Wight is not alone. Many distributors say it's a challenge to find good workers who have industry expertise. The top candidates are likely already employed, which means they have to be wooed with better pay or benefits, and the specialized nature of HVACR distribution means there is a small pool to draw from, they add.
The problem affects companies of all sizes and regions. John Batchelor is in charge of human resources at Virginia Air Distributors Inc. The company has 150 employees spread out across 13 locations in five states. And finding workers for any of them is not easy, Batchelor said. Like Wight, he finds the pool of qualified candidates a lot smaller than one might expect.
"Companies hold on to the folks that they want to hold on to," he said. "To just say that unemployment is high and there should be lots of people out there is not necessarily a true statement."
UNDER THE RADARWight and Batchelor pointed out that HVACR is an industry not well known or understood by the general population, so the pool of potential hires is already fairly small.
"We like for people to have product knowledge, technical knowledge of our industry," Wight said. "And that's what makes it so difficult. There are just not a lot of people with technical knowledge of our industry who are unemployed. At least that we have been able to find."
For one position, Refrigeration Sales conducted 12 interviews - and didn't find one suitable applicant.
Similar hiring problems have led Batchelor to try some new avenues in his searches for possible employees: association websites, online bulletin boards, even Craigslist and social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.
"I did it with trepidation, there's no doubt about it," Batchelor said of putting a help-wanted ad on Craigslist.com, which has been occasionally criticized for advertising illegal activities along with secondhand goods. "I did it with some of my entry-level positions. But I have got to tell you, the Gen Y generation, the kids that are coming out of college, out of high schools, out of trade schools - Twitter, Craigslist, things that are free and easy and are instant access, they're there."
Batchelor said a company has to be unconventional when it comes to hiring today.
"You just never know where you are going to find that next person," he said. "I like to think we turn over every stone we can when it comes to recruiting."
'STOP AND START'That's the kind of advice Bryan May often gives his clients. May is the executive vice president of business development at BirdDogHire.com, which oversees several HVAC, plumbing, and mechanical jobs listing websites, as well as offering software that helps contractors and distributors find candidates.
Too many wholesalers and contractors have a "stop and start" pattern when it comes to recruiting, May said. They only start to recruit when they need a worker and stop prospecting once they have filled the position. That's not effective, he said. Employers have to try new methods to locate the best candidates.
"The traditional channels no longer work," May said. "Job seekers are doing so much more than just going to the newspaper to find a job or just going to a job board. We're finding that job seekers like going directly to an employer's website and applying online."
Bird Dog encourages clients to post openings on Facebook and use social media websites to help find possible employees.
"Social media is... no longer the future. It's 'the now,' and another place where jobseekers are going to build relationships and look for career opportunities," May said.
POOR RESULTSAt Refrigeration Sales Corp., Wight said the company has tried websites such as Monster.com, as well as classified newspaper advertisements and even hired a so-called headhunting firm for certain management-level positions. But the results have been relatively few numbers of competent applicants.
"We get inundated with resumes, but none that are really qualified," she said.
It's a job market that Wight, who oversees a 137-employee company with 13 locations covering two states, said she did not expect.
"One of the things that we're realizing - and I have been surprised - it doesn't seem like our industry has been hit as hard as other industries," she said. "All of our hires in 2011, and so far in 2012, were not unemployed people."
Occasionally, Wight said the company has experimented with people new to the worlds of heating and refrigeration - with typically disappointing results.
"We've tried on the operations side to hire people (from) outside of our industry, thinking they could learn ... and we have not had success doing that," she said. "The closer to the customer we get, the more important we've found that they have industry knowledge."
Batchelor agreed. Although Virginia Air has had some success with lower-level hires who were new to the industry, that's an exception, he said. Inexperienced workers come with a lot of risks, he said.
LEARNING CURVES"They don't know the nomenclature. They don't know the product," he said. "I've found that with the HVAC industry, the learning curve is pretty high."
That doesn't mean such a curve cannot be overcome, however. At American Metals Supply Co. Inc., based in Springfield, Ill., company President Chrissy Nardini said the company has had good luck recruiting workers whose previous experience was not in HVACR.
"I would say that six out of eight of our last hires have been people, (from) outside the industry," Nardini said. "We're always looking for good people and if there is someone I hear of who is really strong, I would try to find a place for them."
It helps that the six-location company has good employees, who know a lot of hardworking people, she added.
"We still try to use word-of-mouth and referrals from existing employees," she said. "We pay a referral bonus to employees who find us candidates that we hire and stay on for six months."
The fact that other industries have suffered more than American Metals Supply in the downturn has been a big plus for securing high-quality staff, Nardini said.
"We're not cutting back on products, people, or services," she said. "It makes our company a little more appealing in an industry that people are not necessarily dying to get into. We try to say that you can build a successful career here, and it can be an exciting business."
SIDEBAR: TIPS ON FINDING THE RIGHT WORKERIt might be tough out there to find good workers, especially in a niche industry such as heating and refrigeration equipment wholesaling, but Bryan May said there are things distributors can do to boost their chances.
May is the executive vice president of business development at Bird Dog, which runs several HVAC, plumbing, and mechanical jobs listing websites, and sells software that helps companies find candidates.
He has four suggestions for wholesalers looking to fill open positions:
1.Never stop recruiting."No matter whether they're fully staffed or not, they're always on," he said. "They're always building relationships; they're always looking for that next good person for down the road."
2.Diversify."You have to use a lot of different resources because job seekers are using a lot of different resources."
3.Track and measure."Track all of your candidates. Just because they don't have the skills today doesn't mean they won't have them six months or a year from now. Once you find someone who is good, stay in touch with them."
4.Develop a candidate relationship management process."If you keep candidates close to you, the ones that you are interested in and can't use today, make sure they know what makes you great and why they are going to want to work for you in the future."