Workforce: The Search for Good Help
I had mentioned in a previous issue that Distribution Center magazine would create an annual theme related to a topic of importance to the HVACR industry. It is a subject that we will stick with throughout the year. This amounts to an article in each issue that is near and dear to distributors’ hearts, minds and wallets. We just finished a series of articles in 2015 on soft skills. The idea came to me after hearing several people I respect offer some mild criticisms of the soft skills they witnessed at several highly respected wholesaler operations. That conversation turned into the soft skills agenda and article series.
More recently, I have been thinking about the hiring or personnel issue. The complaints are common, and I’ve heard them since I joined the industry. You can’t find enough good people, and those you hire are willing to jump ship for a quarter more per hour. OK, possibly a slight exaggeration but not much (and I HAVE heard it). I confess that Emily Saving, vice president for Professional & Program Development at HARDI, and Kari Arfstrom, executive director for the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation, stole my thunder with a first-class article about the state of jobs in the HVACR world in the December issue of Distribution Center. I urge you to read it if you haven’t already.
This personnel or workforce issue has been with us since I began covering the industry in 1998, and the negative impact of demographics are upon us, as Emily and Kari so clearly pointed out.
First, I think it’s laudable that the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation launched an empirical, well-researched basis to both define the problems and the parameters of the issue. First-class effort. It is also relevant that stakeholders in the industry realize that moaning and groaning does not solve the problem and the HVACR Workforce initiative is the proper first step.
Second, I would remind our readers that we are not alone in this endeavor. All the members of the skilled trades are at the same dinner table, looking to land the drumstick or all that tender white meat. That is, we are essentially going after the same pool of applicants (unless it expands dramatically), however we define the skill set or category of future employees.
While all the trades, which is a word I’ll use, are in this collective effort, each industry segment, such as HVACR, certainly wants to attract as many of those candidates to their particular discipline. Thus, as we implicitly elevate all of the trades, pointing to them as a viable career alternative, we are also in direct competition for the same workforce source. Friendly competition, yes, but even affable rivalry can turn unpleasant. If the demographics continue to hold true — as I believe they will — it might get more cutthroat. I am suggesting here that the smartest marketers and public relations people who point their attention to the segment of new trades people who might enter the industry, layered on top of economic realities, will be the winners for this talent hunt.
Third, the fundamental issue that maintains the shortfall (arguably, even creating it) for this lack of emerging talent is the overwhelming cultural and educational differences that exist and from which our supply and demand of workers begin. These obstacles are so huge that they give me a headache when I think about them, yet they are real nonetheless. Let’s start with the cultural issues.
No matter how polite, considerate or gracious you might be, we as a nation “respect” white collar jobs. We place blue collar jobs, at least from an intellectual viewpoint, as a less desirable occupation. Please keep in mind that I’m not making a case about the nature of the person, about his or her redeeming characteristics, but a simple observation that we allow one’s occupation to cloud our perception of them. In polite company, we would deny it, but in real life …
In 2014, Forbes magazine listed the 10 most prestigious occupations (http://onforb.es/1xgyQWo). The only “blue collar” job on the list was firefighter (who was third). The rankings included, rightfully so, many of the usual suspects: doctor, military officer, teacher and clergy. But where’s the carpenter and the HVACR installer?
There’s even a better way to prove my point about blue collar jobs and the cultural or perception issue.
At the risk of offending, for many of us, it’s OK for someone else’s kid to become an HVACR installer, but my son or daughter is either going to run the company or become a … fill in the blank. A bit simplistic? Yes, but probably true, too. We invariably want our children to do better than we have and have tied that “better” performance to, most of all, obtaining a college degree. We’ve made it an undeniable mantra in the United States that you have to attend college if you’re going to be successful. We’ve only heard the message a million times: If you go to college, during a lifetime you will earn more than your high school graduate equivalent. (If you compare with a high school dropout, the difference becomes a princely sum.) This reasoning rests on following the traditional college path, even if you leave with about $27,000 (the national average) in debt or you don’t graduate in four years or you never graduate. We’ve actually done a reasonable job of encouraging kids to start college but have been far less successful at eliminating their student debt or keeping them on track for four years (“Mom and Dad, I realize I’m a junior, but I no longer want to be a meteorologist. Can I change majors? What’s an extra year or two?”).
Here’s the real question and one that only you can answer: Would you be satisfied if your son or daughter chose an HVACR career in the nonexecutive capacity of a blue collar job for which we have, and will continue to have, a shortfall? I suspect you get my drift.
This does not mean that potential candidates entering the field can’t find satisfaction in the field. What I’m suggesting is that as a nation we’ve glorified and glamorized many occupations but almost none of them that are in the technical trade category. This is a millstone around the necks of those who must recruit our future talent.
And the worst of it is that this perception about trade-related jobs is across the board in our country. It’s my view that many workers in the trades, of which HVACR is only a slice of that economic pie, believe that by not attending college, they are somehow “less than thou.” I don’t think that’s true. But if you buy into the perception, you’ve bought into the reality of the situation or issue.
The second major issue we confront that compounds the perception issue is our educational system. I’ve had conversations with my liberal friends who scoff at the idea of taking a test in high school (alluding, I believe, to our view of the German system) that then defines you for the rest of your life. You take an exam(s) and because of the results, the school funnels you toward a college or trade school path. Many will say, and I don’t totally disagree, that no exam (as a teenager) should predetermine your entire career. It mocks the egalitarian view of ourselves and our country. And there is merit in that kind of thinking. There’s also merit in acknowledging that upholding that egalitarian viewpoint results in many college graduates waiting on tables because they can’t find a job or always seem to be not quite working up to the potential that we suspect they are capable of.
I’m not an expert on the educational system. But my sense is that most administrations “grade” their high schools on how many students they send to college. The more they send, the more successful their ranking is, bragging rights increase, and this type of performance might result in more funding. Therefore, if a student is doing marginal work or simply realizes that he or she is uninterested in a “regular” college curriculum, what type of direction does he receive? (I’ll leave aside the observation that most high school guidance counselors probably meet with a student only once or twice a year.) What I’m suggesting is our potential future HVACR workforce, as a rule, is rarely or only modestly introduced (if at all) to the trades, and most students probably have no idea that there’s something called HVACR. I know that schools have something akin to job fairs. Most young people have a sense of what some trades do, even if it’s ill-defined. Carpenters hammer, electricians get slightly shocked “playing” with electricity and so on. I’m just not sure that exposure once or twice a year does the trick of illuminating students about what we do, keeping in mind that there’s a lot of competition at these career fairs from other trades.
When I became the founding editor of an HVACR publication in 1998, if my interviewers asked what HVACR stood for, I would have flunked the interview.
Generational differences. This is a murky area for me and one we will explore in greater detail in a future issue. We’ve all read that millennials are different from us: how they communicate, the work isn’t everything, they will change jobs many more times than we (or our parents) ever did. I do not know how this mindset will fit our industry needs. But it will become increasingly important to obtain solid, data-driven information if we hope to gain their attention and attract them to our industry.
The plain truth is that I don’t have an answer to the serious issues I’ve raised. I don’t think anyone does. But I have a partial answer to finding solutions.
First, I suspect, and we will explore this in future issues, that we can’t wait for the mindset of the country to switch to where it is more appealing to join the trades in a general way and the HVACR industry in particular. That could take a generation or more, IF it happens at all.
I do believe that success will come at the local or regional level. That is, you probably don’t have the time, energy or money to solve it at the macro level. But at the micro level, your backyard, you might be able to ameliorate the problem if not completely solve it. That is, like most things, if you understand your market better than most and you are willing to become an educational recruitment expert. Admittedly, the payback could take years, and you have the concern that the seeds you sow will blossom not with your company but with a competitor. A dreadful thought indeed. But by creating a local network of opportunity, your company will earn both influence and some control.
Throughout 2016, we will return to this topic in every issue, with an article of how someone can achieve success both in the HVACR industry and other similar industries. (I’m reminded of Frank Hurtte’s article in the December issue of Distribution Center, explaining what we can learn from other industries.)
If you have some ideas, I’d like to hear them. If you would like some space to voice your opinion, I’ll give you the opportunity (space permitting). If you have an existing program that’s working (or failing), tell me about it. No one has all the answers. But together, we should be able to find practical solutions that are effective and, most importantly, actually make a difference.