According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers is projected to grow 15 percent over the next eight years, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

This growth is attributed to an increase in commercial and residential building construction and the growing number of sophisticated climate control systems.

Additionally, fewer students are opting for careers in the skilled trades.

Largely recognized as the training branch of the HVACR supply chain, distributors are tasked with equipping techs with the technical skills necessary to carry the industry’s torch for years to come.

Recognizing this glaring need, several distributors are investing millions of dollars and thousands of man hours into facilities and events designed to backfill this skilled workers gap and plant the seeds necessary to grow the techs of tomorrow.

Here are three distinct examples of how HVACR distribution is going above and beyond when it comes to educating the industry.

Vocational Events

ABCO HVACR Supply + Solutions, a Long Island City, New York-based distributor that boasts 17 branches throughout the Northeast with more than $200 million in sales, is very active in attracting the industry’s next generation.

One of its cornerstone events is the ABCO EXPO, Holiday Party, and Vocational Day. The 11th annual rendition, which occurred Dec. 19, 2017, welcomed more than 275 students from 13 vocational schools, more than 150 contractors, and 20 manufacturers.

“For years, from every contractor under the sun, I’ve heard that there simply is no help to be found,” said Peter Donati, regional vice president, ABCO, who facilitates the event. “So, 11 years ago, I decided to do something about it. I started inviting dealers and vendors to our warehouse just to see what they had to say. We scheduled them out along with kids from a bunch of area schools. I recall, that first event, the weather was terrible. It was rainy and icy, and we feared that school would be canceled, but lo and behold, 150 kids showed up. Every year since, it’s gotten bigger and better. Today, we have more than 20 schools that participate.”

At the event, ABCO hosts three industry sessions designed to connect attendees with business owners from all levels of the supply chain.

“This year, we brought in three teachers who explained to students what the trade entails, what the pay scale is, how they can work their way up the ladder, etc.,” Donati said. “We let them know that they can make good money without having to flip burgers.”

“During these conversations, prospective tradesmen get to ask high-ranking officials about their experiences in the industry and inquire about any potential job openings they may have,” said Bob Cesiro, chief marketing officer, ABCO. “For many attendees, this is the best networking opportunity they’ll get all year long. We have several manufacturers on hand to show off their latest technologies, which always seems to grab the attention of our millennial attendees. If you’re interested in computers and technology, this is a great field to be in.”

Over time, Donati has learned that parents remain one of the biggest deterrents to trades careers.

“As an industry, we have to do a better job of educating the parents of these students,” he said. “Whenever the trades are brought up, or their kids show an interest in the trades, many parents scoff and show resistance. HVAC is a fabulous career path that you can actively get started with in high school. Through apprenticeships, you can get a head start on a well-paying career while those attending four-year colleges are racking up debt.”

Since its inception, ABCO has welcomed more than 3,500 students into its warehouses  via the Boston event.

“The Boston event does a great job of matching students up with the industry’s vendors,” Donati said. “This face time allows manufacturers to show off their latest equipment and demonstrate exactly how it works. We’re giving kids a taste of what’s available. The event has been an absolute success. We’re already starting to plan for the 12th annual event this winter.”

ABCO will also welcome hundreds of HVAC and refrigeration professionals and students to its annual ABCO EXPO on March 7 at the Terrace on the Park in Flushing, New York.

“We expect about 200 manufacturers and 4,500 people to attend this year’s event,” Cesiro said. “Representatives from American Standard Heating & Air Conditioning, Mitsubishi Electric, Heatcraft, Chemours, Emerson, Sporlan, and other companies will be in attendance, exhibiting their latest technologies.”

Cesiro said ABCO holds these events to promote the exchange of ideas within the trade.

“Face time is extremely beneficial and is a large part of our events,” he said. “With everyone in the industry desperately seeking qualified help, there’s a lot at stake at events like this.”

New Training Facilities

Source 1, the exclusive supplier of factory authorized service parts and residential accessories for all Johnson Controls Unitary Products residential and light commercial HVAC equipment, opened its first HVAC training center Jan. 25 in Earth City, Missouri.

The 1,200-square-foot facility is housed within a 55,000-square-foot Source 1 HVAC Supply Center. The facility will house eight different basic and premium-efficiency HVAC units, including mini-VRF (variable refrigerant flow) equipment, mini-split systems, a residential packaged unit, and more. A variety of hands-on classes will be designed to help students become YORK-certified technicians.

Shortly after the warehouse first opened, Doug Comerio, regional general manager for Source 1, joined Bill Jackson, president of building efficiency, Johnson Controls Inc., and Rod Rushing, vice president and president, building solutions, North America, Johnson Controls Inc., for a tour.

“While we were walking around the building, we started conceptualizing how we could potentially build it out,” Comerio said. “I remember saying, ‘This is where the showroom would go, and I’d love to have some training equipment over here.’ Bill [Jackson] looked over at us and said, ‘Make it happen.’”

Greg Sims, branch service manager, Source 1, who will lead the new center, said the facility is yet another tool for Source 1 to continue to educate the industry.

“We’re aiming to get as many techs as possible YORK certification, which demonstrates that dealers have been through the curriculum and understand the fundamentals of the equipment,” Sims said. “It’s our aim to create a pipeline for the industry, and we’re heavily involved in training a future that’s well-versed on the industry’s newest technologies.”

Comerio said HVACR distributors must continue to embrace their role as the industry’s educators.

“We’re in contact with contractors every day,” he said. “They come to us for their equipment, parts, supplies, and whatever else they need to satisfy the end-user’s needs. Distributors are the ones gaining the face-to-face time with contractors. Whether it’s the guys operating companies earning $100,000 or those earning $4 million, there’s no difference. The better trained they are, the less likely they are to encounter problems in the field.”

Accredited University

Johnstone Supply, a unitary and specialty residential, light commercial, and refrigeration distributor with more than 400 locations and 3,800 employees across the U.S. and Canada, opened its Johnstone Solutions University (JSU) in the summer of 2017 in Cincinnati.

The facility includes a 10,000-square-foot installation lab and   classroom that is fully stocked with a variety of Daikin, Amana, and Goodman equipment, including mini splits, variable refrigerant volume (VRV) equipment, and more.

“The median age of an HVACR technician is 56 years old,” said Larry Banas, director of educational solutions and technical support, Johnstone Supply Inc. – Grimme Group. “We asked ourselves, ‘What are we going to do about that?’

“We’ve developed about 25 different courses and curricula that range from introductory classes to those that require a little more seasoning,” Banas continued. “Our courses are about 80-85 percent hands-on, and we have a hands-on and semi-hands-on lab to support that level of instruction.”

In August 2017, the program was accredited by the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA), an independent, third-party organization established to certify that HVACR training programs meet or exceed industry standards, including faculty qualifications, curriculum, students, and facility standards, in areas of residential air conditioning and heating, light commercial air conditioning and heating, and commercial refrigeration.

“At Johnstone Supply, we’ve been working hard to position ourselves as a leading HVACR educational resource for the industry, and we’re proud to announce that we are now an accredited institution,” said Mike Grimme, president, Johnstone Supply – Grimme Group. “This means our training program is of the highest quality, and the courses that are taken qualify for continuing education credit. Few others have made this level of investment in the future.”

Banas said JSU attracts students of all ages and backgrounds.

“The majority of the students we meet have around two to four years of trade school experience, though we run into a lot of younger students as well,” he said. “Whether they’re experienced or are seeking a different avenue in life to earn a living, we’re finding a lot of capable people out there.”

Banas said the program’s courses meet all state and national apprenticeship qualifications.

“The program is built according to PAHRA Article 7 and industry standards, such as NCCER [National Center for Construction Education and Research,], AHRI [Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute], and others,” he said. “We try to stay as close to our contracting partners as possible to find out exactly which direction the industry is headed. For example, while mini splits have been around quite a while, we recently held a workshop and were amazed at the number of people seeking help on those systems.”

Banas said JSU is designed to equip attendees with the skills necessary to succeed in all facets of the HVACR contracting trade.

“One notion behind this facility is to help transform service techs into installers so that when the cooling season breaks, our customers  do not have to turn away profitable jobs,” he said.

From his perspective, Banas said the interest in JSU, and HVACR training as a whole, has never been greater.

“Not too long ago, you couldn’t get anyone to come see you inside the training labs from April to September; however, last year, we had a pretty full schedule,” he said. “The workforce is starting to see the technology differences. This new stuff is full of technological opportunities, and that excites today’s generation. They’re excited to get their hands on these high-tech devices.”