Jon Hirsch Takes Aim at the Skilled Worker Shortage, One School at a Time
“Our industry is a need, not a want,” said Jon Hirsch, director of business development at Milwaukee-based Auer Steel & Heating Supply Co. Inc., before 30 Hartford Union High School tech students sitting anxiously behind their desks.
Standing 5-foot-8 and rail thin, the 57-year-old Hirsch could nearly pass for a student, if it weren’t for his graying sideburns.
“How cold does it get in Wisconsin?” he asked, fielding an array of responses ranging from minus 10°F to a sardonic minus 1,000°.
A ball of kinetic energy, Hirsch’s words are punctuated with a pace that traces from one side of the classroom to the other.
“I think this winter we got as low as minus 20°,” continued Hirsch. “Can you comfortably live in Wisconsin without heat?”
The responses trickled in. Even the most sarcastic of students refrained from arguing this point.
“What happens when your furnace breaks?” Hirsch asked. “You have to get it fixed immediately, right? Having heat is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
The classroom nodded, gaining instant gratitude for the heat seeping out of the school’s vents.
“How many of you know what HVAC stands for?”
Silence set in as students bounced the letters around in their heads. Five seconds passed.
“Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning?” said a female student with long blonde hair. The tone in her voice rose at the end, signifying a sense of uncertainty.
“Very good,” said Hirsch, pulling a pen from his backpack as a reward. “No one else here today knew what HVAC stood for?”
Hirsch raised his eyebrows and impatiently awaited a response. The students slowly shook their heads and glanced around the room to see if any of their peers knew the answer.
“Honestly, I’m not surprised,” Hirsch said, reeling the room back in. “The HVAC industry is an extremely well-kept secret. We’re somewhat behind the scenes of society, but, for you, that’s going to change today. When you leave this room, you’re going to have a much better idea of what the HVAC industry entails.”
Hirsch’s busy body finally inched to a stop for the first time since the class commenced.
“Are you ready?”
Man On A Mission
Jon Hirsch’s visit to Harford Union was one of more than 60 presentations he’s made to 40-plus area high schools and tech schools since October 2017. In less than six months, he’d introduced more than 2,000 students throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota to the trade. By the end of the year, he intends to visit at least 40 more schools and ultimately share the abundance of opportunity HVAC affords with as many students as he can.
“About 53 percent of skilled-trade workers in the U.S. are 45 years old or older, and 18.6 percent are between the ages of 55 and 64,” said Hirsch. “More than 10,000 baby boomers are retiring every day, and we don’t have 10,000 replacement workers coming in. This worker shortage is a dire problem in our industry that we’re going to be wrestling with for a long time.”
Hirsch’s efforts were initiated as part of Auer Steel’s mission to enact an outreach program for area schools. During his very first presentation, he recognized the resounding impact of his message.
“The kids seemed to tune in, which was inspiring,” Hirsch said. “It was refreshing to see how interested the students were once they learned that HVAC is more than just installing furnaces and air conditioners. You can do a lot of things with cameras and budding technologies in this industry. It’s more than just bending sheet metal in a shop.”
For those interested in working with their hands, the HVAC industry is willing and ready to provide a great career.
“The No. 1 call I receive from our client base is, ‘I need people — do you have anyone looking for a job,” said Hirsch. “We have a saying at Auer: ‘We don’t sell anything until our contractors sell something.’ If they don’t have enough people to install and maintain the equipment they’ve sold, it constrains their ability to grow as well as ours. So, we’re always trying to recruit as many people to the industry as possible. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be spending my mid-50s inside high schools, but I recognize this is what needs to be done on behalf of the company I work for as well as the industry.”
Hirsch’s message has been revered by many.
“Presentations such as these inspire future leaders in the industry,” said Matthew Keil, instructor, St. Cloud Area School District 742, St. Cloud, Minnesota. “Jon’s passion and ability to showcase the opportunities available in the HVAC industry to our students was very inspiring. Many students expressed that they had no idea what HVAC was, how many jobs are available, and the amount of money they can make without building up huge debt. Students need to go beyond textbooks to understand the real situations happening today with the skilled trades, and this is a perfect example of how we can achieve that.”
Thanks to Hirsch’s presentation, Tanur, a student in Keil’s class, is now pursuing a career in the HVACR industry.
“Jon’s presentation inspired me to explore some of these HVAC options,” he said. “Following his visit, I immediately researched local HVAC programs and intend to enroll in HVAC courses at St. Cloud Technical and Community College next year.”
Corey McCauley, technology and engineering education instructor, Hartford Union High School, called Hirsch’s visit enlightening.
NO MOUNTAIN TOO HIGH
When he’s not directing the inner-workings of Auer Steel or advocating for the industry within Midwestern high school classrooms, Jon Hirsch spends his free time climbing mountains.
Hirsch, along with his wife, Margaret, scaled the peak of Mt. Shuksan in Whatcom County, Washington, last year. This summer, the Milwaukee mountaineers have their sights set on ascending 20,310 feet to the top of Mount Denali in Alaska.
“The adventure, the thrill, and the risk of mountain climbing is exhilarating,” he said. “You have to be extremely physically and mentally fit. Honestly, climbing mountains motivates and inspires me to be the best I can be across all aspects of my life. This hobby has allowed me to explore places very few people have ever seen.”
Whether he’s face-to-face with Mount Denali or handing out business cards to prospective students on behalf of the industry’s future, Hirsch said he pursues all challenges fearlessly.
“Both mountain climbing and overcoming the skilled trades gap require specific, unique skills,” he said. “Each takes a certain level of intelligence and aptitude, and I believe each offers lucrative rewards. There are endless opportunities at the end of both paths. There are massive numbers of mountains around the world, and no two mountains are the same. In the HVAC industry, there are hundreds of thousands of unfilled opportunities just waiting for the right person to come along. I really enjoy not only showing students the mountain that is HVAC, but demonstrating, with hard work and the right skills, there’s a path that leads them to the top of the industry.”
“A career in HVAC can go everywhere and anywhere and is recession-proof,” he said. “I was impressed with the amount of technology involved in an HVAC career today. Students of this generation should be excited to get involved with this type of cutting-edge technology.”
In his 20-plus years as a technology and engineering instructor at Hartford Union High School, Jason Kraus said classroom visits have had the greatest impact of any form of instruction.
“The students really got to hear about the amount of work and opportunity available in the HVAC industry,” he said. “Students are now talking about working conditions, wages, benefits, expectations, and have a much better general sense of what a career in the HVAC industry may entail.”
The Trades Found Me
Hirsch is not only a great spokesman for the industry, he’s a perfect example of how one may stumble into the skilled trades.
As a college senior, at the ripe age of 25, Hirsch finally declared his major.
“Out of high school, I attended the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to study engineering,” said Hirsch. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t a very good student. I liked playing pool and messing around more than I liked class, so I quit college for three years. At that time, I joined a rock and roll band called RPM, playing drums. Realizing that I probably wasn’t going to be the next Don Henley, I quit the band and decided to go back to school in pursuit of a business administration degree in marketing.”
After graduating, Hirsch turned to the local newspaper’s classified ads section in search of a job.
“I kept seeing ads for HVAC jobs, and, honestly, I had no idea what HVAC was at the time,” he said. “I have a little brother who’s an electric engineer, so I called him up and asked, ‘What’s HVAC?’ He explained what the acronym stood for, taught me a bit more about the industry, and encouraged me to go for it.”
Hirsch first gained employment in the industry in January 1985 with Aprilaire, where he was tasked with selling humidifiers and air cleaners.
In 1988, he was hired by Indiana Supply Corp. in Indianapolis as a Tempstar product and sales manager. Over time, he progressed to the role of supplies, sales, and marketing manager and finished his time with the company as a branch manager.
In 2003, he was hired by Auer Steel & Heating Supply Co.
“I was eager to move back to Wisconsin to be closer to my family, so I was happy to gain a job with Auer Steel,” Hirsch said. “Auer Steel is a fantastic company with some of the finest people the industry has to offer in the Curtes family. They’re true innovators who have allowed me to travel around and deliver this message. Auer Steel and the industry as a whole are lucky to have quality people like the Curtes’ on their side.”
Hirsch’s passion for the industry is further evidenced by his involvement on 10 different tech colleges’ advisory boards. He insists his efforts are geared toward introducing students to the value of an industry that has given him so much.
“We need more people out there demonstrating the value of our industry,” he said. “A rising tide raises all ships. If anyone’s interested in duplicating my efforts, I’m more than willing in helping them any way I can. I’m an open book. The career opportunities and the diverse positions available in our industry are very appealing and will exist forever — they can’t be outsourced. We need salespeople, design engineers, techs, and so much more. Rather than take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in college debt, a young entrepreneur can step into this industry and make $30,000 on his first day and $50,000 or more within three to five years — debt-free in many cases. The opportunities in the HVAC industry are endless.”