Labor Shortage Brings HVAC Industry Together to Attract New Talent
Most kids don’t dream of growing up to be heating and cooling technicians. They want to be movie stars, professional athletes, doctors, firefighters, police officers, or even astronauts. This hard truth is contributing to the growing labor shortage epidemic facing not only the HVACR industry but other skilled trades as well.
Per the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of HVACR mechanics and installers is projected to grow 15 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations.
So with such an obvious demand for workers, why are kids choosing to enter other industries? Well, findings from the Electric & Gas Industries Association (EGIA) Foundation’s 2018 Industry Study Bridging the HVAC Employment Gap point to lack of awareness and poor reputation. The research concluded only 3 percent of students and 23 percent of parents were extremely or very familiar with HVAC work. Another 43 and 40 percent, respectively, were somewhat or slightly familiar. And though parents surveyed indicated a career in HVAC would make them proud, 51 percent of them expected their child to attend a four-year college. Lastly, only 13 percent of student respondents expressed probable or definite interest in HVAC as a career.
“The study was our first step as a newly created organization — we wanted to know the state of the union, so to speak,” said Erin McCollum, development director, EGIA Foundation. “As we went through the study, we noticed perception and knowledge of the industry is pretty lackluster and wanted to share that along with what the foundation is going to do to help close that gap.”
HVAC contractors surveyed in the study identified negative public perceptions biasing the decision not to pursue a career in the trades. Per the study, 78 percent of contractors reported students believe a good job requires a college degree.
“We need to take control of the perception that is out there,” McCollum said. “It’s left to others to make interpretations about the HVAC industry, and I think if we come together and promote the industry as something that is important and affects everyone’s livelihood, it can show millennials and younger generations a viable career option that won’t put them into debt. We can show them that entry-level workers get paid very well, and the sky is the limit with how far you want to progress.”
The EGIA Foundation is working on a public awareness campaign that will feature a series of videos explaining what HVAC is, why it is important, and what a career would entail, McCollum noted. Additionally, the organization will start offering approximately 20 scholarships, up to $2,500 each, for those enrolling or who already enrolled in a HVAC technical program starting.
To fight the growing labor shortage, Johnson Controls Inc. has partnered with Lincoln Tech, a trade school with 23 campuses located all over the U.S. Over the next three years, students of Lincoln Tech’s HVAC and Electrical Systems training programs throughout the country will have the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to repair and maintain Johnson Controls’ equipment in the field. The agreement will help Lincoln Tech recruit new students for these programs and fill the existing HVAC skills gap.
Additionally, Johnson Controls will provide training equipment and sponsor classrooms at 10 Lincoln Tech campuses, including the Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, Georgia, and Illinois locations. Specifically, students will learn commissioning and installation skills, as well as how to carry out repairs and preventative maintenance of HVAC systems, chiller systems, and assets.
“We knew right out of the gate that we had to figure out a different way of attracting talent,” said Rod Rushing, president of Building Solutions, North America, Johnson Controls. “Historically, we picked employees from the same small talent pool as our competitors. So we decided to get in front of this problem and get involved with learning institutions across the country. We have 120 offices across North America, so we needed a distributing sourcing pool just as large. We decided to team up with Lincoln Tech because of their strong capabilities around the country in how they attract students to the industry and to the school.”
The partnership was cemented in the spring, and Johnson Controls has cut the ribbon on two campus locations, Rushing noted. However, it has eight labs to go and is working on finishing up the curriculum.
“As part of the partnership, Johnson Controls will join our admissions people as they go around the country and present why prospective students should be looking at careers in various fields that support Johnson Controls, as well as discuss the benefits of working for the company,” said Scott Shaw, president and CEO of Lincoln Tech.
“The partnership will help bring a greater awareness to students as far as what is out there in terms of career opportunities and paths for growth and advancement. It also helps us in general. We have many different partnerships with other major corporations, and we definitely find that by associating with these companies, it attracts more eyes to our website, awareness of our brand, and more interest from students and their parents as they’re evaluating various educational alternatives. It also brings more credibility to some of the programs we’re offering with the high job placement potential people can have by completing one of our programs.”
Rushing said he anticipates hiring between 1,500 and 3,000 new employees per year, noting that he would like to see a third of them come from programs like the partnership with Lincoln Tech. However, per Shaw, even with an accelerated 12-month program, today Lincoln Tech has a little over 2,000 students graduating from its HVAC and Electrical Systems programs every year. Partnerships like this one can help Lincoln Tech attract more students to these programs.
“Our needs are greater than their graduation rate,” Rushing said. “There’s also the geographic history — most of these folks are going to want to stay where they are locally. So we’re going to have to figure out how we get to 25 to 30 cities over time to meet our broader hiring needs.”
Bosch Thermotechnology is another manufacturer finding success in partnering with local trade schools and universities. Bosch is placing greater emphasis on its educational involvement by participating in programs such as the FIRST Robotics Competition and the ELECOMP Capstone Design Program to help drive the future of engineering and technology.
“Partnerships like this are important not only for the company, but for the individuals within the company,” said Jerry Huson, manager of electronics and controls engineering team, Bosch Thermotechnology. “I’m a big supporter of education. I’ve been an educator for over eight years, and I strongly believe that when you have these partnerships, you’re creating a conduit through which you can efficiently funnel talent and state-of-the-art technology into your business. It’s a win-win for the partnering company and the school.”
Huson said Bosch tends to focus on partnerships that promote technology, since that is the core of the company. Advancing technology and recruiting prospective employees is the ultimate goal.
“In the past, it was difficult to find good applicants,” Huson noted. “However … a wise person once told me that good people attract great people. As the group develops and we get better people within the group, we’re finding it easier to attract good applicants as well.”
INDUSTRY PARTNERSHIPS LIGHTEN THE LOAD
As previously mentioned, partnerships with manufacturers are equally beneficial for trade schools like Hennepin Technical College (HTC), located in Minneapolis.
HANDS-ON LEARNING: Hennepin Technical College (HTC), located in Minneapolis, is experiencing increased enrollment in its HVACR program. Thankfully, HTC receives many donations from its industry partners, ranging from shop tools to actual equipment the instructors install in the labs.
GROWING THE PROGRAM: The Hennepin Technical College (HTC) HVACR program is adding an evening section at its Eden Prairie campus, according to Rhonda Wiggins, HVACR faculty memeber. HTC has a near 100 percent placement rate for its HVACR program graduates, many of them landing jobs in the industry while they are still students.
“According to many statistics, there are far many more jobs in various trades than there are applicants,” said Rhonda Wiggins, HVACR faculty member at HTC. “This provides an opportunity as well as a hindrance for technical colleges.”
When the need for employees is greater than qualified applicants, employers are forced to look at alternative training measures. However, while many programs are facing low enrollment, the HTC HVACR program is adding an evening start section at its Eden Prairie campus. HTC has a near 100 percent placement rate for its HVACR program graduates, many of them landing jobs in the industry while they are still students, according to Wiggins.
“This isn’t accidental,” she said. “Through strong industry support from contractors, the local Pipefitter’s Unions, and building maintenance professionals recognizing the diversity and complexity of today’s equipment, they are committed to hiring properly trained applicants. This helps everyone, as it allows field personnel to work more efficiently, competitively, and safely.”
The downside is the increase in enrollment tends to take a toll on lab equipment, Wiggins said. Thankfully, HTC receives many donations from its industry partners.
“The donations range from shop tools to actual equipment that the instructors install in the labs,” she said. “We also have local wholesalers come in and meet our students. They set up student accounts and give them discounts on tools. The wholesalers recognize that these students are their future customers.”
OFFERING A CAREER-oriented PATH
Direct Energy, parent company of One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, partners with several schools with multiple locations, including Lincoln Tech, Remington College, Texas State Technical College (TSTC), and more.
“We look at what type of business we have in that particular city, school reviews, feedback on the program, and placement ratios they have with their graduates to try and pick the top one or two schools in each city,” said Ben Winrich, trade school/military talent acquisitions for Direct Energy. “These partnerships are important. We’re looking for people who have determined they want to be in this business and have invested in themselves.”
Winrich agreed that it is always hard to find good applicants, which is why he turns to trade schools instead of putting a general help wanted ad out in the newspaper or online.
“If I put an ad out and get a résumé, it can tell me a lot of different things,” he said. “It is not uncommon to have a lot of periods of employment during the summer in Texas combined with periods of unemployment during the winter because the person got laid off. But that résumé may tell me the person may not be a long-term employee. Whereas, if I go to a trade school, I can pull transcripts and attendance records to get a better feel for who has a better chance at being successful. I can quantify that individual better. And I always tell the applicant, ‘If you’re looking for a career, that is something we have; if you’re looking for a job, that’s not something you can find here.’ I’m looking for career-oriented people.”
NEVER STOP RECRUITING OR LEARNING
Ryan Cook, training development manager, and Dave Nichols, training manager for Lennox Learning Solutions, work with contractors to fill their open positions and overcome the skilled trades shortage facing the industry. While they don’t find the prospective new hires themselves, they offer advice on where to look and then train the new employees through Lennox’s four-week BuildATech program. The training program takes people with little to no experience and turns them into qualified maintenance technicians who can run routine service calls.
“The pendulum always swings — that’s the challenge our industry is facing today,” said Nichols. “When I graduated high school, about 5 to 10 percent of our class went off to college. The others went to other walks of life, including possibly a trade. When my kids graduated high school, 95 percent of them went off to college. That was the beginning of the tech shortage that we now face in the HVAC industry. Now, the pendulum is slowly starting to swing back.”
Cook advises contractors to look to recruiting directly from high schools, local vo-tech programs, and the military for talent.
“It’s extremely important to not only find new talent but also to continue to educate that talent,” Cook said. “Once the technicians get out of training, their development shouldn’t stop, which is why Lennox is adding to its BuildATech program by offering an apprenticeship program.”
Contractors should be recruiting 100 percent of the time, not just when they have a job opening, according to Nichols.
“Contractors need to be constantly building some sort of bench strength, so when somebody leaves, falls ill, or is injured, they have a competent candidate that they can call upon to fill that role,” he said.
Contractors traditionally look for new hires with experience because it’s a time investment and is costly to train somebody who is “green” to the industry.
“Traditionally, when you hire somebody and put them in a service truck to ride with an experienced technician, that type of training lasts about nine to 12 months and will cost the contractor close to $30,000,” Nichols explained. “If they put them into a program like BuildATech, the training lasts four weeks, or with our virtual program, they can be learning while they are earning. As a result of that, the cost to the contractor is mitigated. It’s a win-win scenario.”
Publication date: 2/4/2019