Solutions for the HVAC Workforce Problem
Industry leaders recommend paths for contractors
Getting new blood into the HVAC workforce is one of the top priorities for the industry. Manufacturers, distributors, and contractors are all struggling to find quality people to fill positions. With that in mind, The NEWS asked a few industry leaders to address the topic.
President of Nortek Global HVAC
With children of high school and college ages myself, I can tell you the high school system does not seem to effectively get the word out about trade schools or college alternatives. And I’m not convinced the Bureau of Labor Statistics has it right about the average earnings of a HVAC technician, which can be a turn off to individuals looking for a non-collegiate path. But, let’s be realistic. What did every high school counselor choose as their path? College. Who has the budgets and bandwidth to extensively market to high schools and students? Colleges. Long story short, trade schools get out hustled, out maneuvered, out sold, and out financed every day by two- and four-year colleges and universities. Additionally, how are we attacking engineering and computer sciences departments at the collegiate level as an industry? Sure, there are those companies that do it for themselves, and rightly so, but have we thought about the overall perception of HVACR to a 19-year old?
To combat the shortfall in talent, this industry must look for ways to work together, not just independently, through industry partnerships such as AHRI/ACCA/HARDI/PHCC/NATE, etc. We need to do what we can to attract the next generation of engineers, lab technicians, project managers, designers, field technicians, branch personnel, installers and sales consultants into the world of HVACR— male and female.
Maybe, just maybe, we should legitimately discuss how to reinvent the face of our industry to better market to the next generation. I’ve heard for years that what we do isn’t ‘techie’ enough to lure attention away from coding, analytics, general computing, electrical engineering, and on and on. Well, what we all do in HVACR is more vital, technical, and forward-thinking now than at any point in history. Think about all the air moving applications, associated controls and artificial intelligence that keeps our world running every day. From data centers to cleanrooms to grocery distribution (should we change to institutional refrigeration?) to schools to your own home, the opportunities are endless and are a lot ‘techier’ now than how the people in our industry are traditionally portrayed on television and other media. But, if we don’t collectively market ourselves appropriately as an industry, to the masses, the perception may never change.
Former contractor and current HVAC advisor and coach
There is no easy solution or answer to the solving of labor shortage in the HVAC marketplace. If there were then it would not be the issue it seems to be today.
It seems most discussions want to start with the solution, but I tend to disagree with that approach.
Let’s start this discussion with question before trying to give solutions. We need to answer why we have so many owners of jobs compared to owners of businesses. How do we as owners and leaders of business stop the flow of great team members in our organizations from leaving and going out on their own? We know from history that over one third of companies fail in the first three years. We know that non-college jobs seem to have a “less than” perception of our industry than college degreed employment!
However, this does not mean we cannot solve a problem we have in attracting, training, and keeping a workforce. Today’s workforce is much different in looks, cultures, attitudes, beliefs, nationality, appearance, and age. Leaders must work from a different point of view rather than just following the crowd!
We must create a different model in our businesses for our workforce and not try to model team members as we modeled our employees in the past. The future is here and trying to keep the new work force going forward will require a major change in most existing business models.
Look around at the companies who are creating their own leadership programs and learning facilities — I hope you noticed I did not use the words training facilities.
We found in our company when we started more learning sessions that the team members began to understand more about business and customer interactions, team member interactions, job responsibilities, customer relations, accounting, and their own accountability. Learning that they had the ability, capability, and support to create a road map for a great career the turnover dropped, retention increased, and attractions of new willing team members grew.
We as individuals are eager to learn, I believe it is a built in DNA, and we are looking for mentors, leaders, and organizations that will help us to move forward.
Senior Manager, Channel Marketing and Training, Rheem Air Division
With the shortage of qualified workforce, technician training will continue to be an important factor for the industry. As a company, Rheem takes our responsibility in driving best-in-class training programs seriously. In January 2019, we boldly committed to training 250,000 contractors and plumbers on sustainable products or sustainable installation and recycling best practices.
Rheem has always placed a high priority on investing in technical training — at Rheem locations, throughout the field, and at local schools. We believe that actively supporting technicians with training and education throughout their careers will support both recruitment and retention within the industry. We made a major investment in this area by opening five Innovation Learning Centers across the U.S. and Canada in 2017, all of which have live fire labs so contractors get hands-on training with all of our products.
One of the reasons Rheem has invested in regional training centers is to ensure that the demands and differences between regions are taken into consideration. We offer the same fundamental curriculum at each location but make adjustments for regionality where necessary.
One thing I’d point to is how generous we are as a company to trade schools. We have donated hundreds of systems to trade schools in the last few years and welcome the opportunity to help them set up their labs with our highest technology products. Regardless of region, offering good educational resources will help address the labor shortage and begin to refill the pipeline with qualified technicians.
President and CEO of AHRI
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that HVACR jobs will be added at a rate of 15 percent through 2026; more than twice the average for all occupations. The current shortfall of HVACR workers and recommendations for addressing these issues have been discussed at length over the years, with each new year becoming more critical.
Closing the skills gap is one avenue through which the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) is tackling the workforce problem. A 2015 report by the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation outlined recommendations to improve the shortfall, which include finding ways to recruit students into HVACR job training, developing a unified program for accreditation and certification, and training the trainers.
Encouraging students to the industry through our Rees Scholarship Foundation continues to be a focus at AHRI. Since 2003, Rees has awarded more than $800,000 to over 400 HVACR students and veterans, with 33 students and veterans receiving scholarships this year. More than 123 schools have also benefitted from the donation of 782 units of HVACR equipment coordinated by Rees since that aspect of the program began in 2001.
Key partners in our efforts to recruit and retain industry talent include Skills USA — an annual event that fosters professional development at the secondary and post-secondary school levels, and the industry’s leading HVAC certification body, North American Technician Excellence (NATE). Winners of the HVACR competition at SkillsUSA’s National Leadership and Skills Conference (NLSC) receive both Rees scholarships valued at $2,000 each and a complimentary Ready-to-Work certificate test, administered by NATE. The Ready-to-Work certificate, earned by more than 4,100 candidates to date, is the first of NATE’s 4 Steps to HVAC Success, which lead to certification.
To find out more about the Rees Scholarship Foundation, email Rees Program Coordinator, Sue Perez: SPerez@ahrinet.org.
CEO of Service Roundtable
The HVAC industry’s shortage of skilled labor is a societal, not an industry problem. It is occurring across all trades. HVAC is not unique.
Instead of looking for macro solutions, which are daunting, contractors should focus on micro solutions for their companies. While the shortage of skilled labor may impact the industry as a whole, it does not need to impact an individual contracting business. Contractors need to be the best in breed in human resources management. They need to relentlessly recruit, pay at the top of the market, offer superior benefits that go beyond traditional health care, and so on. Larger contractors will be able to reach beyond the industry’s pool of applicants and develop their own future supply of labor with progressive and repetitive training programs.
One initiative we are launching through the Service Nation Alliance is to partner with the University of North Texas to offer a real-time, distance learning curriculum on service business management that can be converted to college credit. This gives contractors the ability to present high school guidance counselors an alternative approach to the traditional collegiate path and associated college loans. High school graduates can work for a contractor while pursing an associate degree through a trade school, followed by the University of North Texas program, emerging at the back end with a career, a trade, a college degree, and no debt. Programs like this may not solve the industry’s problem, but they can solve the individual contractor’s problem.
Former HVAC contractor and current advisor
Due to years of not promoting the trades, we are now going to have to build tomorrow’s work force.
Let’s get off our butts and all work hard at being advocates for promoting the trades! I’m not a fan of whining about a problem. I am a fan of taking action and doing something about it! Those in a position of influence should make this a high priority and become an advocate for the trades. Visit local schools, promote it online and in social media. Share the success stories and how this work is important and extremely fulfilling. People need to know that this path is a viable option instead of just thinking the only way is to go to college. This also includes education that females can do extremely well in the trades. So many assume it’s a male only line of work, only to not being properly educated.
The industry should also ease restrictive licensing requirements There are states out there that still hamper entry into trades. For example, in Oklahoma a tech has to work 3 years before they can get a license to work by themselves. Only after they pass a paper test that is designed to trip people up. It has little to do with how their skill level of actually doing the work is. This is causing good techs to look for other opportunities to support their family and hampering entry into the trades. Plus delaying growth of contractors all over.
Invest in current staff and teach them the skills of mentoring and coaching. This will help us keep more of the people entering the trades. Old school thought process is a helper is meant to carry tools and pick up trash. No one wants to be treated like a lower-class citizen. We need to invest in leadership training for our teams so when we do recruit in green techs that are willing to learn, they aren’t driven away due to the work environment.
One great way is to send techs to a place like Go Time Success Groups GPS Training Center.
Go Time Success Group has one of the best trainers and facilities in the industry. It teaches a combination of technical, customer service, sales, step by step processes and builds up the students to believe in themselves and the work that they do!
Executive Director of Communications at SMACNA
Workforce development is one of the biggest challenges our industry faces today. A strong economy has created growing demand for our work, while record low unemployment rates have left the HVAC and sheet metal industries competing against many other industries and professions for employees — both labor roles and management. With the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting 9 percent growth in jobs in the sheet metal industry by 2026, employers are eager to hire at every level.
The Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) is taking the lead in raising awareness of the many career opportunities available in the HVAC and sheet metal industries.
SMACNA’s workforce development approach is two-fold — to help our industry meet the demand for our current workforce shortage, and also to raise awareness of the various and rewarding career paths that are available to younger generations of craft and non-craft employees.
SMACNA supports the White House’s Pledge to America’s Workers and has committed to training 17,000 apprentices and professional staff to positively impact workforce development. Additionally, SMACNA works closely with the Construction Employers Association and other labor partners that operate more than 1,100 apprenticeship training centers across the country and invest more than $1.3 billion annually in training programs.
One recent SMACNA initiative is an internship program in collaboration with the American Institute of Architecture Students, where students can connect with architectural metal contractor members for a hands-on learning experience.
Finally, SMACNA is creating a brand-new website, IgniteYourCareer.com, dedicated to workforce development efforts for management in the HVAC and sheet metal industries. The dynamic site, which will launch later this year, will highlight opportunities within the sheet metal and HVAC industries, spotlight career paths, share salary and benefits details, and connect prospects with local SMACNA chapters who can make connections with employers. Overall, the site will be a hub for SMACNA’s efforts related to workforce development, and will help job seekers identify and pursue a career in the industry they can be proud of.
President and CEO, Air Conditioning Contractors of America
One of my favorite sayings is, “If you don’t have a seat at the table then you’re on the menu.”
I keep this in mind as ACCA works for contractors in Washington, D.C. ACCA is at the table negotiating legislation to help contractors and working with government agencies to promote contractor interests.
Helping contractors recruit, educate, and retain employees is one of ACCA’s highest priorities. Our government relations team is focused on this every day and for the past two years ACCA has been working hand in hand with the Trump Administration on workforce development programs. We’ve had a seat at the table and there are programs in the works that ACCA is helping launch that take into account contractors’ interests.
From securing increased funding for career and technical education program to advocating for contractors on the National Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion and revamping the Federal Work Study program, ACCA is making a difference. But, contractors will need to do their part now.
ACCA has taken what we’ve learned in the past two years and launched an updated website that will help contractors make a difference in their community. ACCA’s updated resources will help contractors launch school to career co-op programs in their companies, get involved with school advisory boards, and we have created new career fair materials to promote the HVACR industry to students.
By visiting this page contractors can find all of these resources, which are based on best practices learned from ACCA members, feedback from government agencies, and through the National Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion.
One of the most important components is serving on school advisory boards. I’ve spoken to several contractors who have said that this is the best way to have a positive impact on what local schools are teaching and to recruit more skilled workers.
Steve Schmidt of Frederick Air told me that he is one of the few contractors who does not have a workforce problem and he attributes that his decades of involvement in his school system. Steve’s son, David, has recently taken Steve’s place on the school advisory board in Frederick, Maryland. This long-term commitment is critical!
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