Everyone seems to be talking about the labor shortage these days. That’s because it’s a problem in almost every sector of the economy, from restaurants to schools to high-tech computer companies. Virtually every type of business is looking for employees, and at the same time, workers are quitting their jobs at record levels. Some are leaving the workforce due to early retirement or lack of child care, while others are capitalizing on the chance to get a significant pay increase by moving to another company.

The labor shortage has been a big problem in the HVACR industry for decades, and from all indications, things are going to get worse before they get better. At the recent AHR Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada, Rob Falke, president of National Comfort Institute, offered a sobering assessment of the technician shortage.

“Today, HVAC technicians in the U.S. number about 290,000, and there are approximately 110,000 unfilled HVAC technician jobs,” he said. “That's 38% short of the numbers we need to fill our workforce. In addition, 8% — or a net loss of 23,000 people — are leaving our industry each year. That net loss includes people who are coming in to take other people's places. In just five years, there will be the existing 110,000 shortage, plus 23,000 leaving per year, which means we’ll be 225,000 people short to fill the jobs and demands we have today. Essentially, there will be 1.8 jobs available for every willing technician.”

As a result, HVACR companies are going to have to work a lot harder in order to keep the technicians they have, because competition for good workers is going to remain fierce. Falke said that if employers want to keep their workers, they need to offer the things technicians want, such as a definitive career path, the feeling of belonging and purpose, and personal advancement.

“Work-life balance is also becoming more important,” said Falke. “Most young people these days grew up with parents who were busy working and didn’t spend a lot of time with them, and by golly, they’re not going to do that with their family.”

Flexible work schedules are another part of work-life balance, as employees want to be there for their kids’ sporting events and parent-teacher conferences. “If you’re not able to work with that, you run a risk of losing people,” he said. “And these [issues] are very personal, and they’re really not negotiable. Is your company currently organized to bend and work with people who have those kind of needs?”

Lastly, workers want their employer to invest in them in ways that contribute to personal and professional growth. According to Falke, this means offering training and certification opportunities, as well as paying for membership in trade organizations; offering access to advanced technologies and tools; and the chance to become professionals, not just laborers.

“What we're seeing is a change in the employee-employer relationship that is open, that is honest, and that takes real dialogue and conversation in order to become a sustained relationship,” he said. “We are in a state of change. Like it or not, doesn't matter. Our workforce is dwindling. Prices are increasing everywhere. Techs know it, and they understand it, and they're migrating to their brightest future. And can you blame them? You can't, it’s human nature. The question is, is your company providing the brightest future, and is it set up in a way to care for the people you work with?”

And while the focus is often on younger technicians, companies should also look at ways to keep their older workers who may have different priorities. For those nearing retirement age, do they really want to stop working, or are the physical demands of the job becoming too much? Are there other ways to keep those folks employed? Maybe move them to a training/mentoring role? Or perhaps they’d like to work only half days and/or two or three days a week.

It's going to take hard work and creativity for the HVACR industry to solve its labor shortage. What are some of the other ways we can attract people to the industry and keep them? I’d love to hear the innovative things your company is doing to solve this thorny problem.