If you want to get hvacr contractors fired up, ask them how hard it is to find qualified help today. Contractors will express frustration over worker reliability, labor and training costs, and the problems associated with hiring employees — especially when looking for lower-level laborers.

In fact, the concept of finding solid, qualified staff willing to go the distance with one company, regardless of the level of work, seems to be a thing of the past.

The good news is that it doesn’t look like business is going to drop dramatically anytime soon. The nation is enjoying the longest economic growth period in history and inflation hasn’t significantly risen, despite a low unemployment rate.

According to FMI’s 2000 Construction Outlook, residential construction will be up 2%, nonresidential construction will grow 5% and construction of non-building structures will increase 9%. Overall, the new construction industry will experience 5% growth, totaling $32 billion.

Challenges to Overcome

Despite this positive business outlook, contractors still have many challenges to overcome.

“We’ve experienced relatively high turnover, especially on the lower installer and laborer levels,” said Frank Steinacker, IT director for Shumate Mechanical Corp-oration. “We’re faced with language barriers, lack of training, and technologically inexperienced workers who can find work just about anywhere.”

It’s often the case that these positions are filled with traditional, tried-and-true hiring methods. “We use word-of-mouth hiring,” said Dean Paulson, partner of Paulson-Cheek Contractors. “This has always worked in the past, but we’d be willing to try other methods in order to prevent a 10% to 15% loss of business due to unreliable labor.”

Effectively finding qualified labor may be more difficult, but if we really think about it, these challenges are evident throughout the industry, from installers to service technicians to sales staff.

Vocational school training programs are on the decline, and because our industry has a relatively “mature” image, it’s becoming harder and harder to convince people to choose hvacr as a career path. Even family business owners can no longer assume their children or relatives will take over the business.

If our industry would take a look at the whole picture, it might be easier to consider alternative approaches to the existing labor challenge. In fact, some contractors already have. But for many others, there’s still a considerable gap between yesterday’s way of conducting business and tomorrow’s reality for business success.

Maybe the first step to managing this reality is to examine some thought-provoking facts. By 2006, nearly half of all U.S. workers will be employed in industries that produce or intensively use information technology, products and services, according to U.S. Department of Commerce projections. The growth and reach of the Internet now enables very inexpensive communication among a large number of people; Internet users quadrupled in the years between 1995 and 1998.

It’s also no longer safe for employers to assume that some job candidates don’t or won’t ever use a computer. There is no doubt that higher-level workers and hvacr career high school graduates are going to use a computer on the job.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Internet alone generated an estimated $300 billion in revenues in 1998. While it remains to be seen how much of that revenue can be attributed to the hvacr industry, or how much is lost due to technology resistance, one thing is clear: Businesses can no longer afford to ignore the true impact of the Internet on business today.

Internet Only Part of the Solution

The Internet may not yet be the ultimate solution to today’s staffing challenges. But when business owners combine the use of the Internet with traditional hiring methods, they have a powerful tool not bounded by organizational level or location.

“If there were a fantastic new leak detection tool that was guaranteed to find leaks, you’d learn how to use it,” said Ruth King, president of American Contractors Exchange, an organization that specializes in Internet training for hvacr professionals. “The Internet is a tool to help you generate business.”

One contractor agrees. Alvin Lynch, 53, is service manager for Alabama-based C&H Engineering. For the past 20 years he has employed traditional word-of-mouth methods to fill available positions. Lynch keeps a constant watch for mechanically talented people. However, he realized the importance of blending old and the new in order for his business to remain competitive. He recently implemented a successful Internet training program, and he’s now ready to turn to the Internet for help with hiring needs.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago whether I would use computers to run my business, I would’ve said no,” said Lynch. “Today my jobsites are managed by computers, and I understand and accept that technology is part of my future.”

Hvacr Community Meets the Challenge

The Internet now offers “communities” where professionals can turn to find out the latest developments in their industry. It’s also a place where business owners and people interested in learning more about the hvacr industry can meet to exchange information and search for jobs on all levels. Hiring can be expedited through the use of industry-specialized employment sites, where job seekers can connect with companies in their field.

To meet the ever-changing Internet challenge, the entire hvacr industry must continue to work together. The Internet can help companies communicate crucial messages to those people they hope to attract and maintain — customers and qualified staff.

By embracing the Internet, companies undoubtedly send the message that our industry is a first-rate choice for a technologically advanced, long-term career, and most importantly, that it’s an industry well positioned to adapt to change.

Mann is ceo of BuildNet Communities. He can be reached at tmann@unilinkgroup.com.

Publication date: 09/28/2000