NUREMBERG, Germany — A rather detailed drawing of a nude woman showering is not what most hvacr contractors in the U.S. would plaster on company vans and building signage.

But at least one contractor in Europe does so. The man in question is a heating contractor who happens to do plumbing. Since plumbing involves water, and since water is used in showers…well, one supposes that is reason enough for the artwork in question.

But while contractors overseas may be much more open minded in how they go about promoting themselves, they find the task of finding, training, and retaining technicians to be almost as challenging as their counterparts in the United States.

They find this despite an education system that steers more students into vocations earlier than in the U.S., has more government-funded training, and generally produces more company loyalty.

Part of the problem sounds familiar — there are more appealing professions, often computer based. A compressor burnout requires the same down and dirty work worldwide, and pristine computer work has the same appeal worldwide.

Compounding this is rapid growth in the European air conditioning market. Once disdained in many buildings, it is now becoming more and more common. The idea that hot Augusts meant “holiday” away from the office is fading as more and more businesses are global and need to be staffed year round — thus the increase in the need for technicians to install and service the equipment.

Waylayed At IKK

At the most recent IKK trade show here, Tobias Schuhbauer and Michael Brenner, contractors from Vienna, Austria, discussed their situation. They operate a business that does commercial and residential hvacr and has about 25 employees. When asked about finding good techs, Brenner said, “Yes, it is a problem. We find we have to teach the people.”

He said there are professional schools that provide “good, basic education.” He said such studies might take 3 1/2 years with various levels of study. But in the end, “We adapt [what is taught in the schools] to our needs.”

Based on what he understands about the United States, Brenner said employees in his country do not move about as much, but they do not show the company loyalty as in Japan. Still, he said, “We teach these people and we want something back.”

Taking a look at the issue on a more European-wide basis is Jorgen Schack, branch manager for Bacharach Instruments International in Denmark. His company has products used by technicians, so he has a vested interest in there being enough well-trained technicians.

“Nowadays it is becoming a problem,” he said. Then echoing a familiar stateside concern, he said, “A lot of older people are going into retirement. Young people are more interested in studying in the universities.”

For Schack, loyalty varies. Some students may become longtime employees. Others may stay a year or so, “and then walk out and get some new impressions.”

He described the system as “very good over here.”

Branching Out

Students are motivated to change careers within the industry, he said. “It is very common for technicians to want to move up to engineer or into marketing or sales.” Additional schooling is required. Engineering may take 3 1/2 to 7 years; marketing and sales takes 1 to 2 years.

Even if a student is not on a university track, there are other temptations than the trades. “They go for micro-electronics, or software. They go from high school and find themselves at a job on the keyboard and get involved in computers,” said Schack.

Even when the issue is focused on Europe’s most powerful economic engine, Germany, the story is the same in terms of finding, training, and retaining.

Peter Rott is manager of VDKF, an association of contractors. He noted that like many other European countries, German would-be techs are offered 3 1/2 years of training in which they spend three weeks each month on the job and a week at a school. The government funds the schools, he noted.

Loyalty is an issue. “Some are loyal to the company, some are not. Some do stay. Some don’t.” But obviously, they are not as willing to jump from company to company as in the U.S. And, ironically, that is one reason it is difficult to find a good technician. “That’s because people stay with a company and don’t move,” said Rott. “If you want to get someone good, you have to train them yourself, but they will stay with the company.”

The Employment Factor

Ironically, one reason Germany may be able to fill the technician pipeline better than in the United States may relate to the employment picture. According to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s American Consulate General in Munich, “High unemployment is one of Germany’s most serious problems.”

The report went on to note, “Structural factors are largely to blame for continuing high joblessness, and the government has so far not pursued significant labor market reforms needed to promote new job creation.”

However, the report also noted that the situation is improving. “The economic upswing and changes in Germany’s labor force have combined to reduce the unemployment rate, 10.5% in 1999, to perhaps 9.7% in 2000 and 9.3% in 2001.”

VDKF said it is seeing “an increase in applications for refrigeration and air conditioning.” There are “annual training vacancies for some 2,000 apprentices.”

After some tough years of stagnation, contractors in Germany are “looking to the future with optimism,” according to a report from VDKF. A year 2000 survey found 65% of contractors expected an increase in business with 22% of them “assuming a growth of 10%.” VDKF said it has 12,000 members encompassing about 80% of the hvacr business in the country.

The report said only 6% expected a drop of more than 10%.

That’s all well and good. But an improving economy, lower unemployment, and lures of careers beyond hvacr is sure to add to the challenge of putting good technicians into the field that is finding increased demand for air conditioning, refrigeration, and heating specialists.

Europe may not be at critical mass like the United States, just yet. But the time may come when those countries experience a shortage.

Sidebar: How European Students Get Career Guidance

When asked to explain schooling in their native lands, foriegn exchange students from Europe say it is quite different than in the U.S.

Basically, when a student reaches high school age, there are a variety of high schools to choose from with varying degrees of difficulty. The more challenging ones are designed to steer students into the limited number of universities available in many European countries. This is opposed to the United States, where one high school teaches to all levels of students and thousands of colleges of all types are available to students.

Early on in many European high schools, students find themselves out of the university-bound loop and at a school that may be steering them to vocational training.

According to Jorgen Schack, branch manager for Bacharach Instruments International, Denmark, students at the age of 17 or 18 may opt for an hvacr career. “So they make a contract for 41¼2 to 5 years with a contractor and at the same time attend a technical school for hvacr.” Part of the time they are in school; part of the time, they work for the contractor and are paid a salary.

Schooling is government funded with some help from the contractor.

“After school it is very easy to get a job,” Schack says.

Publication date: 01/29/2001