TONAWANDA, NY — Are students and young people getting mixed signals about job opportunities in Buffalo? Some area contractors think so.

According to the contractors, there is a big shortage of qualified service techs and the prevailing wages are pretty decent.

Wayne Herr of Buffalo Sheet Metals, a $10 million mechanical contractor, said that training and a commitment to work can lead to a healthy living. “The kids are getting the wrong messages,” he said. “After serving a four-year apprenticeship, they can earn $50,000 a year and not miss a day of work.”

But they have to want to work, said Herr. “Some kids get a hang nail and stay home for a week.”

Herr said that one local school, McKinley High School, offers a sheet metal course but counselors turn around and encourage the students to attend college. “So why bother offering the sheet metal course?”

For older or displaced workers, he said there is a local program called “Classified Workers” where students can earn $14/hr and do everything a journeyman can do as long as they are accompanied by a journeyman to a jobsite.

Van Mollenberg, of Mollenberg-Betz, Inc., Buffalo, a 90-year-old mechanical contracting company, said he has a hard time finding qualified people and often has to look out of town for help.

“A lot of students around here leave the area without taking the time to look around,” he added. “It might be because Buffalo is not the hot bed of construction right now, and we are not moving along at the same pace as the rest of the country.”

Mollenberg’s advice is for students to attend a four-year sheet metal apprenticeship program — and they don’t have to be young to get involved.

“I like the seasoned guys; it often takes a while to train the young guys,” Mollenberg said. “A person’s age doesn’t bother me at all.”

Mollenberg added that he feels the wages offered in the Buffalo area are comparable to other New York communities.

Consolidator's spin

Dave Nowak of MJ Mechanical, Inc., has a little different spin on the story. His company is part of Comfort Systems USA, a national consolidator based in Houston, TX.

The general manager of this 25-year-old company said he is really hurting for technicians. But because of the company’s position as part of a national consolidated network of contractors, he has been able to hire workers from other Comfort Systems locations.

Buffalo-area workers have a similar option. If they need to relocate to another region, they have the option of transferring to a Comfort Systems contractor who might be in that area.

Nowak said he doesn’t think the glut of New York laws has helped young people find their way into the hvacr job market. “New York has a law requiring students to take an exam which [measures competency and basic skills],” he explained. “Kids are now scrambling just to get out of high school.

“I recently met with a dozen high school guidance counselors and told them about our need for workers.”

Nowak said wages are very decent in his business, where top workers make over $20/hr.

“We’ve got guys who have been here 10 years making $20 an hour, driving a company van, and enjoying good benefits,” he said. “As long as they are dependable, honest, and have a good attitude, we want to talk to them about working for us.”