GRAND FORKS, N.D. - WhenThe Newsvisited Grand Forks in 1998, the community was just beginning to pull itself together after the devastating Red River flood of April 1997. The big concern was rebuilding the damaged homes and businesses and encouraging people to come back to the community rather than moving somewhere else.

The population has returned to the community, which includes East Grand Forks, Minn., to the east of the Red River. There are new neighborhoods, multi-family units, and commercial construction on both sides of the river. That bodes well for the future of this small Midwestern community.

But there is still a concern that has existed before the flood and since - how to keep young people in town and interested in a career in the mechanical trades.

"The problem is getting people to stay," said Phil Kraemer of Lunseth Plumbing & Heating. "We spent a lot of money on training a young tech who left the industry after nine months."

Terry Grundysen of Midwest Refrigeration Inc. laments the lack of interest in his trade. "We don't have a lot of young people coming into the refrigeration industry," he said, noting that the average age of technicians has risen, in part because educational programs were not attracting enough students.

Thanks to a stepped-up effort by the Grand Forks School District and Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks to get high school students into the workplace and experience a career in HVAC before graduating from high school, there is guarded optimism among the HVAC contracting community.

Before looking to the future, let's take a closer look at Grand Forks A.F. (after the flood).

Grand Forks HVACR contractors discussing employment opportunities during a luncheon meeting with The News include (from left) Darin Gador of Custom Aire Plumbing, Heating & Cooling; Terry Grundysen of Midwest Refrigeration Inc.; Phil Kraemer of Lunseth Plumbing & Heating; Dave McFarlane of McFarlane Sheet Metal; and Gene Lill of Vilandre Heating & Air Conditioning.

Knocked For A Loop

The local community often speaks of life clearly marked by one defining moment - the flood. In early April 1997 the Red River rose to a record 54 feet - 26 feet above flood stage - and submerged many of the downtown sections and several surrounding neighborhoods in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Business owners and homeowners went into an emergency mode, which lasted days, weeks, months, and years. An estimated $1 billion worth of damage devastated the community.

There was a lot of anger and resentment in the community. Many people left and never returned. Dave McFarlane re-members the time vividly. The owner of McFarlane Sheet Metal saw the disaster's aftermath firsthand, and he came to appreciate the lasting effect it had on members of the community.

"There were a couple of workshops that the Chamber of Commerce put on dealing with the psychological aspects of the flood and its affects on employees," he said. "I blew off the first couple of workshops, but when I started seeing how the flood affected the employees, I attended one.

"There are things that people do when they are flooded out. You don't think right and start blaming people, and our guys needed to figure that out, too. For some people, an inch of water in the basement was devastating, while for others, 10 feet of water didn't bother them."

Grundysen touched on another psychological problem brought on by the disaster. "We had people who didn't get water, but they were emotionally disturbed because they had a guilt complex," he said. "They didn't have to go through this traumatic experience."

Northland Community & Technical College is one of the “feeder groups” for the Grand Forks HVAC business community.

Rebuilding Process

U.S. Census Bureau statistics showed a decline in the population from 1990 to 2000 by 104 citizens. The population has climbed significantly since 2000, and it is

at an all-time high level. Single-family new house building permits went from 313 in 1997 to a low of 50 in 2000. The 2004 statistics show an increase to 224 units.

In his "state of the city" address in March 2005, Grand Forks Mayor Michael R. Brown noted, "The growth and development is obvious in the construction you see driving throughout town. Again in 2004, we were on a record pace for building and expansion, and we outpaced the previous year as far as value of construction. The total value of construction last year was $106 million. That's a 15 percent increase over 2003, which, by the way, was 34 percent higher than 2002; 2004 also experienced an increase in building permits from 1,450 to 1,515."

The University of North Dakota - a cornerstone of the Grand Forks community - had 72 buildings damaged by the floodwaters. Student enrollment suffered. Although steadily increasing in the past few years, the 2004 enrollment figures were still approximately 600 students below the 1997 levels.

Although the community suffered for years, its future looks much brighter. But reminders of the past remain. "There are still some aftereffects of the flood," stated Darin Gador of Custom Aire Plumbing, Heating & Cooling.

"Some people are still finishing their basements," he said. "Others thought they had their ductwork cleaned as part of the equipment replacement. We will open up ducts and find river mud in the return air draft. But most people have forgotten about it."

Grundysen noted, "It was a struggle for a few years. People left town and didn't come back. But after four or five years we have returned to normal and have become a destination city again. The city is a better place to live now."

For some contractors, the aftermath of the flood brought a lot of new business. For others, it has been business as usual. Gene Lill of Vilandre Heating & Air Conditioning assessed the situation with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. "Our service stayed pretty much the same," he said. "We didn't notice much difference. We had just as many service calls because people still believe that furnaces run forever without any maintenance or filter changes."

Service technician Jeff Brule of Grand Forks' contractor Custom Aire checks out a problem with a walk-in cooler in a concession stand at the Alerus Center.

Keeping Techs At Home

The goal of Grand Forks contractors is simple: make the town an appealing place for the next generation of residents to live and work. The community is growing, but it needs homegrown talent to remain in the area and seed the growth. Although Grand Forks bills itself as a destination city, there is a continuous struggle to keep young people interested in careers within the local business community.

The community cannot depend on outside help, according to Gador. He is very candid about the problem that Grand Forks has in attracting young people to the region. "We tried to find employees over the Internet, but that didn't seem to work," he said.

"We spent a lot of time talking to people and trying to get them to come up here. It never worked out for us. No one is really interested in coming up here unless they were born and raised here.

"The Midwestern boys like to stay in the Midwest for the hunting and fishing and the slower pace of life. Guys from the big cities don't like to come here because of that reason."

Mayor Brown summed up the problem in his recent speech. "How do we address out-migration at a local level?" he asked. "Our community is teeming with brilliant young and energetic people. We need to continue to not only tell, but also show young people that they have a good home here.

"[They can have] an affordable house, the preeminent school system, a safe community, and exciting sporting and entertainment events. These are all important and attractive. But so are good jobs, and upward mobility."

Kraemer believes that some young people have an inherent interest in the Grand Forks business community. "We have seen that kids like the fact that they don't have to go a long way from home to attend school," he said. "It is more regionalized here."

Unlike the bigger metropolitan areas, Grand Forks doesn't have a large labor pool to draw from. Contractors joke about trying to hire technicians away from each other, but the fact remains that putting out a help wanted sign does not equate to a flood of applications. "For the most part, you can run an ad in the paper and get no responses," said McFarlane. "You might as well throw your $500 away."

Area contractors have found that the best way to attract young people to the trade and keep them is through a good "feeder system." The Grand Forks Vocational Technical Consortium School-to-Career program and the Northland Community & Technical College HVAC program are two big reasons why there is hope for keeping young people interested in the Grand Forks HVAC trade. (See related article on page 30.)

A strong technical education and on-the-job work experience are cornerstones for these successful programs. And contractors are biting. Chris Reak, an instructor in the HVAC program at Northland, said, "The local contractors will literally hire our students the third week of class and work them 10 or 12 hours a week. It isn't the pocket money - the students develop an interest in the job and the contractor.

"The best contractors in town can run a help wanted ad and get no response. By hiring our students, contractors can develop a relationship. Kids take their education more seriously when they work in the field."

Kim Jones, a career consultant at Grand Forks Public Schools and community school coordinator for the Grand Forks Vocational Technical Consortium, can see no substitute for work experience. She believes that by getting young people involved in the local business community during high school, they develop an appreciation for the work ethic and a bond with their employer.

"The kids need to get into the businesses at an early age and experience the work environment," she said. "There is just no substitute for that. Kids want to explore. We are a global society, and kids are encouraged to take international internships.

"We like to tell our students that this is a great place to live and this is a great educational system to raise kids. Many people who leave come back to live here."

Vilandre's Lill agreed that the technician shortage is his company's biggest concern. "Finding service techs and installers who will stay - and keeping them interested - is a problem," he said.

Northland Community & Technical College HVAC instructor Chris Reak shows off a circuit board used for troubleshooting system controls in the school's training lab.

Changing The Attitude

It is one thing to promise a bright future with job security in a thriving area - it's another to get young people to understand the work ethic that is needed to become an integral part of the business community.

McFarlane bluntly stated the problem, "Some people think that showing up on time and working 40 hours a week is a novelty. People learn they have to actually work 40 hours a week."

Reak said that many of his students fail his courses because of absenteeism, not because they couldn't handle the curriculum. "We tell them that attendance is very important," he said. "We may start out with 22 students, and by the end have 12 to 14. We do fail people. Surprisingly, most of the people we fail will come back and retake the classes."

The importance of being on time is something that all employees need to remember, and it is one aspect of an overall package that includes technical aptitude and expertise. But another important factor is the willingness to learn the skills needed to be an effective communicator.

Customer service goes beyond the ability to fix equipment. Sometimes, said Reak, a technician needs to "fix a customer."

"We are very consumer-based in this community, and the students have to know how to understand different cultures of people when they enter their homes," said Reak. "We need kids to understand that their view isn't the only view."

Students also need an educational "attitude adjustment" in Grand Forks. That's the logic being used by the Grand Forks Vocational Technical Consortium. Grand Forks Public Schools Career/Technical Director Jerome Gunderson said that the influence of the University of North Dakota, although a positive one, can also promote false expectations.

"In Grand Forks we bleed green," he said. "Kids graduate from high school and go to [the university]. The perception is that if you don't go to college, you aren't successful.

"There are examples of local kids who went to a four-year college, turned around, and came back to take a two-year course at a tech school and work in the industry. If I were the parent, I couldn't afford to support that."

In the end, Grand Forks HVAC contractors hope that the community's budding fortunes and growth opportunities will be enough to foster a good attitude towards a career in the technical trades. Contractors know they have to do a better job of spreading the good word about a career in HVAC.

"We haven't done a good enough job publicizing the career opportunities and the kind of money that can be made in our trade," said Kraemer. "Making $50,000 a year is not uncommon."

Darin Gador summed it up by saying that the grass isn't always greener on the other side, even if the pay is higher.

"Higher pay sometimes means higher stress," he said. "Some people have left the area for parts un-known and came back, seeing that we are not so bad after all."

Custom Aire’s Jason Schultz checks his gauges during a pool dehumidifier inspection at the Fairfield Inn.

Sidebar: Grand Forks Technicians Provide ‘Custom' Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - A typical day for a HVAC service technician in Grand Forks usually includes residential and light commercial service calls, with a few commercial and industrial visits mixed in. On the dayThe Newspaid a visit to Grand Forks, two commercial accounts were getting the "custom" treatment.

Jason Schultz and Jeff Brule, service technicians for Custom Aire, were busy troubleshooting and servicing equipment in two of the area's better-known businesses.

Schultz was servicing the indoor swimming pool dehumidification system at the Fairfield Inn. The system was continuously tripping the electrical breaker switches.

Brule visited the Alerus Center, a 22,000-seat entertainment complex that opened in 2000. The walk-in freezer alarm at one of the concession stands was alarming and the unit was not cooling down.

This Breaker Is Trippin', Man
Schultz noted that the compressor was shorted to the ground. He noted that the old compressor was only a year old and had failed twice in the past year. "Another company did the installation work on that," Schultz noted.

He thinks that Custom Aire was called in because hotel management was not happy with the previous contractor. The Fairfield Inn bid this repair job out, and Schultz said that Custom Aire was probably $400 to $500 higher than the other bid. "Maybe they chose us because we offer more services and are more professional," he said. He examined the system in order to determine the cause of the compressor failure, cleaned the dirty blower motor, and replaced the filter-drier. Schultz, a four-year employee, said he enjoys working on all types of equipment, both residential and commercial. But he's not too crazy about industrial jobs - too many layers of red tape.

While Schultz was working at the Fairfield Inn, he was dispatched to a job out of town. The rest of the job would have to wait until he returned.

Keeping Things Cool
The walk-in cooler that Brule serviced is used by Subway, a concessionaire at the Alerus Center. Although the concession stand wasn't due to open for a few months, Alerus management did not want to wait until the last minute to make the necessary repairs. Custom Aire has a service maintenance agreement for the refrigeration equipment at the popular Grand Forks facility, home to University of North Dakota football team and other show venues.

Brule had been alerted by an Alerus worker that servicing the freezer would require a person who could squeeze into a small area in the ceiling above the unit. Brule fit the bill. The first thing he did was remove the ceiling tiles and take his gauges above the unit.

"I first like to check the condenser," he said. "It could be dirty or plugged up. Maybe the unit was not maintained regularly. There could also be a refrigerant leak.

"I don't like to make any assumptions until I visually inspect the equipment and hook up the gauges."

Brule, who has worked for Custom Aire for eight months since coming over from another local contractor, said the system was low on refrigerant and may have a leak somewhere. "My next step is to give Alerus an estimate for finding and repairing the leak," he said. He got approval and did more research into the Kolpak equipment.

Another Custom Aire tech who had worked on the same equipment before left a Kolpak manual in Brule's bin for him to consult. The advice helped. Brule found a small pinhole leak in one of the suction line elbows.

"The leak was probably caused by the line set constantly moving due to a long run and no strapping," he said. "I recovered the refrigerant, repaired the leak, and pressure tested the system with nitrogen.

"After the pressure check, I evacuated the system and charged the unit. I ran the system and checked pressures and temperatures. Everything went well."

And so goes another day in the lives of HVAC service technicians in Grand Forks.

- John R. Hall

Publication date: 04/04/2005