The tech shortage affects contractors nationwide, but some feel the sting more than others. Location and the local economy play a part, but so do contractors' approaches to recruiting and retaining employees.

To find out what attracts qualified technicians to a company and what keeps them working there, The News interviewed contractors in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. Here's what they had to say.

NATE-certified service technician Nate Hendricks of Peaden Air Conditioning in Panama City, Fla., adjusts the flame on his oxy-acetylene torch in preparation for repairing a refrigerant leak on the capillary tube.

The Real Competition

You're not just in competition for business; you're also competing for employees. If the firm down the street - be it a bank, a restaurant, or another HVAC contractor - is a better place to work than your company is, guess where the best-qualified, hardest-working people are going to be employed?

Larry Taylor, president of Air Rite Air Conditioning in Fort Worth, Texas, and other contractors have had good luck recruiting from vendors and parts houses. But is it just luck?

Taylor says a bank teller he chats with when he makes deposits referred her son. He has become one of Taylor's newest and best recruits.

"I can find talented people at the local Jiffy Lube or grocery store," said Ray Isaac, president of Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, N.Y.

"I just have to romance them into working for me."

A NATE-certified service technician at Peaden Air Conditioning checks a package unit for refrigerant leaks in the evaporator coil with an electronic leak detector.

Become A Great Place To Work

It's important that prospective employees view a company as being an exemplary employer. Image is critical.

"Build a positive image in your community," said Isaac. He stated he never advertises for openings, yet had more than two dozen new hires last year and has a workforce of 150, more than 100 of whom are service technicians and installers.

"We know we're doing something right if current employees and customers refer potential employees to us," Isaac said.

John Saucier, president of Temperature, Inc., Memphis, Tenn., said he "tumbled out of a service truck to start this business." He remembers what it's like to be a service technician. "I constantly ask myself, ‘Is this a place I'd like to work?'"

One reason Temperature Inc. is a great place to work is that union workers are paid $5 over scale - $10,000 more per year based on a 40-hour workweek. Saucier also stresses ongoing training and pays the salary and travel expenses of technicians who attend out-of-town classes.

Danny Kregle, president of Efficiency Mechanical in Gilbert, Ariz., said he tries to "pay better than most of the contractors out there." His eight service technicians and 50 installers also are given full medical benefits and participate in a profit-sharing program.

Service technicians and installers receive 100 hours of on-site instruction a year at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, N.Y.

Steer Young People Toward The Trades

"It's all about marketing and positioning," said Isaac. "We haven't done a good job of that as an industry.

"For most kids, the trades are seen as a fallback position," he says.

"I talk with high school kids who say it doesn't matter what they get a degree in, just so they get one in something. We're wasting an opportunity to reach these kids, and they're wasting an opportunity to make a very good livelihood."

One drawback for many young people is the low starting pay, said Gary Rinier, owner of Absolute Plumbing, Heating and Air in Signal Hill, Calif. "It's not very appealing to spend eight hours a day under a house in the mud or in an attic that's 120 degrees F for $8 an hour.

"But if your work is good and consistent for two or three years, you can make $50,000 a year and up," he commented. "The problem is, a lot of young people want to make that kind of money now, with no experience."

The Hispanic Market

Rinier and Kregle have found some of their best employees in the Hispanic community.

One of Rinier's recent new hires is a former truck driver with a wife and two kids; Rinier said the guy is thinking about where he wants to be in five years.

"Three nights a week he goes to plumbing, heating, and air classes after work," said Rinier. "He's the best apprentice I've ever had."

Hire For Attitude, Train For Skills

For Robert Wilkos, business leader at Peaden Air Conditioning in Panama City, Fla., HVAC experience isn't the most important consideration in hiring a new employee. He is willing to train an individual who has mechanical aptitude and good people skills.

"He'll start out servicing systems for a year or two, and I'll watch him," said Wilkos.

"Is he good with customers? Does he have a natural curiosity about the industry? In most cases, if I give him enough exposure to the work of a service technician, he'll have a desire to move up the ladder."

Wilkos describes this informal apprenticeship as "the farm leagues of HVAC - see if they can play ball, and if they can, give them a try in the major leagues."

At Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning, recruits go through a four-year in-house training program with 100 hours per year of instruction. "That's how we get good, qualified people in the field," stated Isaac.

Keep The Ones You've Got

"The most important thing is to create a workplace where people want to stay. That trumps everything else," said Scott Robinson, co-owner of Apple Heating in Ashtabula, Ohio.

"Pay your workers well and give them good benefits," he said. "Treat them like your business depends on it, because it does."

Taylor, who employs 10 service techs and 10 installers, offers hiring bonuses to attract and keep good workers. After six months of satisfactory service, Taylor begins paying one-sixth of a $1,000 bonus each month.

"If we can keep him for six months, we've got him," he said.

Taylor said that being sensitive to his technicians' commitments outside of work is crucial to keeping good people. He has allowed one tech to work a split shift in order to care for his young son. Another has Saturdays off to celebrate the Sabbath, but he's willing to work Sundays.

Kregle says he has great technicians. "I want them to stay forever." He has been in the business for 19 years, and his techs have been with him an average of 10 years. "Some have been with me the whole time, and I do everything I can to keep them."

Publication date: 02/07/2005