Of course there are labor shortages striking every facet of the construction industry, from the hands-on HVAC, plumbing, carpentry, and masonry trades to the hands-on pipefitters, steamfitters, and steel workers. Or, so we may say as we think about the plight of our own backyard and of most other industries in the United States today.

Much attention is being focused on attracting new, young stars to the HVACR business of keeping people comfortable, calm, and productive. There is talk of influencing the minds of young people in the elementary school and junior high ranks so that they will consider HVAC as a challenging career opportunity. There are suggestions of changing the way that many high school guidance counselors are judged so they will stop pushing students into college when a technical career may be more appropriate.

I have been an advocate of all of the above, and still am today.

However a recent report by FMI Corp., titled “The 2007 U.S. Construction Markets Overview,” which included the top 10 issues facing the construction industry, opened my mind to some dynamics of change that may be worth considering for anyone searching for the holy grail of hiring and retention. One issue involved a different take on labor shortages that hit me in the head like a wet fish. It deserves some consideration if we are to actually understand all the factors that affect young peoples’ decisions, and then act accordingly. Or, perhaps better - to act differently.


In 1972, the computer game Pong came into being; with it, new skills were being ushered into people’s lives. People valued hand-eye coordination and an awareness of spatial relationships for the mental gymnastics and thrill of a joystick and an LCD display. If you wanted to play Pong, or PacMan, or Ms. PacMan, or today’s Wii® from Nintendo, for that matter, one had to think differently. Technology was capturing the hearts and minds of the emerging workforce.

A youthful generation began an evolution away from marbles, checkers, and other hands-on leisure activities. I would wager a small bit that my children are not the only ones who would rather sit in front of the computer on a sunny Saturday afternoon than to play kickball in the street. That 1970s generation started building a natural bridge that spanned from play habits to work habits.

Today, many people simply view working with their hands as less desirable than some other career pursuits. Try as we may to convince these young people and the parents of young people that HVACR is technically sophisticated, challenging, rewarding, and immensely beneficial to humanity, some people would rather sit in their basements and operate an eBay auction house or day-trade their way to fame and fortune, than to be perceived as working with their hands for a living. Physical movement and manual labor are passé for much of the next workforce.

The FMI report suggests that there is really no shortage of people to perform the labors of construction. Perhaps we have just been looking in the wrong places.


During the course of the last 10 weeks nine skilled laborers transformed my basement from a large closet into Murphy’s Pub and Dance Hall. Thirty-three percent of those workers are first-generation Americans.

So, what is the answer? Interestingly enough, in this industry, I’m like many of you - just a white male in a white male HVACR industry. Look on a job site and see who is working to build their future with their hands. How many of them speak English as a second language? How many may belong to some minority group of our population that we often simply ignore as a possible star employee?

All of the work that is going into attracting young people to HVAC careers is certainly well worth the effort, especially if it brings about the desired results. However, if you already have been doing everything right, and you still face a debilitating labor shortage, perhaps it is time to do the right things.

Broaden your search to look for those people whom you may have discounted in the past. They may be your future.

Publication date:05/07/2007