Peter Powell

At most any industry conference, there is bound to be a breakout session on the topic “The Technician Shortage.” And frequently one of the targets in which to aim blame for the shortage is high school guidance counselors.

Instead of encouraging most every student in their charge to attend a four-year-college for a four-year degree, we say, counselors should be steering those who may not be of four-year college caliber but show particular aptitude with their hands and figuring out how to solve problems to community colleges or vocational schools to enter one of the trade programs. In fact, we say, those counselors should figure out which trade would be best for that student - plumbing, carpentry, auto mechanics, welding - or maybe even HVACR.

And that is all well and good, and for a long time I shared the frustration at high school counselors not doing all of the above. That is, until I read an editorial in the Oct. 7, 2007, issue of the Rockford (Ill.)Register-Star.

The editorial was basically concerning the job the local community college was doing. At the time of the editorial, enrollment was at about 74 percent of capacity. In a survey taken of students, 82 percent said they were transfer-bound - in other words, planning on going to a four-year college to get a four-year degree. Only 18 percent said they were career bound - as in HVACR being one of those careers.

“So not enough people come to college wanting the skills to get a job immediately,” the editorial writer said. “Not enough come to the college seeking training for a better job.”

When it came to one possible cause for the situation, the president of the college sounded like he had been sitting in on some of those technician shortage seminars. The editorial said the president “worries about ‘meanderers,’ the kids who go through high school without direction. They graduate without knowing what kind of work they could do, and without plans to get the advanced education that’s a prerequisite to making a decent living.”

The editorial made it clear that the advanced education could be vocational or four-year college.

At this point, the editorial brought up a point I had never thought about and the one that is changing my blanket criticism of high school counselors. “One of the challenges is to get traction in the high schools, where the ratio of counselors to students can be one to 300 or more,” it read. “Counselors are often so busy with discipline that they can’t connect with students about careers. (And) the students are not speaking up.”

So there you have it. If I was dealing with 300 teenagers and it was mostly discipline problems and most of my conversations with them started with ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ and they replied, “I don’t know,” I suspect I’d have trouble steering someone eminently qualified for a career into HVACR into a HVACR program at a nearby community college or vocational school.

I believe the issues being addressed in the editorial are not limited to Rockford. I suspect it is common throughout the United States and probably Canada as well.

In general, one attempt at an answer has been for contractors to get more involved with their local high schools, by serving on boards or advisory committees or perhaps offering to come in as a guest speaker to talk about vocational opportunities. Perhaps from that vantage point, contractors can sense those students who might show potential in HVACR.

The editorial I’ve been quoting also noted that the local community college is trying to partner with local manufacturers. In one example, 15 high school students work part time at one manufacturer while earning some credits at the community college tuition free.

In this case, the part-time work probably does not require the sophistication of much HVACR. But it does give a rough idea of how the concept might work. Perhaps part changers in a HVACR contracting company can be high school students earning credits at a local community college or vocational school with the idea of plugging into the post-secondary HVACR program more fully after graduation from high school.

Just something to think about.

Publication date:12/03/2007