Peter Powell

Who has the tougher time finding qualified technicians - those who hire in the HVAC sector or their counterparts in refrigeration? As far as the refrigeration folks are concerned, there is no contest. Those in the refrigeration sector say they have more trouble and, in fact, blame themselves saying they work their techs longer and harder on more technically complex equipment than their friends over in HVAC.

Such thoughts came up during the recent Food Marketing Institute Energy and Technical Services Conference in Denver. During an afternoon of concurrent breakout sessions covering everything from energy incentives to lighting strategies, three separate hour-long breakouts were devoted to the simple topic “The Technician Shortage.”

If the latter two sessions were similar to the first one I sat in on, they were all lively and freewheeling. At least 30 folks crammed into a small room for Round 1. There were retailers, contractors, and representatives from the manufacturing sector.

One participant summed up the situation succinctly when he said he knows of refrigeration techs working 80 to 90 hours a week and suggested this is driving many away, meaning those who are left have to work even more hours “which results in even fewer wanting to get in (to the refrigeration sector).

“It’s a snowball effect,” he said.

Another in the room chimed in and said that potential refrigeration technicians are instead going over to the HVAC sector because “they can work less hours.”

I have sat in on a lot of discussions over on the HVAC side over the years and they include bemoaning the lack of qualified technicians as well. But this is the first time I’ve heard the hours of work argument for one sector having more trouble than another.

Being a refrigeration editor, I do have to argue in favor of the complex and demanding work faced by refrigeration folks in comparison to those over on HVAC.

The sheer number of refrigerants is one case in point. HVAC people have mainly had R-22 forever and are now switching to R-410A, with some protesting I might add. Over in refrigeration, past refrigerants have included R-11, -12, -502 and now consist of -404A, -507, -134a, -422B, -422C, -422D, CO2, ammonia, a whole bunch of interim refrigerants the numbers of which I can’t even begin to remember, and, oh yes, -22 and -410A.

Since I’m not an engineer, I won’t argue too much regarding the complexity of equipment, but over in supermarket refrigeration there are currently three completely different types of systems being touted as best for creating cooling and freezing.

The FMI breakout also showed refrigeration folks to be especially willing to engage in a free-for-all debate as to the effects technician shortages have. One round concerned a retailer bemoaning the fact that manufacturers deliver equipment but don’t install it, while someone from a manufacturer said retailers use competitive bidding and opt for the low bid which often doesn’t include manufacturer installation. Both said they did not have enough qualified techs and that was adding to installation and service challenges.

Meanwhile one contractor told a supermarket retailer that sometimes store managers wait until the end of the day to call for service on equipment that was showing signs of problems early in the day. “If it is broke at 8 a.m., it is going to be broke at 5 p.m.,” he said. Wanting a service call at night just adds to the hours a tech will end up working that day, the contractor said.

The biggest concern among all participants (and virtually everybody participated) was that even if the refrigeration sector sees a big jump in people wanting to get into refrigeration, the training curve for highly qualified technicians could be as long as eight to 10 years, given the complexity of the sector. (I wonder if those on the HVAC side contend their learning curve is as long.)

Some good did come out of the lively talk. There seemed to be an understanding that FMI needs to give the topic a more formal and extensive look to the point of forming a task force to do so.

Hopefully if such a task force is formed, it won’t get bogged down in formalities and paper pushing. But if any of the folks at the Denver session end up on such a task force, there is a good possibility that some innovative and interesting solutions to dealing with technician shortages could well emerge.

Publication date: 11/05/2007