When I was a kid, I knew I’d go to college. Not a community college, either — a four-year university. That was the expectation of not only my parents, but also my school and community.

But what I didn’t realize then is that I was limiting my options, and the more I speak with HVAC industry leaders at conferences and expos, the more I see how problematic the I-have-to-attend-a-four-year-college-to-be-successful mentality is for young learners and our industry.

Worker Shortage

A few months ago, Fluke released the results of its 2012 Workforce Trends survey, which found that: 1) The industry is growing at an incredible rate; and 2) There are not enough qualified workers to fill current job openings, let alone future job openings.

While this may be good for qualified workers currently looking for a job, it poses a serious problem for business owners who may want to grow their companies, or even just fill a current opening.

At the HVACR & Mechanical Conference for Education Professionals in March, Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, the nonprofit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, emphasized how 82 percent of manufacturers in the U.S. can’t find qualified workers right now. That, she said, translates to 600,000 open jobs with good salaries and benefits — jobs that, in some cases pay more than those with four-year degrees. Yet parents and schools are steering children away from these jobs and into careers where finding a job, even with a shiny-new bachelor’s degree in hand, can be exceedingly difficult.

Get ’Em Young

In order to begin changing the mentality of students and their parents, the industry may have to rethink how it recruits new talent.

It’s not enough anymore to go after juniors and seniors, because by then, they’ve likely already made up their minds about school. It’s also not enough to leave recruiting solely in the hands of industry educators and trainers. Attracting new talent needs to be an industry-wide effort among HVAC contractors, distributors, and manufacturers.

“We need to own this image problem and start by changing it one school at a time, one parent at a time, one child at a time,” McNelly said. She added that in order to promote a positive image, the industry should work together and push for technical education funding at the secondary level.

Not Just for Men

Recently, I spoke with Mary Jean Anderson, owner of Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air, El Cajon, Calif., for an unrelated story. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked her, “How do you find such good employees?” She told me it isn’t easy.

But Anderson, who markets her business as being woman-owned and woman-run, has decided to do something about it. “We’re going to go to schools, and we’re going to talk to kids about alternative work,” she said. “We’ll tell them about how our industry warrants different ways of learning and gaining success.”

In addition to speaking to local schools, Anderson does something many other contractors may not: She actively recruits women, who make up just a fraction of the national HVAC workforce. Currently, Anderson employs two female technicians and said she hopes to see more women in the field soon.

“A woman can do this job very easily,” she said. “They can fit in very easily. I’d highly, highly recommend it.”

To remove the stigma attached to many of the jobs in this industry, leaders agree that changes must be made now. Getting involved in your local schools, recruiting from untapped demographics, and partnering with others in your industry are just a few ways to help ensure enough qualified workers will be available in the future.

So, how will you help attract the future generation of HVAC? Today’s as good of day as any to get started.

Publication date: 6/3/2013 

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