Having handed over my pen and paper a few years ago in order to take on managerial functions, I found myself gradually losing touch with contractor meetings, such as association gatherings. In making a concerted effort to get out in the field more during the last nine months, I’m spotting trends in industry behavior — akin to connecting the dots.

A recent Service Nation Inc. meeting in Atlanta attended by about 220 HVAC and plumbing contractors helped me recognize what I believe to be a demographic trend that has taken root. Perhaps it’s been there for quite a while, but I’m just catching up. Let’s call it: “Younger, Smarter, More Engaged.”

Now, not to offend the salt-and-pepper crowd of which I am a proud member, but being of a younger age does not inherently make anyone smarter nor an older generation of contractors less so. However, while many wax eloquently about why the millennial generation has such a poor work ethic, it was redeeming to see so many younger contractors engaged in strategic business issues that far outstretched their years.

Of course, age is a relative point in time, and as some may look condescendingly upon those coming behind us, it was remarkable to watch them at breakfasts, lunches, and breakout sessions as they plotted the directions of their respective companies. Sure, the Service Nation group of contractors had its share of silver-haired sages in the audience. But, noticeably different was the general demographic. People in their 30s and 40s seemed more the norm. The conversations were seldom about boilers or air conditioners; good topics, of course. However, this particular generation of contractors seemed engaged in the advancement of industry-changing technologies, such as home automation, home performance, home information, etc. These are contractors talking about running their businesses differently, not just better.


Gary Kerns, owner of Superior Heating & A/C in Richmond, Kentucky, discussed a demographic we know all too well during a Koch Air Carrier Distributor meeting in Evansville, Indiana. The average age of a technician in his state is 51; the average in the U.S. is about 53. The average age of a technician on his staff is 32. Kerns has been hiring younger, smarter, more engaged employees for quite some time. He finds this group of individuals to be interested in customers and in the success of his business. “I treat my techs as though what they are doing is actually running their own business. They can’t work with their hands tied today; they want more flexibility to make business decisions with the customers, and I give it to them.”

Our industry often cites the staggering numbers of the technician shortage that no longer looms in the future; it is with us now. However, how many tradeshows limit students to the last day or last few hours of an event? How many don’t allow entrance to those under the age of 18 at all?

Paying lip service to the next generation of this industry, those who will take over and create the new systems that are required of a changing business environment, is questionable. Why would the next generation want to join an industry that does not welcome them until they have attained a certain age, level of experience, or the secret handshake that gains them entry into the network?

Young people want to join a culture that matches their own aspirations. HVACR can be that place if, perhaps, the salt-and-pepper crowd realize that, for some millennials, it is not so much about the day-to-day features and benefits of business as it is about being engaged with customers and being involved in the business. Kerns, a self-proclaimed old-timer himself, realized years ago that inspiring the younger generation he works with and being inspired by them was going to build a different and better business to serve his customers.

What can you do to create a culture in the workplace that helps ensure company success? Kerns said it starts with a company’s employees.

If you are thinking about a cultural change or just trying new ideas, a nice place to start might be the Service World Expo, Oct. 26-27 in Las Vegas. It’s an event that just may turn the traditional trade show on its head. Think younger, smarter, and more engaged. You’ll meet people who are talking about not only the great products this industry has to offer, but discussing systems and strategies to build their businesses differently. I hope to see you there.

Publication date: 5/2/2016

Want more HVAC industry news and information? Join The NEWS on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn today!