By any measure, the economic news that came out in April was outstanding. The real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the first quarter of 2019, which was higher than expected, and average hourly earnings showed a 12-month increase of 3.2 percent. In addition, worker productivity increased at a rate of 2.4 percent in the first quarter of 2019 compared to a year ago. However, the biggest news was that the economy added 263,000 jobs in April, which pushed the unemployment rate down to 3.6 percent — the lowest it’s been since 1969.

The construction industry added 33,000 net new jobs in April, according to an Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compared to the same time last year, industry employment is up by 256,000 jobs, an increase of 3.5 percent. Overall, the construction industry unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent, down 2.2 percentage points from the same time last year, which represents the lowest April rate since the series began in the year 2000, noted ABC.

“Many economists are predicting a recession in 2020 or 2021,” said Anirban Basu, chief economist, ABC. “While that’s possible, the case for an economic downturn over the next 12 to 18 months is fading fast. The nation has added jobs in 103 consecutive months, and the unemployment rate is at its lowest level since 1969. With inflation and interest rates low, the cost of capital remains suppressed, helping to induce ongoing spending growth among companies, consumers, and governments alike. For construction firms, the jobs report is consistent with lengthy backlog, continued expansion in consumer outlays, growing demand for office and other forms of space, and steady demand for construction services.”

While most HVACR contractors are working flat out these days, the one issue that may be holding them back is the lack of qualified labor. Without a full crew, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to take on all the work that is currently available. In addition, contractors have to pay more for the employees they already have, as well as for those they want to hire. According to ABC, average hourly earnings for construction employees increased by 0.4 percent from March to April, approximately twice the rate of growth observed across all industries.

Most contractors struggle to find and retain workers, and this problem is not likely to get better anytime soon. That is why it is becoming so important to think outside the box when it comes to attracting talent. Many contractors tend to act locally, attending career fairs at high schools in the area and partnering with regional trade schools in order to create a pipeline of potential employees. But it may be worth casting a wider net and partnering with schools, or going to job fairs, in states with higher rates of unemployment (e.g., Alaska, West Virginia, Ohio). Offering a nice signing bonus to help with the move can make a job offer more attractive.

Or perhaps consider creating an in-house training program to grow your own talent. One contractor I spoke to several years ago decided to create an apprenticeship program specifically for his company. He worked with authorities to create a state- and federally approved four-year, 8,000-hour program that is designed to graduate technicians who are able to pass the state licensing exam. The last time we talked, he said he had no trouble filling his program, noting that 18 apprentices were currently enrolled, while another 11 or 12 were waiting to enter the program.

Several contractors have started hosting monthly open houses — advertising them through word-of-mouth and social media — where job seekers can come and eat pizza while learning more about the careers in HVACR. They report that these ventures have been very successful and resulted in several new employees joining their businesses — including some who had no experience in the industry but had the right attitude and were interested in being trained.

As the labor market continues to tighten, HVACR contractors are becoming more creative in the ways in which they find workers. What are some of the new things that you are doing to attract and retain talent? I would love to hear from you at

Publication date: 6/3/2019

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