For decades, contractors have complained about the skilled labor shortage, and by all accounts, it’s just getting worse. At last year’s AHR Expo, the late Rob Falke, who was the president of National Comfort Institute, offered a sober assessment of the technician shortage.

“Today, HVAC technicians in the U.S. number about 290,000, and there are approximately 110,000 unfilled HVAC technician jobs,” he said. “That's 38% short of the numbers we need to fill our workforce. In addition, 8% — or a net loss of 23,000 people — are leaving our industry each year. That net loss includes people who are coming in to take other people's places. In just five years, there will be the existing 110,000 shortage, plus 23,000 leaving per year, which means we’ll be 225,000 people short to fill the jobs and demands we have today. Essentially, there will be 1.8 jobs available for every willing technician.”

That means the competition for skilled HVACR technicians will be even more intense, so contractors will need to put in significant efforts to retain their workforce. This includes not only offering a competitive salary and benefits, but also providing personal and professional growth opportunities and lots of praise for jobs that are well done.

This was the advice offered by Clint Pulver, a workforce expert, who talked about retention strategies at the Business Development Resources’ (BDR) SPARK 2023 conference earlier this year in Tucson, Arizona. He said that the key to attracting and retaining talent is for business owners to focus on the growth and recognition of their employees.

On growth, he said that if employees don’t feel that they can grow with a company, they’ll go somewhere else.

“The growth side of the business is, what can I become? And it's not always just a move up the chain to increase pay,” he said. “It's about growing humans, not just employees. That is the currency that we're dealing with, and too many organizations are learning how to do that really well.”

To optimize growth, Pulver said that contractors should begin by creating a development plan for their company, which involves asking employees about their wants and needs. This can include asking basic questions, such as: What can I do to keep you here? What’s getting in the way of your success at work? What can I do to help you get there? Contractors should subsequently devise a plan to help employees achieve their goals, then conduct frequent follow-ups to ensure that workers are on track for success.

“The growth development plan is so simple, yet sometimes we miss it,” he said. “Remember, the greatest part about your job is that it matters. The hardest part is that it matters every day.”

As for recognition, there are six types that are significant to employees, said Pulver. The first — and most important — is vocal praise, which simply means telling employees that they’re doing a good job.

“The crazy thing about vocal praise is that it costs your organization $0,” he said. “Make it part of your routine. Maybe put a reminder in your phone to take 10 minutes and call somebody to praise them. Or go out to the job site and say, ‘Thank you for what you do.’ That stuff matters.”

The second and third types of recognition are the experiences offered by the contractor, as well as time off and flexibility. Fourth on the list is money. On this point, Pulver said that if raises are not possible, then small gifts, such as Amazon gift cards, can be used to show employees that they are valued. Food is the fifth type of recognition, because who doesn’t love a pizza party, and last but not least is trophies and awards.

Circling back to vocal praise, it cannot be stressed enough how important this is, and it’s also the easiest type of recognition to implement. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, author Sara Algoe, noted that according to her research, the two simple words that can increase productivity, enhance collaboration among employees, make managers more effective, and improve corporate performance are thank you.

“For many daily events in the workplace, it may not even cross one’s mind to express gratitude to a colleague. So many tasks happen within a day that it may hardly seem worth it to stop and say thanks,” said Algoe. “That’s a missed opportunity. The fact is that all it takes is some acknowledgment of another person’s work — a brief email, Slack message, or passing comment in the hallway — to see beneficial effects.”

Indeed, employers who consistently express gratitude for their employees' hard work and contributions are more likely to retain top talent and build a strong team culture. That is why it is so important for employers to prioritize gratitude and incorporate it into their daily practices; otherwise, employees may seek out other job opportunities in companies where they feel their work is valued and appreciated.