Let me explain the headline above. I was recently at the Heating, Refrigeration & Air Conditioning Institute (HRAI) 2003 Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was my first visit to the maritime province and the first time that I remained in North America while being an hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time. I thought that was amusing.

But I digress.

As I headed out to the airport, I noticed an exit sign. The exit was numbered “14” and had the names of the towns and attractions close to the exit. At the bottom of the sign was a smaller sign of different color and font. It read “Formerly Exit 5.”

My first thought was that someone was pulling my leg. How could an exit change from 5 to 14? It might change from 5 to 6, maybe, but 5 to 14? That’s pretty drastic.

Maybe one of my Canadian friends will contact me with the reason behind the change.

Things Change

I drew a comparison between the exit numbers and the current HVACR job market.

Exit 5 represents the old way of thinking in our trade — that a career in the mechanical trades was attractive, rewarding, and secure. Back in the “old days” it was not uncommon for young men (yes, I said men) to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers, learning a trade by working with their hands and spending long hours in the field, honing their skills. If these young men were not out working as apprentices, they were in classrooms, learning theory and practice.

The point is, they saw the mechanical trades as the key to business success and security for their families. And being a tradesman really meant something to be proud of — a status symbol, if you will.

But then came the high-tech age, when the computers replaced machinery as the backbone of commerce. Young people were encouraged to learn about computers because computers were the future of every nation’s economy and the foundation of its business infrastructure.

In essence, knowing how to program or repair a computer took precedence over knowing how to troubleshoot an electric motor or replace a fan blade. Schools and educators seized the opportunity to promote careers in high tech. It became chic to latch onto the computer generation and not let go.

So Exit 14 represents the new “trade.” And 14 is not the next step up from 5; as the numbers indicate, it is a quantum leap. The gap between the mechanical trades that our fathers worked in and the high-tech trades that our children work in is widening.

Filling The Gap

Groups like the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors (HRAC) of Canada and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) are taking a stand against the eroding pool of young people eager to start a career in HVACR. These groups are being proactive, knocking on doors of local, regional, and national political groups, searching for support of technician training and educational programs.

Not only that, these groups are looking for ways to combat the negative image of a career in the mechanical trades, often perpetuated by the national media and by an educational hierarchy that believes it is the mandate of educational institutions to send young people to four-year colleges in order to pursue degrees in computer science, business management, or political science.

These groups are also reaching out to parents of school-age children, showing them the high-tech nature of the HVACR trade and the many career paths that are available to young people who would like to work with their hands as well as with a computer program.

Yeah, Exit 14 may be the norm right now, but people are still using Exit 5, too.

John Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 248-244-1294, 248-362-0317 (fax), or johnhall@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 09/01/2003