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As the HVAC Workforce Ages, Recruit The Younger Generation

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After years of striving for excellence, you may know all there is to know about fixing a broken HVACR system. But many business owners are stumped when it comes to repairing a larger problem: the graying of industry employees across the board, and finding A-list talents to replace them.

Demand for new, young employees has hit an alarming peak. According to Business Insider, overall labor force participation for those 55+ stood at just under 40 percent in 2014: the lowest it’s been since April 2009. And with millions of Baby Boomers retiring in the coming years, HVAC contractors will find themselves caught in a squeeze, with demand for employees high and supply low.

Currently, the average age of an HVAC employee is about 55 years old, says Brian Hooper, Vice President of MSI Mechanical Systems, based Salem N.H. “And it’s getting worse and worse in the wrong direction. So if you’re looking for future staff, you could put out a want ad and steal someone from another company. But then they can leave you for a better dollar—just as they did to work for your company.”

Or, you can do what Hooper has done: change the model from competition with other companies to cooperation with a local vocational school. To borrow from the baseball world, it’s the equivalent of building a farm system to grow your own talent.

“A lot of people don’t want to do to work with vocational schools because it takes time and training,” Hooper says. “But if you show these young prospects that you are a great company to work for, they won’t jump right away for a dollar. And even if they don’t stay with you, you’re getting this younger generation into the industry as a whole and making a commitment in your community.”

Hooper’s own experience shows the tremendous opportunities possible. Just a dozen years ago, MSI’s employees had an average age of 53. And today? “It’s 31 years old,” he says. “I’ve cut more than 20 years off because I keep hiring high school students and training them.”

Eleven years back, Hooper approached Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in nearby Upton, Mass. School officials didn’t exactly leap into his lap, though. Hooper had to design a curriculum; “You have to make their life easy, and if you expect them to make one up, it’s not going to happen. “

Yet for all the potential work involved, HVAC contractors have a powerful motivation to change: bigger profits. According to a February report compiled by IBISWorld, the HVAC industry should see revenues grow at about 5 percent through the end of 2016. Yet over that same time period, hiring will proceed at half that clip (2.5 percent), even as four out of five companies have a workforce of nine or fewer workers. That means even one retirement can create major setbacks, while a shortage of good labor means sitting on the sidelines while other contractors land business.

So how does a business create an edge in attracting workers from the vocational school system? MSI makes presentations at Blackstone Valley, and interviews several students in the fall to find a top prospect.

Money, of course, is a top motivator for students, and so Hooper outlines the potential earnings possible, even as he starts trainees at a lower wage while they learn the ropes. Surprisingly, high tech also plays a role in attracting fresh blood. “We’re leaving paperwork for iPads and all the younger guys love that,” Hooper says. “They can scan the equipment and the parts, and take pictures of the equipment. Being up on the technology shows you’re investing in the company and taking pride in it.”

There’s always the risk that new trainees will leave for greener pastures—whether it’s with another company, or another field altogether—but Hooper has managed to make six solid hires out of 10 recruits over the years for his company of 25 employees. “I would never say it’s not worth the risk,” he notes. “It’s not just for our business. We’re doing it to get these next generation of students into the field, and to replenish these Baby Boomers who are retiring.”

Hooper believes other contractors can easily replicate his model with planning and patience. He gave a presentation in March at the ACCA convention to show other members how to start their own co-op programs. “If I were just doing it to get employees, I wouldn’t tell anyone. I’m just trying to get the message out so we can fix the problem.” (Hooper was also honored with the 2015 Skip Snyder Humanitarian Award at the convention.)

And while he’s an influential advocate for change, Hooper identifies an even stronger voice that potential hires hear—that of the successful HVAC employee who returns to his alma mater to make the sales pitch to vocational students.

“The best thing I’ve found is to take one of the students we’ve kept back to the school he came from,” Hooper says. “And he’ll say, ‘Brian hired me and now I have a house that’s debt free. I have no college debts, I have a van, I have a gas card, and when I went to night school, MSI helped with the education.’ Eyes light up when the students see a graduate who’s now technician. That shows that they system really works.”

Lou Carlozo

Posted In: Management, Money

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