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No Going Back: Changing The Face Of HVAC

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ACCA’s meeting in San Antonio proved a turning point for Laura DiFilippo, vice president of DiFilippo’s Service in Paoli, PA. For the first time in her 15 years of attending ACCA local and national meetings, DiFilippo had to wait in line to use the women’s restroom.

“I was excited to see so many female attendees, and I hope the number continues to grow,” says DiFilippo, who is currently ACCA’s chairman —and the first woman elected to the top volunteer spot in the association’s 44-year history. “Instead of assuming this industry is just a good ole boys’ club and sitting back, we need to welcome more women — and the same goes for Asians, African- Americans, Hispanics, and other groups.”

Future Projections

According to The Changing Demographic Profile of the United States, a 2011 report issued by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the country is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. In 2000, for example, 71 percent of the U.S. population was white; by 2050, that figure is projected to decrease to 51 percent.

During that same 50-year period, Asians are expected to increase from approximately 4 percent of the U.S. population to nearly 6 percent. And, assuming current demographic trends continue, Hispanics will remain the largest minority within the United States. In 2000, about one in seven people (12%) was of Hispanic or Latino origin; by 2050, nearly one in every three people (30%) is projected to make that claim.

“The United States is now a society composed of multiple racial and ethnic groups,” notes the CRS report. “Along with increased immigration are rises in the rates of racial/ethnic intermarriage, which in turn have led to a sizeable and growing multiracial population.”

None of these statistics are news to Mario Bruni, president of Bruni & Campisi, Inc. His HVAC and plumbing company is based in suburban New York City — the leading destination for legal immigrants to the United States, according to the CRS (followed closely by Los Angeles and Miami).

“Our whole area is a melting pot, completely diversified in workers and customers,” says Bruni, who adds that he has lost count of how many different countries are represented within his staff . “We’ve been very successful with various immigrant groups, probably because the people who come to this country looking to make a new life usually have a tremendous work ethic.”

On the opposite coast, Matt Guthrie has seen the primarily Caucasian face of the contracting trades change considerably within the last 10 years. “The area is becoming very diversified, with immigrants from Russia, Mexico, Ukraine, and the Middle East,” says Guthrie, sales manager and one of four co-owners of Guthrie and Sons, San Diego, CA. “We have a wide range of minorities on our office staff , although diversity has been more of a struggle on the technical and service sides. Finding qualified people—regardless of what they look like—is a big problem.”

Steps to Take

As DiFilippo observes, “Not everyone who walks through the door will be a good fit for your company—so you can’t simply declare, ‘I want diversity in my company,’ and immediately make it happen.” The following suggestions will move you further down the path toward a more diverse workforce.

• Expand your world. If you routinely post job openings on Monster or Craigslist and at local supply houses, also consider using message boards sponsored by associations or local groups targeted toward women and minorities.

“Whenever I had the opportunity to hire bilingual people, I did,” says Paul Grizzle, president of Grizzle Heating & Air in Canyon, TX. His staff, which is 40 percent Hispanic, oft en speak to him in Spanish and then provide the English translation, to help Grizzle learn a second language.

Grizzle — who describes the Hispanic market in the Amarillo area as both large and largely untapped — joined the local Hispanic chamber of commerce and recently participated in its annual trade show. “We were the only HVAC company there and received a warm reception,” says Grizzle. “Our bilingual employees not only communicated with potential customers, but also showed the Hispanic community that our industry offers opportunities for a technical career.”

DiFilippo sees untapped potential for women in HVAC sales, especially on the residential side. “Today, more women are making the HVAC decisions, and having another woman to talk to makes the sales conversation softer and more personable,” she says. Plus, DiFilippo adds, sales positions typically offer somewhat flexible hours — a benefit for women who have small or school-aged children.

• Get involved with local schools. In years past, Guthrie oft en hired new graduates from trade schools; today, however, declining enrollments limit that option. “In general, we’re seeing less interest in the HVAC industry,” Guthrie reports. “When the economy soured, people who might have been interested in HVAC decided not to go into a field that wouldn’t have any work for them.”

To combat that perception in Texas, Grizzle organized a meeting between members of the local ACCA chapter, of which he serves as president, and a trade school. They talked about updating the school’s curriculum to better reflect the industry’s needs—and to increase the likelihood that graduates would have the skills to be hired. He has also met with high school teachers and given presentations at a nearby technical institute.

“I always talk about what students can look forward to if they stay in trade school, whether they’re interested in electrical, plumbing, heating and air, or insulation. A lot of people simply don’t realize what a good living you can make in this industry,” Grizzle notes.

• Take some chances. To find qualified applicants with good communication skills, Bruni oft en taps into New York’s network of high schools and technical schools. But even when students come highly recommended, he sometimes must overcome reservations.

“For example, I had two applicants whose language skills I really questioned, because they spoke very little English,” Bruni recalls. “But their teachers kept telling me how great they were technically, so I took a shot and hired them.”

The verdict? “One has turned out great—although it has been a struggle for him to learn the language — and the other is making good progress,” reports Bruni.

• Be realistic. As much as DiFilippo would like to employ women on the mechanical side of her company, she knows the hours and masculine environment are probable deterrents. “To succeed on the mechanical side, you need great technical skills as well as super-thick skin,” says DiFilippo. “And, some of our customers may not be ready for a female service person.”

Bruni, too, thought of his customer base when he hired an HVAC installation mechanic originally from Jamaica. “I know he’s a great technician and a wonderful person — but I was concerned that, at first glance, customers in lily-white neighborhoods would just see a big black guy with long dreadlocks,” he says. “I had a talk with him so he knew what he was up against — that some people might be taken aback to see him at their door — and emphasized that we stood behind him,” Bruni continues.

Given his company’s location in the New York metropolitan melting pot, Bruni says having a diverse workforce is simply part of being in business. He acknowledges that contractors in other areas of the country — especially those not located on the coasts — might have to put some effort into consciously recruiting employees who look different from one another.

That’s a challenge Paul Grizzle has already accepted. “With the recent advances in building science, we can’t be the same heating and air conditioning companies of four or five years ago. We have to look at  new ways of doing business,” Grizzle believes. “And if that means hiring minorities or women to fill the roles in our companies, why not?”

Sandra Sabo
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Posted In: ACCA Now, Management

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