Workforce – Chronic Problems, Proactive Solution
Pick an HVACR contractor at random and you’re likely to hear the same report: So much work, not enough good employees. It’s not a new problem, and it’s one that continues to challenge the industry.
“The workforce problems we’re seeing – we’re just like everyone else,” says Brian Hooper, vice president of operations at MSI Mechanical Systems Inc. in Salem, NH “We’re all in the same boat; it’s not just about finding people who are skilled at their jobs, but also finding people who have the necessary soft skills, too.”
It’s not the only issue in play. Megan Langston, CCO of Humanworks and a third-generation member of family-owned, California-based Aire Rite Airconditioning & Refrigeration shares a term her father, Don Langston, coined about five years ago.
“He called it the ‘grey tsunami,’” she says. “Our journeymen were aging to a point where he realized we needed to do something to plan for the future, for when they would be leaving the workforce.”
These are stories that the ACCA hears on a regular basis.
“Employers are facing multiple challenges in recruiting workers in the HVAC industry,” says Matt Akins, ACCA’s manager of HVACR education. “Currently, the older technicians are retiring, and the upcoming generation does not want to get into the trades.”
But contractors are looking at these now-chronic problems a little bit differently and using a multi-faceted approach to nurture a somewhat illusive workforce.
For decades, the trades have had a somewhat prickly relationship with America’s schools.
“Our biggest challenge today is that school guidance counselors push every student into college,” added Akins, noting that it’s difficult to change that perception once it is set, even though the trades do offer a viable, secure employment option.
Ironically, sometimes the trades are merely viewed a Plan B for high school students, which is also not a path to success.
“Parents shouldn’t push kids who are performing terribly in the classroom toward a future in the trades, assuming that the students will not need math or communication skills,” he adds. “We want not only the best students, but we want the right students. The trades are one of the most excellent career selections that anyone can choose … it’s a career choice, not just a job.”
For those high school students who do pursue a trades-based career path upon graduation, contractors generally say that the country’s trade and technical schools do an adequate job of providing a basic foundation, but that graduates can still lack some skills – including critical soft skills – and the ability to apply what they’ve learned to real world applications, despite earning a diploma or degree.
Aire Rite decided to take matters into its own hands.
“We really did try to reach out to the community colleges and tech schools, but they can only turn out so much, and they can be stuck,” says Langston. “We then started looking into creating our own programs.”
Air Rite’s efforts now include a multi-year apprenticeship, which currently has five students.
“We provide paid training and they take classes during our off season, which is typically October through April/May,” she said. “We use our journeymen to teach the class and it’s complete knowledge transfer, not tribal knowledge.”
The company also started a 10-week boot camp program, in which existing employees learn skills that fill the instant needs the company has in specific departments.
“For example, we have technicians that work on ice machines,” she says. “They learn how to clean the machines, perform basic maintenance and repairs, and do the tasks frequently seen on the job. We have two instructors and try to keep a 2:1 ratio so it’s very one-on-one and it’s all at our headquarters unless they go to a job site. They’re not sitting on a campus in a classroom.”
Aire Rite also created a program that identifies existing employees for further training.
“We look for those employees that are basically moldable clay – they have the aptitude, the will to work hard and give them extra training during work hours,” she said. “They get it – they know when you learn more, you earn more.”
The lack of soft skills remains a chronic issue for contractors in hiring new, young employees, and customer service, sales and other interpersonal skills just aren’t part of trade school curriculums.
“We have young employees that come in, who have their Bluetooth in their ears, who are not looking at the client when talking and are instead on their phones trying to find something,” says Hooper. “They haven’t learned those skills; they don’t realize it’s a problem to be doing this, because that’s what they do with their parents.”
Hooper sees the issue as a lack of knowledge more than anything and approaches it just like any other training.
“Trying to pull one guy aside and talk to him – he’ll end up offended,” he says. “Instead, we offer customer service seminars and teach everyone those skills. We use the real-life examples, but we talk about them in a group setting to make them aware of these behaviors and how they are perceived.”
Proactive Efforts are Helping
“I had a teacher once tell me, it is rare that a child says, ‘I want to grow up to be a HVAC technician,’ and that is where the shortage starts,” says Rachel Ryan, Assistant Human Resource Manager and Account Services at Air-Ref Co. Inc. in Delray Beach, FL.
On a local level, contractors should continue to reach out to local school districts to help expose the future workforce to potential careers in the trades. Career days, opportunities to speak with students, internships, co-op programs, and other experiences that portray the trades in a positive light are things that young students will remember.
“The industry is strong – we hear from contractors that they could take on more work if they could find workers,” says Todd Washam, ACCA vice president of public policy and industry relations. “I do think the tide is beginning to change on a national level. There is momentum building as more young people discover the trade are a viable career choice.”
He believes this is due, in part, to contractors’ proactive efforts.
“There is a realization that we need to provide more than what the education system is providing,” he said. “Contractors who are making the effort are finding that it pays off.”
Like Aire Rite, MSI Mechanical Systems is recruiting on multiple levels. The company was the first New Hampshire partner of the ACE Mentor Program, offers apprenticeships, and engages with students before they make higher-education decisions.
For those who don’t know how to start, the ACCA provides a number of resources for contractors who want to step up their recruitment and retainment efforts.
“Much of what we offer is what those successful employers are doing,” says Washam. “They’ve shared their information with us, and it’s there for our members to use.”
“Our biggest outreach is to the ACCA 4-year apprenticeship program,” says Air-Ref’s Ryan. We have over 10 associates enrolled in this program. We are so grateful to be able to offer this program to associates and find it to be a huge advantage for the associate, the company and retention. Education has always been our most successful approach.”
Hooper and MSI Mechanical Systems efforts are proof that these types of efforts work.
“Fifteen years ago, our average employee was about 52 years old,” he said. “Now, it’s 29. You can’t just rely on those guys you got 15 years ago when they were 18 and wait for new employees to come along to replace them. It takes patience, but it does pay off.”
Sign on to The Pledge to America’s Workers
ACCA took the Pledge to America’s Workers with President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Ms. Ivanka Trump on July 25, 2019. On behalf of ACCA members, ACCA pledged to train 75,000 HVACR professionals.
Since July, ACCA members have pledged to train, educate, and/or hire and additional 10,000 people for the HVACR industry. And you can make that number grow even more!
Take the pledge today! Fill out your pledge certificate at http://bit.ly/accapledge and e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. ACCA will send your pledge to the White House, so your name will be added to Pledge to America’s Workers.
Hiring Veterans the Easy Way
ACCA often hears that veterans are some of the best hires that contractors ever make. Not only are they highly trained individuals, thanks to their time in the Armed Forces, but they also have some of the basic soft skills needed for success in the field.
While some ACCA members have created programs to recruit veterans on their own, not every member has the resources to do that, or do business near a military base that makes for an easier opportunity. That is why ACCA teamed up with Orion Talent several years ago, to help contractor members reach out to some of the most qualified talent in the country.
Since 1991, more than 2,000 of Orion’s military candidates have been hired into various roles across HVAC and Indoor Environment. Orion’s Junior Military Officers, NCOs, and Military Technicians possess unmatched training in electronic, mechanical, and electrical systems as well as proven leadership skills, making them an ideal fit for your organization’s talent needs.
Orion offers ACCA members a discounted recruiting fee of 15%-18% of the first year’s salary, based on volume hired, with a 120-day guarantee. To learn more about the program visit http://bit.ly/acca_orion.
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