WANTED: 20,000 Skilled Workers

By Edward W. Dooley

Poll after poll shows the number one business problem for contractors today is a lack of competent workers. Successful contractors are turning away business because they can’t keep up with current demand for their services.

What’s wrong with this picture, in a country where millions are unemployed and the jobless rate is stuck at 6%? Why don’t schools — counselors and administrators — alert promising and talented youngsters about rewarding careers in the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration industry.

This problem isn’t new, as any industry veteran will attest. Fifty years ago, when the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration institute (ARI) was founded, the quest for skilled workers was well underway.

With just 127,000 central air shipments that year, the demand for workers was just a fraction of today, with shipments approaching 6.7 million units.

With 60 to 70 million central systems installed, the times have changed dramatically. So has the size of the HVACR workforce, now weighing in with hundreds of thousands of people. That’s why new techniques are needed to bring career awareness to a greater number of potential workers.

Ideas for Progress

At HVAC Comfortech 2003 in Dallas, we heard lots of good suggestions. Some people recommended word-of-mouth advertising using current technicians to promote job opportunities. Others suggested becoming mentors to high school and post secondary HVACR training programs. Apprenticeships rated highly, too.

On a national level, the Career Education Coalition (CEC), a joint effort of 12 industry associations, has launched a Web site (www.coolcareers.org). The site provides thumbnail sketches about the industry and links prospects to lists of HVACR training programs. In addition, CEC offers contractors a free recruitment kit that includes two videos, print materials explaining how to conduct events like career days at high schools, and even a simple experiment to demonstrate the heat transfer concept.

Four organizations recently went the extra mile and teamed up with a coalition of organizations drawn from allies such as Skills USA and Toyota to sponsor a national newspaper advertisement. The “USA Today” ad appeared in six metropolitan regions reaching over a million readers. A career information kit containing a poster sized re-print is being delivered to 2,600 schools in the ad’s circulation area.

“Sixty Percent of Tomorrow’s Jobs Start with Today’s Career and Technical Education,” said the headline of the ad, which contained the logos and Web site addresses of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), ARI, North American Technician Excellence (NATE) and the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors National Association (PHCC).

The Career Education Coalition and organizations such as ARI are now allied with the nation’s 1,400 HVACR training programs in many ways beyond the recruitment kit, so that instructors and administrators can become proactive and go into the community to help fill their classes.

For example, ARI’s members support a program of delivering surplus equipment for training labs. New schools are being launched with help from a primer that is available from ARI’s education department.

The Clifford H. “Ted” Rees Jr. Scholarship program was established to promote careers and support training programs by offering $2,000 scholarships to students enrolled in an HVACR program. Other organizations also offer scholarships — information on them is available at www.coolcareers.org.

What’s Needed to Further Advance?

An attempt in Congress to curtail $1.3 billion in funding was defeated earlier this year when schools joined with contractors, manufacturers, distributors, and educated members of the U.S. House and Senate about the vital role of applied technology training.

However, the fight is far from over. Authorizing legislation to continue the grants must still pass Congress in 2004. For sample letters with which to register your position, visit the ARI Web site at www.ari.org.

During its 50 year history, ARI has seen many changes as its certification programs grew to 25 and the ARI logo was placed on well over 100 million pieces of equipment. Millions of the best and brightest have found rewarding careers, but millions more will still be needed in the decades to follow. n

Ed Dooley is vice president of communications and education at the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), Arlington, VA 22203. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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