HVAC Industry in Crisis: How Do We Stop the Bleeding?

There will be a need for 115,000 new HVACR professionals to meet the demand within the next four years!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), estimates the current technician shortage in our industry at 70,000, and that there will be a need for 115,000 new HVACR professionals to meet the demand within the next four years!

This means we must increase the current workforce of approximately 230,000 by almost 50% within the next four years, while the BLS actually projects a shrinkage of the current workforce of roughly 12,000 per year. This is a monumental task – and we’re way behind in moving the needle!

It’s easy to see that if we don’t make some drastic changes very soon, our workforce will shrink to less than 210,000 by 2022 — a net loss of 20,000. With a need for 330,000 workers in our industry, more than 36% of these jobs would be unfilled!

What Can We Do About It?
We’ve been talking about the importance of raising awareness and attracting bright kids to our industry for more than 30 years. While we have done some things to market our industry, the brutal facts above tell us it’s not working. Of course, we need to continue this valiant effort, but by itself it will not change the perception that the trades are where less bright kids end up. It’s hard to say it out loud, but this bias is alive and well in our secondary schools today.

Our industry must do a better job of educating young minds with facts and figures about how they can reach higher incomes more quickly than many of their undergraduate counterparts. We need to show them that we rival other industries, including our role in IOT (Internet of Things), smart homes and buildings, cloud-based monitoring and controls, and so much more.

Trade schools must step up their game as well. The current paradigm isn’t working. What if they created innovative school/work programs where students can take a 30-day fast-track prep program to get them into the workforce at a beginner level? These students could be placed with contracting companies who desperately need workers to perform maintenance, for example. As they progress, and hit certain milestones, they can move up based on their desired path, aptitude, and skills. For instance, those with the best customer and diagnostic skills — could upgrade themselves towards service and repair work. Those with good customer and mechanical skills, including brazing, equipment installation, sheet metal, etc. — could move towards installation work.

A Small-Scale Alternative with Big Potential
One available option, but still on a very small scale, are fast-track, two- to four-week technician skills programs. These classes began as a new way to quickly bring potential employees with good customer skills and mechanical aptitude into a company. A number of contractors began embracing a “We’ll build our own techs the right way,” mantra and send new hires to these programs — some for more than 25 years.

One of the oldest programs I’m familiar with, is the Ultimate Technical Academy (UTA) in Little Rock, Arkansas. While some programs have opened and folded, several like UTA, Lennox’s BuildATech® program, and others have endured the test of time. We are seeing these types of organizations pop up in other states including Texas, Nevada, and Arizona. Tuition typically runs from $1,500 to $3,000/week per student for a two to four-week class.

Many contractors speak highly of this approach and claim to have started some of their best field people through these programs. They often cite one of the benefits as avoiding hiring technicians who might have a lot of baggage and bad habits developed in previous jobs.

Are these programs a substitute for vocational training and advanced HVAC colleges? Of course not. But they’re a great way to test a new paradigm that could be scaled up in the trade schools. This approach can, without a doubt, bring more people into the work force faster, and make them productive for employers as quickly as possible. It’s imperative to continue training and education once you bring a green technician into your company.

So Where Do You Go From Here?
Start exploring these programs. More importantly, start asking for them from your local trade schools. They have everything in place to offer this approach — they just
need to modify the first few weeks for a new class coming into their programs. They could call it their kick-start or fast-track program. They could market the benefits of these new programs to young people coming out of high school, and existing workforce from other professions who want to retrain and become part of our vibrant and growing industry.

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