Finding Hot Prospects for Cool Careers

Aug. 1, 2006
Contractors, associations, and manufacturers are united in their efforts to grow the ranks of HVACR's " technicians of tomorrow."

A SkillsUSA contestant diagnoses a heating problem. SkillsUSA competitions are held annually in major U.S. cities.

Seaman's career days demonstrations explain the importance of HVACR to students who are approaching career crossroads.

Blum: 'knuckleheads' need not apply.

Isaac University keeps employees sharp, focused, and loyal.

Albert: best communicators earn top dollar.

Dente: creative approach helps find best employees.

Chicago's New School class of 2006: on their way to meaningful construction careers.

Revlett: York program provides training in marketing, territory management.

Stories of the various ways HVACR technicians improve the quality of life are all around us.

  • Aaron York's Quality Air Conditioning & Heating, Inc., Indianapolis, IN, installed and continues to service refrigeration equipment that preserves a significant portion of the nation's insulin supply.
  • Air Conditioning and Heating Specialists, Inc., a York dealer in Hollywood, FL, donated its time and labor to install HVAC equipment at a new, Ft. Lauderdale youth shelter.
  • Technicians from Heatcraft Refrigeration Products and Takagi Industrial Co. provided emergency water and heating equipment to surviving New Orleans, LA businesses and National Guard troops in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

And, of course, there are the millions of homeowners who live more comfortable and healthier lives, thanks to heating and air conditioning technicians, and the many products they install and service.

Looking ahead, however, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the HVACR industry needs more than 30,000 new technicians to enter the workforce each year, between now and 2014, to meet the estimated demand.

The Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) says a failure to address the labor shortage will ultimately cost the American consumer, as there will not be enough technicians available to fix cooling and heating systems, not to mention all the other tasks performed by HVACR professionals. And, says ARI, a lack of skilled technicians also may result in an inexperienced workforce that is more likely to poorly install and maintain HVACR equipment. That makes everyone look bad, from the technician and contractor, to the distributor and manufacturer.

The good news is, that while we may not see a full 30,000 new job entrants each year, contractors, associations, and manufacturers are united in their efforts to grow the ranks of HVACR's " technicians of tomorrow."

Attitude Adjustment
One way in which contractors can improve their prospecting is by trumpeting the value that HVACR technicians can bring to the quality of life, as in the scenarios mentioned above.

"We're not doing a good enough job of selling the industry," says Aaron York, president of Aaron York's Quality Air Conditioning & Heating, Inc. "I think we frequently get caught up in the mechanics of it, and we forget to sell the incredible feeling of accomplishment that goes with the career.

"Old dudes like me need to tell younger people about the exciting things that take place in this business," York says. "I used to love to take my grandchildren past a home or building and say, 'See that place right there? We keep those people cool all summer and warm all winter.'"

Bill Flanigan, program chairman for manufacturing and industrial technology at the Indianapolis, IN campus of IVY Tech Community College, believes the industry's employment challenge is magnified by students who often lack ambition.

"It would be relatively easy if it were just a matter of changing the sales pitch in the high schools to direct students into technical schools," says Flanigan, "but if there's nothing driving the students, it doesn't make any difference what we do here. We have to have something that inspires these people to put some sort of value in academic exercise, and in learning for its own sake."

Taking HVAC to Students
To get the career juices flowing early in life, Seaman's Air Conditioning and Refrigeration, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI, has helped organize career days for high school freshmen throughout the Kentwood public school system, with assistance from Ferris State University and the Kent Career Technical Center.

Last year, approximately 800 students visited nine stations set up by Seaman's associates at the East Kentwood Freshman Campus.

"In the future, we want to set up something similar in our own facility, and have all area high school counselors in to tour our facility, and learn more about our industry, to help undecided students," says Seaman's Assistant General Manager Patti Van Kuiken.

"We also take every opportunity we can to go into schools, both lower and higher education, to introduce our industry to students."

To set up a career day, Van Kuiken suggests contractors start by speaking to a counselor at a larger high school.

"If you can get in front of a counselor who often meets with undecided students, they can be very influential," says Van Kuiken.

Panning for Gold
In many cases, it's not that HVAC employers don't have people knocking on their doors; it's more often the case that the people doing the knocking have misplaced priorities.

"I'm a knucklehead, but give me a job anyway," is almost what Adrian "Ed" Blum hears word-for-word from certain job seekers who visit A.O. Reed & Co., San Diego, CA. These job seekers expect to be given the world, without proving themselves to be worthy career candidates.

Blum affords some face time to the more astute visitors.

"If we like his personality, the way he looks you in the eye, and he has some minor experience, we may hire him with the understanding that he will attend City College," says Blum.

"But the job seeker has to sign up for the classes. If the job seeker doesn't sign up for the classes, they won't be working here. Maybe one out of 20 follows through, and that's the one we want."

Blum insists that HVACR technician candidates "are all around us" (See CB, June 2006, p. 135), and he keeps an eye out for outstanding service personnel at fast food establishments and retail stores. His goal is to get to know them, and perhaps hire them as quality apprentices.

"Every day, you encounter friendly, high-quality, customeroriented young people who are looking for a career and struggling to make ends meet," says Blum.

Blum encourages contractors to talk to impressive service people in other occupations to find out if there's an interest in a career rather than "a job," and to learn something about their personal interests.

"Our greatest source of new hires is relocation or reassignment of displaced workers from other industries," says Ray Isaac, president of Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning, Rochester, NY.

"They represent all age groups; I think the average age of people we're hiring is in the 40s."

Isaac looks for professionalism, maturity, and a generally good attitude, qualities most often found in the older worker. Isaac thinks the industry must reset its expectations, and assess the candidate's overall character.

"Everybody is looking for qualified people," admits Isaac. "There's a whole host of qualified people; you just need to know who you're looking for. "Too many contractors err on the side of technical knowledge versus attitude and professionalism. Most people want the guy who has 30 years of experience; but he might be a 'prima donna' who can't talk to anybody."

Leverage Ties with Technical Schools
Jerry Albert, president of Bennington Heating and Cooling, Bennington VT (a.k.a. "benncool" to the website discussion community), encourages contractors to visit trade schools and technical colleges to find new technicians.

"If you know a kid who has potential, then encourage him to get his associate's degree," says Albert. s

"In the past, it was always important to have at least a high school education. Today, you have to be able to communicate on a college level to get top dollar and be the kind of technician we're looking for. My theory is, if a kid wants to do something, he'll take the steps to learn it."

Albert serves on the advisory board of the Mount Anthony Building Trades high school program, a good source of candidates.

"The teacher steers mildly interested kids in my direction," says Albert. "If I get a positive gut feeling about the student, I'll hire that kid part time as a helper after school and during the summer. I encourage him to go to Hudson Valley Community College to get a degree in HVACR. By the time he graduates, he's comfortable with our company, and us with him. Then I offer him an apprenticeship and all the benefits that go with it.

"When I hire him, I have a 'lump of clay' that I have a good chance of forming into an HVACR technican."

Barbara Keil, president of Keil Heating and Air Conditioning, Riverdale, NJ — and CB 2005 Residential Contractor of the Year — relies strongly on the company's ties to Lincoln Technical School in nearby Mahwah, NJ.

"It's very difficult to find anyone who walks into the door with experience, or is new to the industry, outside of a technical school," admits Keil, expressing a sentiment to which many contractors can attest.

The company attends Lincoln Tech trade shows and other school events geared toward career development.

"When they have graduates, if the student lives in our area, they'll send them our way," says Keil.

Seaman's also relies on a mutual support relationship with Ferris State University.

"We make regular visits there, and they visit us," says Van Kuiken. "We make it a priority to hire Ferris State graduates."

Seaman's also offers summer work for those Ferris State students who want to work hands-on in the field, to grow their engineering education.

Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning has forged good relationships with administrators at Monroe Community College in Rochester, Alfred State University, and the Board of Cooperational Educational Services

"We bring them in, and put them through another four years of Isaac University," says Isaac, referring to the company's in-house training program.

Finding candidates by any means other than a good referral or from technical schools is a gamble.

"We interview so many people, and usually select one out of 50," says Keil. "It's difficult to find people who meet our criteria." Keil says occasional advertising brings people who want to learn, but none with experience.

A less-than-thorough qualification of new employees and their sense of loyalty can cause them to be "here today, gone tomorrow," and thousands of dollars of training and orientation are wasted, or serve to benefit a competitor who offers an extra 50 cents/hour. For that reason, Executive Plumbing, Heating & Air, Corona, CA, provides 30-, 60-, and 90-day programs for incorporating new personnel into the fold.

"By the time we make a decision, we want to make sure they're the right people, and that every proverbial stone is turned," says Michelle Dente, Executive's director of human resources.

"We're not just looking for anyone. We want to make sure new employees stay for the long haul, from training to development."

The main focus in Executive's new and pending recruitment plan will be based on creativity in recruiting, and will rely greatly on credible referrals from current employees.

The program will be modeled after various sports themes. For example, in the "golf" competition, employees will earn pars, birdies, eagles, or double eagles (each of which will be assigned a cash equivalent), depending on how many successful recruits he or she brings into the organization.

Keil Heating and Air Conditioning also uses a reward system for solid referrals from current employees, however new candidates must remain with the company before any cash is rewarded.

"We reward our employees a referral fee if they bring in a candidate, and more if the new employee stays with the company for six months to a year," says Barbara Keil.

Ray Isaac also prefers to hire via referrals from well-established employees.

"The chances of a good employee referring a 'flop,' or a dishonest person, are much less than if you hire someone off the street," says Isaac.

"You have that person's word and their backing of the individual."

ARI Coalition United for Training
ARI's Education Department addresses training and recruitment issues through its Education and Training Committee.

ARI has also partnered with 12 other major industry associations to form the Career Education Coalition. Those associations are currently using their respective publications and the website — — to attract the best possible candidates to the HVACR industry.

"We're seeing a growing level of cooperation and collaboration among the organizations to meet common goals," says Ray Mach, ARI's director of education.

New Programs Meet Inner City Needs
New Skill Builders, a Chicago, ILbased apprenticeship preparation program funded by the City of Chicago, is a 13-week program that offers students an opportunity to explore a variety of skilled trades, learning through a combination of hands-on experience and classroom instruction.

Skill Builders prepares participants for taking apprenticeship tests, provides participants with up-to-date information on apprenticeship requirements and openings, explores construction topics in the classroom, and offers counseling based on individual strengths.

"We introduce students to a broader understanding of the construction industry and what those requirements are," explains Skill Builders Director Linda Hannah."We want students to know that technology is absolutely required in the construction industry."

Another recent Chicago-based success story is the Architecture, Construction & Engineering Technical Charter High School (ACE Tech), founded by a group of Chicago's construction industry leaders, to prepare highly-qualified inner-city youths to fill the future growing employment needs in the construction industry. (See "Civic Responsibility to the Inner City" sidebar)

OEMs Working with Schools
Bryant Heating and Cooling Systems follows a twostep process to bring young people into the HVACR field, according to Rick Sanfrey, president, Bryant Residential Systems.

"We have recruiting tools in video and brochure formats that vocational schools can use to help address the topic, 'Determining Your Future,' and which tout the benefits of a career in HVACR," says Sanfrey.

"We also have a program that supports vocational schools in the training of technicians, including sponsorship of SkillsUSA."

SkillsUSA is the national, non-profit organization which prepares students for careers in trade, technical, skilled service, and health occupations

Johnson Controls' new 'Kids as Interns' program will give high school juniors and seniors enrolled in Chicago's ACE Tech Charter School a chance to work during the summer at Johnson Controls branch organizations, alongside field technicians or applications engineers.

One example of a successful post-college recruitment program on the OEM front is a new Associate Marketing Manager Development plan by York — a Johnson Controls Company. During the 12- to 18-month program, college graduates learn about products, marketing, sales techniques, and how a contracting business operates.

Jeff Revlett, manager of sales training for York, says he and York Marketing Director Andy Armstrong explored ways to recruit talent and bring them into the York organization through the marketing department. There, recruits become familiar with York marketing strategies while training to be territory managers.

At the conclusion of the training, the employee is ready to relocate to a branch as a territory manager (TM), with the option to someday return to a marketing position at York headquarters.

"The training helps our branch network have a good TM pool to draw from," says Revlett.

"The TM can come back to marketing in a leadership position down the road, with a wellrounded experience from working in the field and in marketing."

Your Search and Employ Mission
This employment challenge goes beyond just hiring a warm body. A meaningful employment strategy must be partly fueled by a dedicated outreach to the "person," not just the "employee."

Many students, for a variety of reasons, don't have a clue about which way to turn in their professional lives, but as an industry, we can help them with this decision.

As contractors, show these students the opportunities, the technology, and the satisfaction to be found in an HVACR career, and you may help someone find their way.


For more information on this topic, go to:;


  • Brownson Technical School: largest HVACR school in Southern CA
  • Ferris State University, Big Rapids, MI
  • Institute for Business and Technology, Santa Clara, CA
  • Lincoln Technical School, Mahwah, NJ
  • Monroe Community College, Rochester, NY
  • National Institute of Technology: schools in California, Texas, West Virginia, Michigan
  • Technical Career Institute, New York, NY
  • The Refrigeration School, Inc., Phoenix, AZ
  • WyoTech, Fremont, Sacramento, and Oakland, CA; Laramie, WY; Blairsville, PA; Boston, MA; Daytona, FL
  • York Technical Institute, York, PA.


For more information, visit


Naranjo: mutal respect important in employeremployee relationship.

Martin Naranjo, a four-year master technician with A.O. Reed, lives in Chula Vista, CA with his wife, Ana, and their four children. His story is one of persistence, and commitment to building a worthwhile career in HVACR.

Naranjo came to the A.O. Reed company with a background in movie theater management and retail.

Through the efforts of his stepfather, an Army electrician, Naranjo developed an interest in electrical systems. However, circumstances found Naranjo working in movie theater management at the age of 22. He finally left that work, because he wanted to pursue something he enjoyed.

He took a pay cut at a retail job with reduced hours, and studied air conditioning, refrigeration, and controls subjects at San Diego City College. His in-laws helped out by providing housing for him and his family during this time of training.

Eventually, A.O. Reed and General Manager Ed Blum gave Naranjo an opportunity. "They opened the door and said 'show us what you got,'" says Naranjo.

Naranjo's advice to employers: accept mistakes and be a friend to your employees.

"Your employees will be better workers, they'll respect you, and you'll respect them."

Naranjo also encourages employers to be aware of which employees are hungry for advancement, and offer them opportunities to improve whenever possible.

Another of A.O. Reed's best new employees, Mike McNaughton, Jr.,18, is the son of a star salesman and plumbing expert, Mike McNaughton, Sr.

"Mike went on a one-week ride along with our plumber, and one-week with an air conditioning technician. He chose air conditioning as his preferred field of study, and signed up at City College," says Blum.

"We had him changing filters till he was blue in the face, but he's come a long way, and it's not been a year yet. He's doing service calls, changing out fan motors, and doing more than you would expect for his limited time in the field. He, like Martin, is another rising star."


Crowe: assist existing schools, or start one.

Michael Crowe, vice president of systems technology for Johnson Controls, stresses the importance of "giving back" to communities by helping students find their way to a meaningful career path. A native of Chicago, Crowe contributed his time, knowledge, and influence to the formation of the city's new ACE Tech Charter High School.

"We worked very closely with the state, city, the contracting community, and the various trades to get two educational tracks established, in order to give these kids an opportunity for lifelong success," says Crowe.

ACE Tech gives Chicago's inner city students an opportunity to participate in a college-driven prep program for engineering, architecture, and other construction careers. For those who don't plan to attend college, a less complex program provides basic, hands-on training, for students venturing into the construction industry.

Crowe suggests HVAC contractors do all they can to assist local schools, or drum up local support for a charter school such as ACE Tech, as the benefits of industry involvement in educational programs touch students, communities, and manufacturers alike.

"ACE Tech [and similar programs] tie in to Johnson Controls' metro-market strategy," explains Crowe. "We know that we've got to do things in large, urban cities, to help us build our business, but also to focus on the community. We're pretty good community citizens who do a lot with the environment, but we want to do more. This helps us get more involved in leveraging the strengths of the Johnson Controls and York organizations."

Photo courtesy Ray Isaac.

About the Author

Terry McIver | Content Director - CB

A career publishing professional, Terence 'Terry' McIver has served three diverse industry publications in varying degrees of responsibility since 1987, and worked in marketing communications for a major U.S. corporation.He joined the staff of Contracting Business magazine in April 2005.

As director of content for Contracting Business, he produces daily content and feature articles for CB's 38,000 print subscribers and many more Internet visitors. He has written hundreds, if not two or three, pieces of news, features and contractor profile articles for CB's audience of quality HVACR contractors. He can also be found covering HVACR industry events or visiting with manufacturers and contractors. He also has significant experience in trade show planning.