As it has during each of our annual "Refrigeration Roundtable" discussions, the topic of employee recruitment and retention again monopolized much of our time, during our 2018. It’s a recurring topic because it’s a problem that’s not going away anytime soon. And, it continues to grow, as more and more older technicians retire.
Discussion moderator Keilly Witman, president, KW Refrigerant Management Strategy, asked panelists for any examples they can provide, of outreach initiatives that are having some positive effect on HVACR recruitment.
Bob Eck, co-owner, Eck Refrigeration of Sydney, Oh., has been on the advisory board for the local joint vocational schools for over 30 years. JVS is a technical training center supported by enrolloment from 17 regional high school juniors and seniors still in high school.
“Getting to the guidance counselors is key,” Eck said. “Getting counselors to understand that technical training is a very viable life choice for some of these kids has been our biggest problem.”
Eck said a new video series produced by five contractors in Ohio’s Shelby County, are now being used as a recruiting tool among students. It contains messages related to electrical contracting, general construction careers and mechanical HVAC.
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According to Eck, 60% of Shelby County’s skilled workforce will be retired in 10 years.
Would this type of approach work on a larger scale, and who would help to fund it, asked moderator Witman, and is there also an end-user responsibility to try and help solve this problem?
Roger Schlomann, director of construction and facilities, Festival Foods, DePere, Wisc., answered that supermarkets do have a role to play, but added that supermarkets are also dealing with similar employee issues related to recruitment and retention of new staff in the traditional store roles.
“I think you’ll probably find it difficult to get a lot of funds focused towards this effort from a supermarket because the majority of those funds are going towards hiring the main grocery store staff. But I do think there’s a big part that the supermarket can play in their local communities,” Schlomann said. He added that Festival Foods is deeply involved in supporting local communities, schools and cities, and could become even more involved in schools to spread the word about the technical career opportunities that exist within a grocery store and with supporting vendors.
“The manpower is there to help with that type of outreach and we definitely need to leverage that much better as an industry,” he said.
Schlomann said Festival Foods offers store tours to student groups, but it is mainly focused on grocery store department operations and less on the equipment maintenance and technical support aspects of the grocery business. He said he plans to look into the possibility of adding a technical aspect to store tours.
Career Advantages of Controls Technology
Alex Shingarev, refrigeration specialist, The Fresh Market, said automated controls can actually be a recruiting vehicle, because those types of systems correspond more to what younger people like to do.
“We have to make the refrigeration field more attractive to young people. They like computers and they like games, but what can we do to accommodate their demands as they relate to the career? This is where we’re working on technology. There is a potential in the remote control and monitoring systems, a possibility to introduce the new technicians to the equipment and technology that would allow them to troubleshoot the system remotely from the comfort of the office, and not be on a roof, in rain in the middle of the night, or save them a several-hour drive to reach the job site.
“So, this is what we have to do, or start thinking about: What can we do to make these systems their “play stations.” I think this is where there is potential to make this field more attractive for highly educated young people.
“There is a challenge even for people who have 40 years of experience in our field. It’s great to have experienced employees, but they also have to be comfortable with the new technologies,” Shingarev said.
“The future is not as bad as we think. Integration of systems for remote refrigeration control, ability to use mobile devices for it will help us attract young technicians needed in our industry.”
Wages Will Rise
Roger Schlomann said he foresees a time rapidly approaching, where wages will significantly increase for even the entry-level technician employees out of high school.
“Today’s new entry level workforce seems to be focused more on maximizing income but they are also mindful of controlling their debt, and as there are less and less technicians, these new employees will be able to name their price when they choose to come out of high school or trade school versus going to college. They can go to a trade school, have that education paid for by a prospective new employer, receive an internship, have no college debt and then earn more than any of us would have dreamed of making in our first job out of high school,” Schlomann said.
Schlomann added that these younger technicians will have something approaching the best of both worlds, in that they will be able to utilize cutting edge technology as a tool, and also receive recognition for solving problems.
“They crave acknowledgement for what they do, but they also want to be well compensated. And that’s automatically going to happen as all of us retire and less and less people are entering these fields,” he said.
During a discussion on the benefits of remote diagnostic technology Joe Kokinda, founder and president, Professional HVACR Services, Inc., Avon Lake, Ohio, reminded the panel that there will always be a need for hands-on diagnostics, as there is today.
“There will always be a need to get your hands dirty as a field technician,” he said, and added that it will be desirable that new technologies eventually reduce the number of technicians who have to make those 2AM service calls, because the “on-call” mentality is a feature of what is becoming a bygone time. That was your father’s refrigeration industry.
“If a technician is on-call 24 hours a day, they can’t go out to dinner with their wife, have a glass of beer or wine. They can’t get drive a truck, or diagnose a system, even if they’ve had one drink.
“Technology will help to minimize the number of people who need to be ready in the middle of the night,” Kokinda said. “Instead of 10 people, it will be one dedicated person. And it’s easier to find one than it is to find 10.”
Kokinda was not alone is stating that young people and their parents are grossly unaware of the type of technology used in refrigeration, and perhaps seeing it at work would help draw them in.
His staff has designed a blueprint for a working refrigeration display that would show a refrigeration system at work in a store, behind a protective glass front.
“It would have been in the aisles, where students and kids and parents can actually see the refrigeration equipment while they’re shopping. It was almost a reality until Tops, the chain that was supporting it, pulled out of Ohio.”
“If the OEMs and end-users don’t get involved in showing what we do instead of hiding it on a roof, show everyone what we are proud of doing as refrigeration professionals.”
Going forward, contractors need to step up with these kinds of ideas, and get somebody to drink the Kool-Aid.”
Kokinda said he’s eager for some store chain to help make this refrigeration display a reality.
Discussion moderator Keilly Witman spoke up on behalf of people who are still in their mid-20s and need to get out of jobs that don’t offer a great future.
“If you look at the grocery sector, you will find them,” Witman said. “We often talk as if the only candidates available to us are high school students. But I’m wondering why we don’t try to attract people who weren’t the best decision makers in high school, and are now in their mid-20s and working at the cash register. There really isn’t a whole lot of room to move up.
“What are we doing to get some of those people to rethink their careers?” she asked. “Because, let’s face it: how many of us are still doing what we thought we’d be doing when we graduated high school at the age of 18?”