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November 17, 2014

Even the most conservative estimates put the current shortage of HVACR technicians at 20,000, and this number says nothing of the shortage of qualified HVACR technicians. This massive shortage, which has plagued contractors for several years, is only projected to get worse in the future. The primary reason for this lack of technical workers is that bright, ambitious, young people have been overly conditioned to think of the trades as a lesser calling compared to the more popular career paths, such as computer programming, application design, investment banking, etc. Today, it is not very often that young people with the whole of their professional lives ahead of them are seriously debating whether to enter into an executive training program at Goldman Sachs or to become a maintenance technician at their local HVAC company. Why? Because they have been brainwashed to believe the trades do not offer sexy and glamorous careers. More on that later.

I manage six wholesale distribution outlets across Colorado and Wyoming. We average 20 help-wanted advertisements on my bulletin boards from our contracting customers. These 20 companies are in need of several people. Therefore, my bulletin boards are aggregately seeking hundreds of technicians, and I am only one distributor in one of the lesser populated areas of the country. While less true in bigger cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, making matters worse in most cities and towns is the fact that there is, by and large, a defined population of HVACR professionals, and everyone pretty much already knows who everyone else is.

From what source do you suppose these companies hope to recruit? There are only a few realistic possibilities: technicians that bounce around from company to company with no longevity at any one place across their entire careers, technicians that move from another geography, trainees that know nothing about the industry and will be 100 percent dependent on company-provided training to acquire their skills, or recent graduates from HVACR technical schools. Of these options, recent technical school graduates likely present the best chance of success.

However, there is one major problem with this model, which is the fact that HVACR companies and the technical schools that provide the preliminary education in HVACR have not historically worked together to solve this problematic shortage. This has led to so many unintended negative consequences that it almost seems as if these two groups are actively working against each other at times. We all know the unfortunate cycle: The trade school recruits students and stops just short of promising them entry into an exciting and rewarding career in which they can expect to be very generously compensated. The newly minted technicians, upon graduation, go from company to company trying to find even an entry-level job. Company after company declines to hire the new technicians because they have no experience. The technicians quickly become frustrated and develop buyers’ remorse for the $10,000-$30,000 they spent on a certificate that is not helping them find the gainful employment they were expecting and depending on. The job placement rate for the technical school then spirals downward. In short, every party involved suffers immeasurably.

As I stated earlier in the article, even without this disconnect, both HVACR technical schools and companies are already at a disadvantage given the fact that promising young people have been conditioned to believe there is little, if any, appeal to a career in the trades. Fortunately, this is not a matter of reality but a matter of perception, and it’s a perception that can be changed through the right approach. I would argue this is the perfect time to begin to affect change in this area, given the financial crisis associated with ever-increasing college tuition and resulting student loans.

The answer is simple: HVACR contractors and technical schools must start working together, and it starts with the contractor. Contractors, make sure to reach out to your favorite local technical school and offer them guaranteed placement for a defined number of their graduates who meet your criteria. Your criteria can include things like great attendance, an excellent grade point average, a clean driving record, the ability to pass a drug screen, a background check, etc. The list of criteria is completely up to you and will vary from company to company.

Not only will the technical school be willing to play ball, but the more you do this, the greater position you will be in to influence their curriculum. Why? Because you’re providing the technical school with the one thing that they want most: a higher postgraduate placement rate.

The school in town that can advertise the highest placement rates generally attracts the most students and will be able to command a premium for its tuition. Imagine a scenario where you have a predefined number of new technicians being automatically generated for your business at the time of year that you need them most. Add to this the fact that they will be as uniform as possible with respect to your standards, and they will arguably be the very best of their graduating class. It will then be up to you to provide the requisite supplemental training at your facility and in the field to bridge the gap between the day they graduate and the day they are ready to perform their first preventive maintenance call.

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