One solution to the labor shortage in the trades: Address the problem directly, in-house.
That’s what Vanessa Gonzales and her partners at Albuquerque Plumbing Heating & Cooling (ABQ) decided. Aware that it was getting tougher and tougher to find people interested in the trades, and more aware that every shop wants their technicians trained a certain way, Gonzales and her partners Matt Gonzales (her husband) and Anthony Giannini started their own in-house school in their own facility.
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ABQ offers a four-year program in HVAC, electrical or plumbing to men and women who show they want it by attending a 6 a.m. class three days a week, then working 40 hours as apprentices in their trade. By the time they graduate, the techs will be ready for the licensing test.
“It’s an accredited program with recognized certificates, licenses and degrees,” Gonzales said in a recent interview. “The same kind of program that Exxon uses for their techs. It’s essentially a four-year college program.”
Others around the country are taking steps to address the challenge. After HVAC recruiter Mark Oertel (also Territory Manager of Koch Air in Indianapolis) spoke at Pike High School in Indianapolis, Pike opened a vocational school a year later, with equipment donated by Carrier. In May of 2020, Carrier started its own Tech Up program to train workers in HVAC.
Oertel and Ann Matheis, Carrier’s Associate Director of Brand Marketing in Carmel, Ind., spoke on a ServiceTitan webinar and offered some best practices on starting schools.
ServiceTitan’s Playbook also offers best practices for in-house training programs. Go Time Success group offers an in-person tech school, and now has added Go Time University—online, interactive training that includes virtual reality.
And Mary Jean Anderson of Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air in San Diego started the Anderson Career Builder Institute (ACBI), which offers four options for training in plumbing and HVAC, all earning while you learn.
“We pay you to come to our school,” Anderson said on a ServiceTitan webinar. “You don’t pay us.”
ACBI’s four programs are:
A 90-day, fall and winter, five-days-per-week, paid apprenticeship program offers training that could lead to being hired by Anderson.
A 90-day Skillbridge Program is for those transitioning from the military to civilian life.
ACBI 101 combines three or four days of instruction per month with on-the-job training to help apprentices grow.
ACBI 201 teaches advanced skills and lead technical training.
“We started it in March 2017,” she said. “I had been learning a lot about what's happening in our industry. People were stealing from each other; they were stealing from me. We were paying really high signing bonuses, because we invest a lot in our people.
“There's an interesting stat: We're aging out in our industry, aging out meaning at 10% per year, and there's only 6% entering the trades, and that's all trades. But when you think about that ratio of 10% and 6% … we just have to do something different. So we started this school.”
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Gonzales, who also is Senior Manager of Product Utilization and Customer Experience at ServiceTitan, grew up in Albuquerque thinking of becoming an FBI agent. She moved to Denver and worked as a massage therapist, then for the Peace Corps. In 2006, she moved back home to take care of her mother, who had breast cancer, and met Matt. When he lost his job in the recession in 2008, the pair joined with Giannini to take a major plunge and open their own business.
Gonzales dove in, learning the importance of HVAC systems, installing ductwork, running lines and changing the oil on the trucks. The business became a major success story, and the school is an offshoot of the culture and philosophy that Albuquerque wants to develop.
“We want to be the place that we always wanted to work but couldn’t until we opened our doors,” she said.
Ten students are enrolled in the program, which involves the early wakeup three days per week. When class ends, they spend an hour with dispatchers to get their work assignments, tools and parts for the day.
“Then they work from 8-5, wake up and do it all over again,” Gonzales said. “Their present self is tired; their future self is excited.”
The age range in the classroom goes from the early 20s to late 30s. The program requires an application, with a letter of recommendation and a sponsor who is not their direct supervisor at ABQ. A committee of outside experts votes on every application, and those who are not admitted are advised on what they need to do to be admitted if they apply again.
“The goal,” she said, “is when it ends they are ready and prepared to take the licensing test for whatever field they chose. They are learning how to accurately troubleshoot, how to install the right way, the codes. And they are learning, from top techs, all that you have to know when you become a tech.”
There are no core courses in British Literature, no SAT, and no college loans to pay back when the program is completed.
"They are going to school for a career they are already working in,” Gonzales said.
One of the students is Pam Giron, the business’s Call Center Manager who decided she wanted to work in the field.
“She had realized she had a higher earning potential being a technician than being a manager,” Gonzales said. “She’s one of our top performers in the apprentice program. We have techs fighting over her to have her on their team because she’s unique, someone they’ve never gotten to work with before.”
The school was not inexpensive to set up, and took two years of planning. It opened early in 2020, which meant in March some quick thinking and agility to adjust to COVID norms were required.
“Pivot has been the key word for the past year and whatever many months,” Gonzales said.
One word she stressed: investment. ABQ looks at its school as an investment in people, and the business.
“The possibility that this could lead someone to grow and leave us is something we’ve thought about,” she said. “If someone we trained starts their own business, I hope that half of what we worked on as a team is something they can pass on.
“We came into this to make the industry better. It’s about the pursuit of excellence for the Albuquerque family, customers and the industry.”
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