How to Fill the Technician Labor Gap
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HVAC training programs and recruiters work to connect a younger generation to new job opportunities in the trades.
With an older workforce on the verge of retirement and a younger generation seemingly more interested in pursuing expensive college degrees, the national trade labor shortage poses a critical problem for many essential industries in the U.S.
As analysts predict more than 3 million openings in the skilled trades by 2028, service industry leaders in HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and more, need to step up and essentially fill the gap themselves, by promoting the benefits of working as a service technician to a new generation.
That’s what long-time HVAC recruiter Mark Oertel decided to do after three decades of hearing the same question asked by other HVAC professionals: “Hey, do you know any good service techs who are willing to come work for this company?”
“The biggest thing that holds a company back from growing is getting good service techs. So, I started talking to schools on my own (with Koch’s support),” Oertel says.
He scored big with “two very special educators” at Pike High School in Indianapolis after making a 20-minute presentation to students about the national trade shortage, and outlining the true salary potential of a career in the trades. With equipment donated by Carrier, Pike’s new vocational school took off a year later and is now more than five years strong.
“Their two classes are maxed out, and they are turning out service techs,” Oertel says.
To drive awareness among high school and tech school students about the great pay and benefits available in the HVAC industry, Carrier started its own Tech Up program in May, says Ann Matheis, Associate Director of Brand Marketing at Carrier’s offices in Carmel, Ind.
Before launching Tech Up—“right when COVID shut everything down, so we’re hoping to reignite it this fall,” Matheis says—Carrier visited local high schools to gauge students’ understanding of what HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) even means.
“Maybe 1 in 20 knew what it was,” Matheis says. “It’s definitely a huge opportunity to drive awareness. … We wanted to develop a program for our dealers to go to their local high schools and really tell the story.”
During a recent webinar hosted by ServiceTitan, Oertel and Matheis talked about ways to make the HVAC industry, as well as other jobs in the skilled trades, more attractive to young adults.
With more than 400,000 HVAC job openings expected in the next 10 years alone, they say now is the time to build a pool of good service techs, instead of just hiring them.
What is Carrier’s Tech Up program?
Interested in an HVAC career? Matheis advises potential applicants to visit the Tech Up website to learn everything they need to know about working in the industry.
Any contractor who works as a Carrier or Bryant dealer also gains access to all of the Tech Up recruiting and marketing materials to help fill that technician gap on their own.
Students interested in the Tech Up program not only learn more about working in the HVAC industry, they can also upload their resume directly to the site for possible job placement.
“We will connect that student with a local dealer who offers job shadowing for a day, ride-alongs, or summer internships and apprenticeships,” Matheis explains. “It’s a great way to connect the students with the dealers who are looking for good talent. And it behooves the students to really understand what the job entails.”
How do you sell HVAC as a profitable profession?
First, be prepared to hear “no” when trying to schedule trade presentations with local high schools and tech schools, Oertel says. Some may receive funding directly tied to how many students attend college after graduation.
“You have to commit to doing it—without knowing the outcome,” Oertel says. “You may be told no, and you may be told no a lot, but at some point you will get in front of the right person.”
Secondly, get parents involved from the beginning.
“They can oversee their child, and make sure they’re paying attention and going to school,” Oertel says. “Parental buy-in—we think that’s the most important thing we’ve done.”
Matheis agrees, and points to research showing the average college debt for a student getting a four-year degree totals about $37,000, whereas the median salary for a service technician starts at about $47,000, and can quickly grow into six figures.
“They can start as a tech, learn the business, then go into sales, marketing, or business ownership,” she says. “There are a ton of opportunities, versus getting a four-year degree.
“The parents influence their children on which direction to go, and if they don’t have to go into debt right out of the gate, this is a perfect opportunity.”
Finally, help students see what their futures might look like in the trades by convincing company owners, sales managers, and other high producers in your company to share their own personal stories.
How did they get started in the trades? What classes did they take in high school? How did they achieve success without going to college?
Personal stories from people working in the service industry, along with the students’ sudden realization of how much money they can make in the trades, usually sells the profession more than anything else, Oertel says.
How to start a service-tech training program
Before starting a similar recruitment-model program at your company, Oertel says it’s important to look at the skill level and capability of your instructors. It boils down, he says, to avoiding a “garbage-in, garbage-out” situation.
“In the past, we looked for a guy who’s getting older, his knees are bad, he doesn’t want to climb a ladder anymore—he’s the trainer. Well, hopefully he is, but does he want to work with kids?” Oertel asks.
Working with kids requires a lot of patience and flexibility, Oertel says, along with an ability to change and adapt as needed. Your most experienced tech may have the most knowledge to share, but may not know the first thing about relating to inexperienced workers just learning the trade.
Carrier’s Tech Up program gives contractors, who may not know where to start, a jumping-off point, Matheis says.
“With our program, we’ve created letters for the educators, information for the parents, and other tools they can use to get their foot in the door,” she says.
One particularly effective tool for contractors presenting information about the Tech Up program? Walk in the class with a box of donuts or a pizza box, emblazoned with a Tech Up sticker promoting the trades.
“Everyone loves food,” Matheis says.
Once you get a foot in the door, schools often invite companies back to present information during job fairs. “Then, you can really educate these kids about what a great opportunity it is to join your company.”
What do you look for when vetting HVAC trainees?
Working several years with students in Pike High School’s vocational program and the McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology in Lawrence, Ind., Oertel says he was most surprised by the high level of distraction and non-committal attitude of today’s students.
In the beginning, “the students weren’t there to learn,” he says. But over the past five years, as the program gained in popularity, more committed students seemed engaged.
He attributes the turnaround to the students’ understanding of a simple concept.
“You’re getting a head start on a career that you can move right into without the college debt,” Oertel says.
A good candidate for the Tech Up program is, Matheis says, someone who likes variety in their day, enjoys interacting with people, understands technology, and proves capable of problem-solving, with good math and science skills.
While some training schools or mentors focus heavily on developing students’ soft skills—showing up on time, communicating clearly with the customer, cleaning up after themselves, etc.—Oertel says taking algebra and geometry courses also help students stay on top of the technological advances in the HVAC industry.
“One of the advantages these young people have over the existing workforce nearing retirement in heating and air conditioning is they’re very comfortable with technology—with laptops, phones, the internet, and tablets,” Oertel says. “Most of the contractors use tablets now. They’re able to do a million different things they couldn’t before.”
Technology certainly attracts many students, Matheis says, especially when contractors demonstrate Virtual Reality equipment at student job fairs.
“We probably had 25 students sign up within an hour to do a job shadow, because they just thought that was the coolest thing from a technology standpoint,” she says. “They get to deal with digital tools, take an iPad on the job … honing in on the technology side really gets kids interested.”
Oertel also recommends checking students’ grades, conducting an interview to gauge personality traits, and requesting referrals from a vocational instructor. Some schools and companies may also ask the student and/or their parents to sign a liability waiver before serving as an apprentice or trainee.
Applicable to other trades, too
While Carrier designed its Tech Up program specifically for HVAC service techs, Matheis says the program offers a turnkey solution for all of the trades to help fill the ever-growing service technician labor gap.
“The idea is to drive awareness of that trade in the high schools” to build a bigger pool of good service techs for the future, Matheis says.
It’s OK to set up different kinds of programs for different trades, Oertel says, but make sure to pair students with a seasoned technician or installer who won’t just use them as a gopher while on the job.
“You want to put them with a really good person who is willing to help train, because you are training them for your business,” Oertel says.
If you need to hire service techs right now, the long-time recruiter recommends investing in advertising and higher pay.
“You have to have a good program, you have to be willing to pay, and you have to have a very strong culture to keep them there. It’s a very competitive field,” Oertel says. “The old days of not wanting to pay someone are gone. … You really have to make your company appealing.”
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