Recruiting and keeping HVAC talent

The HVACR industry has a labor recruitment challenge, but there are steps contractors can take to ensure they do not have that problem. The numbers are quite daunting. Based on the retirement rate and anticipated growth in the industry, studies estimate that 115,000 new HVACR workers must be trained by 2022 in order to meet the anticipated demand.

Currently, California is ranked as the number one state for HVACR job openings with approximately 23,000 available.

The job postings for technician and installer jobs in HVACR remain open for 12 percent longer than other similarly skilled jobs. It takes an average of 35-47 days to fill a position.

What is an HVACR contractor to do? The solution includes both employee recruitment and employee retention. HVACR contractors need to set up their company as an employer of choice. The first step in training. A total of 35 percent of new employees coming into the HVACR industry are second-career adults. Combine that with the influx of a younger, less experienced portion of the workforce and contractors today have a real need to train.

“The most undervalued part of providing training is employee retention,” said Keith Mercurio, the director of leadership development for a contractor in Austin, Texas. “It is critically important that people know — in whatever business they are in — that they’ve got a future bigger than today. If all I am working for is to maintain today, then you are going to get a lack of effort from me. I’m going to do my bare minimum.”

While many organizations produce training in both technical and soft skills, a lot of contractors are taking it into their own hands. A contractor in Rochester, N.Y., has a “university” they have built to educate employees. This includes classrooms that are used only for education, a 30,000-square-foot technician lab, and a group of full-time instructors. They will train at least 1,500 skilled workers over the next five years.

While not all HVACR contractors will need their own training center, they need to do their own training to attract and retain quality people.

“We mainly look to the trade schools for our base to hire from but then we do a lot of internal training to really make them solid,” said Gary Marowske, a contractor in Metro Detroit. “Younger employees simply require more training. Employees are looking for that when they come on board.”

It does not end with just technical training. Perhaps more importantly in some regards is the ongoing soft skills and personal development training.

“We’re going to make sure that these guys have the tools that they need to be able to go out and continue to grow as people and as communicators,” Mercurio said. “We have an important responsibility to be able to communicate the value of what we do in exchange for a dollar amount from a customer. When we are not able to communicate that is when businesses fail. So, these components are critical.” The more employees learn about the business the more emotionally involved they get in the company’s success. That is also key for employee retention.

“If we want them to achieve a certain gross profit margin — say 67% for the service department for example — we have to make sure they understand what gross margin means. It needs to be easy to understand,” said James Leichter, a longtime HVACR contractor turned consultant.

Before you can train a new tech, you have to find a quality employee. In order to accomplish this, contractors need to bring innovative perks that will interest the younger generation that is making up the new workforce.

Matt Michel, the CEO of Service Roundtable, likened it to the recruitment of college football players. Some of the greatest recruiters for blue chip athletes are the facilities on campus. These are items such as weight rooms, practice facilities, and a great stadium.

“The same can be said for a young trade school graduate looking for their first job. Of course, a small HVACR contractor can’t compete against a school in one of the Big Five conferences. But that contractor only needs to compete with other local businesses,” Michel said. “How about a technician’s lounge? Some video games, a foosball table, and a fridge. Keep it well-stocked with soft drinks and snacks. To be honest, it doesn’t even matter if they use it. All they need is to see it when you are recruiting them. If you have it and nobody else does, it certainly gives you an edge.”

A great way to get first choice of the top talent is to get involved with the high schools and trade schools in your area. Developing a good relationship with a trade school can have many benefits. First, you are a part of the curriculum development so you have a say in how these young people are taught. Of course, these can be aligned with how your company trains.

Also, by having some facetime with these students before graduation, they are aware of both you and your business when they set out to get their first job. You certainly have a leg up. And given that certification rules vary from state to state, that is even more reason to link up with your local trade school.

Contractors need to appeal to the next generation because the older generation is leaving the industry in droves. Through 2022, the social security administration estimates that 22 percent of the workforce will retire. That’s nearly 24,000 techs walking out the door.

HVACR contractors need to be proactive in both the recruitment and retention of quality workers. Those two items need to be viewed as equal level of importance to the contractor. Otherwise, a contractor will ultimately be recruiting employees for their competition.

This gets accomplished with a complete company culture that is focused on hiring and retention.