Business Insider

How to solve the skilled labor shortage (without hiring more workers)

The shortage of tradespeople can make it challenging to operate a contracting business, but there are steps trade business owners can take to work around the skilled labor shortage.

Your phone’s ringing off the hook, job tickets are piling up and crews are running at maximum capacity. Doling out overtime pay might be good for your crew, but it could harm your business over time. You need help, but so does your competitor, and so does their competitor.

This is just one of the many effects of the industry’s shortage of tradespeople, and a very real challenge for contracting businesses across the country. Daunting as these challenges appear, rest assured—there are steps trade business owners can take to work around the skilled labor shortage.

Making Sense of the Statistics

The lack of qualified blue-collar workers is nothing short of stunning. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that 66.2% of high school graduates were enrolled in college. Compare that number to figures from, which show that just 14% of trade school students are between 18 and 21 years of age, the connection is clear: The shortage of tradespeople is having a direct impact on the inability to keep up with industry demands.

This trend is especially problematic in the HVAC/R industry, which, according to the BLS, is losing skilled laborers faster than it can recruit them. Adding onto the problem, the BLS projects the industry to grow by nearly 34% over the next decade—meaning increased demand for a profession that “cannot be automated or outsourced.”

If hiring additional technicians isn't a realistic choice, the business owner's best solution lies in working smarter, not harder.

Four Tips to Sidestep the Skilled Labor Shortage

What if you could add one or two complete installs per month by better utilizing your existing tools and personnel? We asked two contractors to share their tips and tricks about doing more with less, and this is what they had to say:

  1. Time & Task Management – The easiest way to optimize field labor is to reduce the amount of work performed on items and equipment that aren’t currently being utilized on the jobsite. “Installers can waste a lot of time pulling and staging materials for their jobs,” says Bryan Orr, co-owner of a Florida HVAC company. “These tasks should be completed before or after installation by staff specially trained for them.”

    Bryan Metz, owner of a California-based HVAC contracting company believes shortening installation times starts with preparation. “Our guys have to make sure job layout is done properly to ensure grilles are measured, 24V wire is inspected, breakers are correct, gates are measured for condenser and thermostats are checked,” he said. “We take pictures of our layout to provide lead technicians with a visual of what will be installed where. We also speak with homeowners about removing any obstacles that could slow down a crew. Finally, if possible, we tear down equipment the day before an installation.”

  2. Use a Runner – Designating someone to drop off parts and equipment can also save a lot of time. “When installers and technicians go to a supply house, it’s not just a waste of valuable time driving there, but there’s always the chance for them to run into an old friend and waste 30 minutes shooting the breeze on company’s time,” says Orr.

    Metz prefers to send his installers directly to the job, saying “This gives installers time to start demo until the runner arrives with parts and materials.”

    Metz also stages areas to streamline the process, placing parts and equipment on pallets before shrink-wrapping them to avoid missing components. “Each job is assigned a lead technician, installer and helper,” he said. “When the crew comes in, each technician has specific responsibilities. Lead technicians are responsible for making sure their trucks are fully stocked, while installers and helpers are responsible for loading equipment and materials for that day’s installation.”

  3. Send the Specialists – Even the best and most productive mechanical installers aren’t always the best at selling the finer details of new systems or diagnosing a unit’s problems. To cut back on wasted time, make sure you’re maximizing each individual’s talents.

    “We’ve designated a specially trained commissioning and startup technician within our install department to help make sure the right details are covered before a job even begins,” says Orr. “This individual is also equipped with the knowledge to solve issues when readings look off or there’s confusion with the wiring. This keeps the installers focused on what they do best without needing to ‘come back tomorrow’, or worse, leave an issue that results in a callback.”

    When a job nears its finish, Metz’s business calls in a “closer.”

    “We call them a ‘quality audit specialist.’ This technician makes sure the system is functioning properly and explains the homeowner’s investment to them, providing peace of mind while ensuring they feel comfortable and safe. This individual also tends to ask for referrals and reviews as well.”

  4. Trained for Success – The question isn't "What if we train our employees and they leave?” It’s “What if we don’t train our employees and they stay?”

    “Your company is only as strong as its weakest link,” says Metz. “Training and coaching help us stay on our toes and keep the company running like a well-oiled machine.”

    Orr advises contractors to create a single-page checklist that defines all of the necessary steps for a proper installation, saying “We often harp on job quality, but one thing that can be missed is consistency in installation and process.”

    “When you train or ride along with crews, coach them on how to work the process in sequence and eliminate wasted steps and trips to the truck. A lot of time on the job is spent walking around because tools and materials aren’t laid out properly. Train them to overcome these challenges.”

When it comes to the trade industry, time is money. Following these four tips can help you shave a few hours from your weekly schedule—not just allowing you to install one or two additional systems per month, but saving you from paying out costly, unnecessary overtime. Until more qualified HVAC/R technicians are available, your business should continue to explore ways to use your technicians more effectively to solve the skilled labor shortage. Explore more ways to grow your bottom line and stay up-to-date on trends in the HVAC industry with Business Tips.