The heating and cooling industry has a problem when it comes to developing a pipeline for its workforce. The good-paying jobs are there, but young people just aren’t interested in them.
And it’s not a problem that the country can just shrug its shoulders about. A lack of skilled workers will lead to higher labor costs for home builders, lower sales for distributors and a changing market for manufacturers, according to Heating, Air-conditioning and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), a trade association whose members are largely small businesses.
“Perhaps the most important negative result will be air-conditioning becoming more expensive for middle-class families, potentially moving it from a staple technology to a luxury item,” said HARDI CEO Talbot Gee at a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday that examined the skills gaps.
Part of the problem is that students, their families and high school guidance counselors are so focused on attaining a four-year degree that they don’t explore other options, Gee said. To reach those students and their parents, HARDI has made a documentary (see “Hot Commodity” trailer, below) that follows the careers of several young people in trade jobs that do not require four-year degrees. The group, which premiered the film at its annual conference last December, hopes that it will be available on Netflix later this year.
Still, it will take quite an effort to turn that around, based on data HARDI shared with the workforce panel of the House Small Business Committee. In a survey of HVACR instructors and administrators, 56 reported their programs were under-enrolled while only 10 percent said their programs were over-enrolled. In addition, only 3 percent of students reported that they are “extremely” or “very” aware of jobs in the industry, while 54 percent are “not at all” aware.
Like many other industries, the heating and cooling sector is tapping older adults who are looking to embark on second careers, Gee said.
Innovations in apprenticeships
Speakers at the hearing discussed various job training programs the industries and their small-business members were using to address the workforce shortage, including apprenticeships. For example, the Wireless Infrastructure Association two years ago helped to develop the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP). Tilson Technology Management, a telecommunications and information infrastructure company based in Maine, was among the first companies to use the program, which includes 150 hours of coursework and up to 12 months of on-the-job learning under a mentor.
Company CEO Joshua Broder told the subcommittee that Tilson — a small business that has been hiring about 35 new employees a month over the past 18 months — is currently working with the Maine Community College System to create a web-based TIRAP curriculum that would be accessible to all its tower-climbing crews across the country who are enrolled in the Tilson TIRAP program.
Still, Broder noted that the federally registered apprenticeship program is administratively burdensome for many small companies.
“The administrative requirements entail too much management to compel participation of high-growth companies with a national footprint and may dissuade a small business altogether,” he said.
Tapping 529s for tools
Another way to help attract students into apprenticeships is to extend the use of 529 account funds toward apprenticeship materials and tools, Gee said, adding that the House recently passed legislation that includes such a provision.
“This common sense policy change will put apprentices on par with four-year college students using tax-advantaged funds for college materials,” he said.