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U.S. HVAC hit hard by worker shortage


Perhaps there’s no happier sight for a Mississippian with a broken air conditioner in July or kaput heating system in January than the arrival of an HVAC professional.

So why does the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry suffer from low self-esteem and difficulties attracting new workers?

Call it the “left behind” skill set, says Erin McCollum, development director for the EGIA Foundation, a California-based non-profit created to attract and support the next generation of workers in the home. EGIA Foundation derived its name from the nearly 80-year-old Electric and Gas Industry Association.

McCollum says over the years HVAC “was seen as a lesser job or something less successful,” despite the job security, attractive pay and advancement opportunities it offered.

That notion grew partly out of the belief of the World War II generation and the baby boomers who followed that true career success came with a four-year college degree and a white-collar job, McCollum says.

“As we got rid of vocational programs in schools, more schools started teaching how to get into college,” she says.

Whatever the reason, the HVAC industry has a predicament: Demand for HVAC services has never been higher but the industry lacks the trained work force to meet it.

Today, the sector falls short about 38,000 workers annually and will need an estimated 115,000 by 2022 as more HVAC veterans retire, according to McCollum.

“Statistically, we see about 10,000 of those workers leaving through retirement or for other reasons,” she said of the yearly labor falloff.

Labor shortages are across the board but the EGIA Foundation is mostly focused on residential.

The industry created the EGIA Foundation to lead a national campaign to draw more workers into the HVAC field.

A new industry study titled “Bridging the HVAC Employment Gap” details just how dire the deficit of interest in joining the field has become. And it does so in blunt terms.

“By their own admission, 64 percent of high school students believe that HVAC is not a career that would make a parent proud,” says Weldon Long, an EGIA Foundation Trustee.

“Unfortunately, often unjustly, these careers are viewed as substandard over undervalued career choices,” he adds.

Long blames misconceptions created by those outside the industry. Unless the misconceptions are reversed, the industry can’t develop a sustainable workforce made up of each successive up-and-coming generation, he says.

Another trustee, Drew Cameron of HVAC Selluations, detailed the Foundation’s mission in a recent address of industry leaders and businesses, saying the organization’s task is to “shine a light on the incredible, honorable, lifelong career opportunities the home services industry offers.”

The message will be direct and simple, Cameron says: “An individual can enter the trade with less time spent on education, no college debt, plus they can get a job immediately, and can earn as much as, if not more, than most college graduates.”

McCollum, the Foundation development director, says initial “bridge-the-gap” efforts will be on public awareness, specifically among high schoolers and their parents. In addition to promoting the employment demand and high wages, the effort will highlight the high-tech aspects of the job and the industry’s gender inclusivity.

A modest scholarship program providing 20 or so HVAC students $2,500 each is also planned.

The big project, according to McCollum, is  creation of a career hub to guide HVAC students into additional schooling and connect them with mentoring programs. HVAC businesses and manufacturers will be a key resource for the hub, McCollum says.

The hub is scheduled to be operational by the first quarter of 2019.

McCollum says the initiative will also seek to attract career changers but will want to know these potential HVAC workers are sincere in wanting to enter the field. “We’re not against change of life careers,” she says. “We don’t want HVAC to be seen as a backup plan. We want the industry to be something you are proud of, something worth making an investment in.”

The study, “Bridging the HVAC Employment Gap,” says the labor shortage was foreseeable, yet “the magnitude of the problem is still shocking.”

Each year fewer individuals are “positively introduced to the trade while more tradespeople leave the work force,” the study notes.

The stakes go beyond the HVAC field itself, the study emphasizes.

“In a world without HVAC, companies can no longer hit current production levels,” it warns. “Computer systems require air conditioning to function. Employees need constant climate control throughout the seasons. Homes are opened up to environmental hazards and particulate matter with occupants experiencing high incidents of respiratory inflictions.

“Without humidity control, structures deteriorate more rapidly. Hospital-contracted infections increase and mortality rates decline.”


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