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HANDS-ON: Rich Callahan, general manager of Air Services Heating and Cooling/All Service Professional Plumbing, utilizes a hands-on classroom for new employees.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
HANDS-ON: Rich Callahan, general manager of Air Services Heating and Cooling/All Service Professional Plumbing, utilizes a hands-on classroom for new employees.

Trade employers combat lack of skilled workforce

As baby boomers retire, employers need to train unskilled workers on-the-job

Posted online

Heating, air conditioning and plumbing services aren’t losing relevance in today’s world.

But that doesn’t mean young people are eager to jump into the trade industry.

Springfield heating, ventilation, air conditioning and plumbing employers say their companies are taking a hit from the lack of skilled workforce as baby boomers begin to retire at a dramatic clip.

Rich Callahan, general manager of Air Services Heating and Cooling/All Service Professional Plumbing, said he’s seen a severe lack of skilled employees over the last few years.

Callahan said the company is still able to meet customer demands, but his employees have had to work around 90-hour weeks. He currently has 24 full-time employees but needs 30 to run the business smoothly, he said.

“The actual job is growing, but yet, most of the people in the field are the baby boomer generation. Even young millennials, they were doing some of the trades,” Callahan said. “Gen Z, I believe they’re not even taught the option of this, it’s not even brought to them.”

The HVAC market was worth $81 billion in 2015, according to HVAC.com, which provides industry resources and nationwide contractor information for consumers. The market is expected to grow by 5.5% a year through 2020, but a talent shortage of over 138,000 employees could be realized by 2022, according to the website.

Local service company All Hours Plumbing, Heating and Cooling is offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus to attract skilled workers to the job, said owner Rick Gilmore.

“I have a lot of companies that say, hey, grow your business, get more customers, but the problem is if you get more customers, how are you going to take care of them?” Gilmore said. “In our business, we specialize in service, and when people have a problem, they want it done that day. If your business grows, and you don’t have enough qualified technicians to do it, you’re stuck.”

Gilmore said the shortage means he’s had to go back out into the field a few times in the last month. But he’d rather get his hands dirty than hire someone he didn’t trust or send a technician he doesn’t think is ready.

“If I can’t trust them in my house, they sure aren’t going to another person’s house,” he said.

Training on the job
Many service providers in the Springfield area are training employees on the job, but it’s not a trade that can be taught overnight.

To combat the shortage, Callahan designated space for a classroom in 2017 in the Air Services/All Service plumbing building. Trainees can learn how to be a technician on electronic boards that replicate machine technology, such as a furnace.

Nearly 15 employees have gone through the program, which took off this year after Callahan hired a full-time instructor. Air Services/All Service offers U.S. Environmental Protection Agency technician certifications on top of the company’s certification requirements. It takes a minimum of three months for students to learn and master preventative maintenance, he said.

“The technicians that have gone through our program are some of the best technicians we have,” Callahan said.

The company, which generated $6.6 million in 2018 revenue, currently has three employees in training, paid $10 an hour to go through the program.

“They don’t contribute to the company at all, so there’s no (return on investment) as a business owner yet,” Callahan said.

He said the training model has required over $200,000 of an initial investment, including the designing of the classroom, instructor salary and student employee pay.

In the back of the warehouse, Callahan has installed fully-operational plumbing, a furnace, air conditioners, a heating pump and water heater. Before the employees are handed the keys to their own service car, they must properly complete a house-call simulation to prove they know what they’re doing.

Ozarks Technical Community College and Midwest Technical Institute also offer HVAC courses. OTC had 33 HVAC graduates for the 2018-19 school year, which was 10 fewer than the year prior, according to data provided by the school.

OTC does not have curriculum for plumbing.

Gilmore said he’s having to train all employees in the field, but it takes years before he’s able to let a training employee work on their own. He doesn’t have a curriculum set up, but employees ride along with experienced workers.

“You don’t do it overnight. After about six to eight months, they can do a lot of it, but they aren’t good enough to put out there by themselves,” he said.

Industry trends
A skilled trade industry report released by Adecco in January shows 62% of trade firms in the United States are struggling to fill skilled positions. Over 251,000 heating and cooling positions are empty.

By 2020, baby boomer retirement will leave 31 million trade positions vacant, according to the report. This includes heating and cooling, construction, engineering, electricians and more. 

“In a year’s time, I probably went through 20-25 helpers that I haven’t kept because this generation doesn’t have the work ethic that the older ones do. And they’re not mechanically inclined,” Gilmore said.

SS & B Heating and Cooling is close to having a full staff of skilled workers, said owner Jeremy Grisham.

“We’re trying to get young people and train them ourselves and pay them well and bring up the next generation, so to speak,” Grisham said. “We’re doing pretty good right now, but that could change tomorrow.”

Data provided by the Missouri Job Center shows that 123 general HVAC maintenance employees left the industry in the Ozark region in 2017. The area covers Greene, Polk, Dallas, Webster, Christian, Taney and Stone counties.

The same data show the Ozark region with an estimated employment of 2,785 maintenance and repair workers in 2016 and employment is projected to reach over 3,250 by 2026.

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