HVACR jobs are STEM jobs

The labor shortage extends from techs needed to install plumbing and mechanical equipment to the engineers designing plumbing and mechanical systems.

No matter what trade show or seminar I attend, I keep hearing that plumbing and heating technicians are in great demand. The HVACR Workforce Development Foundation released a report that further explores this industry shortage to a larger degree than other similar reports I’ve read.

Plus, much of this data pivots to another recent survey on the equally challenging set of circumstances to fill many positions within the AEC community.

Techs and beyond

Given just how bad the news is on industry employment, the foundation’s conclusions ended up painting an even bleaker picture. The foundation enlisted Burning Glass Technologies, an employment data analytics firm, to take a deeper dive into the HVACR job market. According to the firm, many HVACR jobs are in hidden pockets of the job market and, hence, invisible to U.S. government labor market data.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks HVACR mechanics and installers, but not engineers designing the systems or any of the other people busy making, selling, stocking and maintaining such equipment. As a result, Burning Glass mined real-time labor market data from its own database of 100 million job postings. What they found were 220,734 job openings for HVACR jobs in 2014 compared with the BLS estimate made in 2012 that indicated there were 267,600 people who worked as HVACR mechanics and installers.

“Since new job openings constitute only a portion of the existing HVACR workforce,” the consultants reported, “this finding reveals that demand for HVACR workers is far stronger than BLS estimates suggest.”

On average, HVACR jobs routinely remain open for more than a month. Specific postings for tech and installer jobs remained open 12 percent longer than other similarly-skilled jobs nationally. This is despite the report confirming that more than 80 percent of the jobs available in the HVACR industry do not require a bachelor’s degree. Burning Glass said that many jobs, with a similar skillset to HVACR jobs, are seeking bachelor’s degrees for occupations that traditionally have not required one. HVACR jobs are resisting this trend to “upcredentialize.”

Unfortunately, while the industry faces one employment crisis now, there’s another one in the making. The BLS estimates the number of HVACR mechanic and installer jobs will increase by 21 percent to an estimated 115,000 new workers through 2022, nearly twice the growth of overall employment. This on top of a Social Security Administration estimate that puts 22 percent of the U.S. workforce retiring within that same time frame.

But, here’s another statistic that hits closer to home. The Friday Group, an international firm that provides facility management consulting services to commercial businesses and government, projects that up to 60 percent of “facility management staff,” in other words, plumbers, HVAC mechanics, electricians and operation and maintenance workers, will retire in the next five to seven years.

AEC jobs shortage

Keep in mind that while the findings above focus on the demand for industry techs, the foundation chose a broad brush to paint its picture. Most of the openings were for “installation and repair” – 104,233 to be precise. But the second highest category was 24,701 job postings for “architecture and engineering.”

A survey was done of C-suite executives and human resources directors by Building Design + Construction magazine. The respondents reported that the lack of experienced professionals and project managers is creating a hiring crisis for AEC firms that have caused some to delay or outright turn down work due to the lack of personnel.

The most difficult category to fill were professionals with six to 10 years of experience at 24 percent, followed by professionals with more than 10 years of experience at 17 percent and project managers at 16 percent. Rounding out the survey were AEC professionals with three to five years of experience at 13 percent.

Some key findings from the survey were:

  • 10 percent said specialty staff with expertise in IT, BIM, Revit, CAD, etc., were unusually difficult to recruit.
  • 58 percent said it had taken their firms four months or more to fill their most difficult positions.
  • 81 percent reported one problem or another in their firms’ efforts to recruit and hire the right professionals.
  • 17 percent said their firms delayed or turned down projects because they could not hire qualified AEC professionals to run them.

Instructor shortage, too

So, fewer people to install and service HVACR systems to go along with fewer people to engineer said systems. What could be worse? Well, consider another troubling conclusion from the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation.

Almost half of U.S. instructor respondents and a whopping 70 percent in Canada indicated they will retire within the next 10 years, a rate significantly higher than for the workforce as a whole. And, while one-third of instructors participated in professional development programs three or more times a year, more than 50 percent haven’t participated in any professional development at all to refresh their knowledge and skills.

“Those pending retirements indicate an urgent need for in-depth, sustained professional development for the remaining instructors and those who will be hire to replace the retirees,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, the number of HVACR programs at secondary and post-secondary schools are decreasing. According to the U.S Department of Education, the number of associate degrees conferred upon students for the broader category of manufacturing, construction, repair and transportation declined 16 percent from 1997 to 2006. Using the most up-to-date data available from 2012, the number has dropped by 23 percent over the past 15 years.

In addition, more than half of HVACR instructors indicated that their programs are under-enrolled with room for more students. Twenty-eight percent said they were on target for enrollment and 10 percent were over-enrolled. A number of respondents noted difficulty finding students with clean driving record, the ability to pass drug tests and the prevalence of tattoos on arms, neck and face. A few named student cell phones as an inhibiting factor on classroom instruction, with one instructor calling cell phones an “obsession” with students.

Instructors state that approximately 22 percent of the students drop out of the programs for unknown reasons or because they found employment not related to their training. The foundation reached some interesting conclusions when they surveyed HVACR instructors. Taken verbatim from the study they are as follows.

We are not training enough students

For the 2014–2015 school year, an estimated 21,239 new employees were qualified to enter the workforce from technical or community colleges. If we don’t do better than this in the coming years, there will not be sufficient new entrants to the HVACR pipeline to meet future demands.

No clear credentials or accreditation programs

With a mish-mash of national credentials for students and instructors, the skills gap will continue to widen. And if HVACR programs are not held to similar standards, then program quality will suffer.

Recruitment practices are lacking

Instructors reported a need for increased awareness and actions from their institutions to recruit and retain students, particularly for second career workers and veterans, which made up over half of their classes. Companies that need new employees have to do more to help fill the training gap.

We need to recruit more women and minorities into HVACR training programs

Many instructors who participated in the survey bemoaned the lack of women and minorities in their training programs. On this last point, Renee Joseph, vice president, channel sales and marketing operations for Johnson Controls, mentioned a couple of bright spots in a white paper she presented at a Women in HVACR workshop in conjunction with the 2015 Heating Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) Conference.

This year, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) held its first Women in ASHRAE breakfast at its annual conference. The association also formed a presidential ad-hoc committee to further promote women’s participation.

Three years ago, HARDI launched an Emerging Leaders program, which the trade group says is it fastest-growing program. Meanwhile, the Women In HVAC group is 14 years old and held its 12th annual conference in 2015. It has more than 500 paid members, plus some 1,500 followers through its website and social media.

The reports available from the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation are tremendous resource for anyone interested in promoting the HVACR industry to the next generation. For more information on these reports, visit www.CareersinHVACR.org. 

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