Click HERE to view The HVAC Skills Gap: How to Solve the Critical Shortage of Skilled Workers as a multimedia presentation.
There are few homeowner emergencies more serious than a furnace on the fritz in the middle of winter or an air conditioning unit conking out during the dog days of summer. We Homo sapiens relish our comfort, and we do not like it when the temperature travels too many degrees away from our favorite number.
So who comes to the rescue when you’re either sitting in a pool of sweat or hunkered down under a pile of covers? Most people can’t dial fast enough to call a local expert in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC).
The HVAC industry (sometimes referred to as HVACR, HVAC-R, or HVAC/R to recognize the importance of refrigeration, too) is thriving in America. Job opportunities abound but, strangely enough, there simply aren’t enough skilled workers to fill them.
This problem is known as the skills gap, and it’s a serious issue in the HVAC industry. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the skills gap, what’s behind it, and what industry leaders and educators can do to solve it.
Supply & Demand
There are many theories about the causes of the HVAC skills gap, but like all economic mysteries, it comes down to a matter of supply and demand. Demand for HVAC workers has risen dramatically over the past two decades and is expected to continue to rise for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, the supply of HVAC workers is shrinking. The current workforce will decrease in the coming years as more and more workers reach retirement age, and there simply aren’t enough new workers to replace them.
For a variety of reasons we’ll discuss later, the number of young people choosing HVAC as a career is not even close to keeping pace with industry demand. When you combine aggressive industry growth with an aging workforce and an insufficient infusion of new talent, you get a serious skills gap problem in the HVAC industry.
According to an article by Zander Buel, “[t]he primary driver of the increasing demand for HVAC/R technicians is industry growth.” Statistics from the past two decades reveal the magnitude of this growth.
A recent article by Kevin Burns in The ACHR News notes that 95% of houses built since 2000 contain HVAC technology. During the same time frame, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the HVAC industry grew by more than 20%.
Experts expect the HVAC industry to continue thriving for the next decade and beyond. New construction will continue to drive demand for HVAC systems. In addition, many homeowners will be upgrading their HVAC systems in coming years.
The author of an article on the Explore the Trades website notes:
“With new technologies available in today’s marketplace older HVAC equipment is far less efficient than today’s models, costing consumers more money to run, offering less comfort and also taking a larger toll on the environment. In an effort to ‘go green’ while saving money and providing better comfort levels for their homes and workplaces, consumers are making the change to newer HVAC systems…With projections of system installations and maintenance on the rise, HVAC techs will be busier than ever.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) agrees that the outlook for HVAC technicians is indeed quite bright. The agency expects demand for HVAC technicians to grow at a rate of 15% through 2026. As noted in a recent article by John Collins, that rate is “more than twice as fast as the average seven percent growth rate of all occupations.”
In real numbers, a study by the EGIA Foundation concludes that “[j]ob outlook projections indicate that 48,800 jobs will be added to the market by 2026. That roughly equates to 1 new technician for every 6 currently employed.”
A study by the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation notes that many of these new positions will be in “[t]he core HVACR installation, maintenance, and repair occupations,” which happen to be “among the most difficult to fill in the United States” and “the most critical of HVACR positions.”
Unfortunately for the HVAC industry, the supply of labor has not kept up with industry growth over the past two decades. In fact, the number of HVAC workers is actually shrinking rather than growing.
Experts don’t expect it to catch up anytime soon either. According to Collins:
“Much of the shortage is a result of an aging workforce, with many baby boomers, almost a quarter of the existing HVAC technicians and installers, preparing to retire within the next ten years. Besides creating job openings, the departing baby boomers are opening a huge skills gap, as they take with them a great deal of knowledge and years of experience.”
The problem of an aging workforce is not unique to the HVAC industry. It applies to the skilled trades in general. The obvious question then becomes: where are all the young workers to fill these vacant positions in the HVAC industry and the skilled trades in general?
Despite open positions with good wages and job security, millennials and post-millennials are not choosing the HVAC industry or the skilled trades in the same numbers seen from previous generations. According to Buel:
“One of the biggest reasons for the shortage of skilled trades workers, including HVAC/R technicians, is that many young men and women choose 4-year colleges instead of trade schools because that’s been the path highlighted by parents and guidance counselors.”
The result is an issue of perception “with many seeing the college-bound student as having greater job opportunities and higher salary potential than someone entering the trades,” according to Collins. As those familiar with the skilled trades will quickly point out, however, such a perception is in fact a misperception that is leading many students down the wrong path.
As Buel notes:
“College…is not a one-size-fits-all solution to career preparation. It may not even be the best educational path for some, as many students take longer than 4 years to earn a degree or even dropout without this credential.”
How do we open the eyes of students and parents to the opportunities available in HVAC? Experts looking for solutions to the HVAC skills gap have rightly focused their efforts on this particular part of the equation.
No Quick Fix
As the numbers show, HVAC industry growth combined with an aging workforce and lack of new workers pursuing HVAC as a career path has led to a serious skills gap that threatens to limit future industry growth and could result in significant wait times for future HVAC installation, maintenance, and repair needs.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for this problem. Solutions must address the lack of young workers pursuing HVAC as a career. That involves changing perceptions and making important changes at the institutional level.
A joint effort on the part of students, parents, educators, educational institutions, and HVAC industry professionals will be required. Over time, significant progress can be made, but efforts must begin now to ensure the HVAC industry continues to thrive in the future.
In the remainder of this article, we will look at a variety of ideas and strategies that educators and industry professionals alike can use to do their part to bridge the HVAC skills gap.
The HVAC industry in particular and the skilled trades in general suffer from widespread negative perceptions among students and parents. As the EGIA Foundation concluded in its recent study, “[f]or many, the idea of working as an HVAC technician – or any skilled trade – is perceived negatively. Yet, these same groups revealed a lack of familiarity with what HVAC work entails.”
It’s frustrating for HVAC professionals to realize that these negative perceptions are based upon misconceptions and lack of information. That’s why the HVAC industry and educators must wholeheartedly embrace and commit to proper education and promoting awareness of what it’s actually like to work in the HVAC industry.
This is no easy task. The EGIA Foundation notes:
“Not long ago, every student attending a public middle or high school was exposed to the industrial arts: carpentry, metalwork, sewing, cooking, and drafting. As attitudes about postsecondary education changed so did the programs available to students. Technical programs slowly faded away as schools pushed college preparatory studies.”
Without access to these once-common programs, how are students supposed to learn about the skilled trades? According to an article by Karl Unwin:
“some responsibility lies with companies themselves who can do more to promote working in HVAC…businesses [should] come together…and communicate the true picture of what it’s like to work in the industry and for their business. Those in senior roles should be attending careers days and be visible to those students who – despite their practical skills and unsuitability for desk life – have been led to believe a college degree will get them a job they will love.”
Bachelor’s Degrees Aren’t for Everyone
Unwin notes that educational institutions have promoted college degrees over skilled-trade pathways “in spite of an individual’s practical skills and the availability of work for those people once they have finished their education.”
In his article, Collins agrees, noting that “[p]ursuing a four-year college degree might require thousands of dollars in student loans, while educational programs from technical and trade schools, or community colleges, are less costly and last from six months to two years, allowing the individual to gain quicker entry into the workforce.”
Indeed, educators should be directing the best and brightest students toward the skilled trades in equal numbers as they do universities. Why? They’re desperately needed. According to Buel:
“[W]ith the Internet of Things (IOT), cloud-based monitoring and controls and smart home and building technologies revolutionizing HVAC/R systems, these are exactly the kinds of students the industry needs. Connected devices aren’t the only draw for the HVAC/R industry. Those interested in green collar jobs will also likely find plenty to like about the field. New environmental regulations, demand for energy efficient products and clean units powered by solar or geothermal energy are giving HVAC/R techs more reasons to feel good about their work.”
Despite the reality of modern HVAC work, negative perceptions remain. What are some of the most common perceptions held by students and parents? Here are several:
- HVAC work is dirty, hard, physical, and uncomfortable.
- HVAC technicians work long hours and lots of weekends.
- HVAC work is boring and offers little in the way of a challenge.
- HVAC careers aren’t well respected.
While it’s true that HVAC work may have you exploring a crawlspace or lugging around heavy equipment on a hot day, these common perceptions of HVAC work are mostly misperceptions. Moreover, concerns about long hours, weekends, and boredom apply widely to all sorts of different professions.
Oddly enough, when you research what students and parents are looking for in a future career, you find that the HVAC industry actually fits the bill on multiple points. For example, the EGIA Foundation learned that many students and parents are looking for the following in a career:
- A challenging role that allows for problem solving and troubleshooting
- Variety in work that allows you to be outside or not stuck behind a desk or inside a cubicle
- Job security with good pay and opportunity for advancement
- Steady, year-round work that doesn’t require an expensive education
HVAC professionals can attest to the fact that installing, maintaining, and repairing modern HVAC equipment can be a challenge, especially as new technologies make problem-solving and troubleshooting skills particularly necessary. The many different types of systems also provide case-by-case variety that’s far from boring.
Given the growth in the HVAC industry, job security, excellent pay, and opportunity for advancement abound, and these benefits are available year-round without the need for a four-year college degree that comes with a mountain of student debt.
Tell Them & They Will Come
HVAC professionals need to get involved with local educators to share their experiences with students and parents. As Collins notes, “[j]ob fairs, career days, and information sessions can help educate potential technicians, schools, parents, and the general public on the facts about HVAC careers.”
If no one tells them, misperceptions will simply continue. According to Collins:
“[Students and parents] don’t view the work of an HVAC technician as glamorous, understand the amazing technologies involved in keeping their environment comfortable, or realize the skills required to operate controls and building automation systems.”
Current HVAC workers need to get excited about sharing their career path with others. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s a career that proves to be essential. Moreover, an HVAC career can one day lead to owning your own business.
At the end of the day, there’s also great job satisfaction to be had. When the furnace goes out on Christmas Eve or the air conditioner dies on July 4, people are genuinely glad to see you and they greatly appreciate the work you do to make them comfortable.
These are the stories that need to be told, and some institutions are developing programs to deliver the message effectively. For example, MEMA Technical Education Center (MTEC) offers a “Ride to Decide” program that lets potential students ride along with HVAC contractors to get a look at a day in the life of an HVAC technician. This program has proved invaluable in helping students develop interest in an HVAC career.
Dollars & Sense
Before moving completely away from the topic of negative perceptions, we must face one other common misperception: HVAC work is low-skill work for low pay. We’ve already addressed the fact that HVAC offers the opportunity for exciting, high-skill work with great variety.
But what about the money? Fear not, future worker. In a growing industry that’s desperate for skilled technicians, there’s no shortage of jobs available with excellent pay to start, as well as abundant opportunity to grow and advance.
According to the BLS, the average annual salary for an HVAC technician is $49,530. That’s just the average. Technicians in the top 90th percentile of workers make $75,330 per year. Those numbers should be quite attractive to most students and parents, especially when you consider that they can be obtained without incurring tens of thousands of dollars of student debt.
Moreover, given the current skills gap problem in the HVAC industry, there’s plenty of work to go around. The figures above do not include the many opportunities for overtime earnings or other benefits, such as a company vehicle.
Moving beyond merely educating students about what life in the HVAC world is like, industry professionals need to start paving the path for new workers starting in high school. One tried and true approach to developing new workers with the skills you need is to develop a quality apprenticeship program.
According to Unwin:
“Companies…need to support the availability of apprenticeships in the sector…Many companies could benefit from developing their own training programs and by partnering with education institutions. This way, they can have more control over the type of skills that are being taught and also promote their own business as one that offers opportunities.”
A recent article in SNIPS Magazine highlights the successes enjoyed by the School to Apprenticeship Program in Dayton, Ohio:
“Apprentices receive college-accredited training during the apprentice programs in AutoCAD, air balancing, refrigeration/service, welding and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) design, fabrication and installation. While they are learning in the classroom, they are gaining skills on the job site including installation of architectural sheet metal, kitchen equipment and duct for heating and air conditioning systems in residential and commercial buildings. The goal is for apprentices to graduate with a college degree, zero college debt and a career to last a lifetime.”
HVAC professionals would serve themselves and their industry well by partnering with local educational institutions to offer similar apprenticeship programs. The pipeline of new HVAC technicians would certainly begin to fill more quickly if more programs offered hands-on training, college credit, an eventual degree with no debt, and a head start on a successful career in HVAC.
In addition to offering apprenticeships, HVAC companies could help bridge the skills gap by addressing the gender gap that exists in the HVAC industry. According to the EGIA Foundation, “[w]omen comprise almost 57% of the total workforce in the United States. Yet, they make up less than 1.7% of the HVAC workforce.”
Why? The EGIA Foundation notes that “[m]any women have the same mechanical aptitudes and economic aspirations as their male counterparts though communications and outreach are skewed towards men.” When reaching out to students and parents, HVAC professionals need to ensure they’re reaching both men and women.
According to an article by Thorn HVAC Recruiting:
“Encouraging more women to consider HVAC and engineering as a career option is a powerful way to fill the skills gap and a number of programmes have been launched by employers to encourage applications from women. The HVAC sector in the US has gone a step further by having its own organisation (Women in HVACR) providing mentoring, networking and guidance to encourage more women into HVAC professions.”
The HVAC skills gap was not created overnight, and the solutions will take many years to take root and bear fruit. HVAC professionals must strategize and take steps today to ensure a brighter future tomorrow and the years to come.
For those having trouble deciding on a proper course of action, they can take guidance from the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation, which has developed a “North American Plan” to bridge the skills gap in the HVAC industry in the U.S. and Canada.
According to the Foundation, “[t]his plan focuses on three broad goals for the industry: training the trainers, establishing uniform accreditation and certifications, and attracting a motivated workforce.”
In reality, that equates to a focus on ongoing professional development of HVAC instructors, development of a national set of standards and certifications, and the creation of mentoring programs, job shadowing, ride-a longs, internships, and apprenticeships with HVACR employers.
There’s no shortage of strategies that can help solve the critical HVAC skills gap. It’s time for educators and the HVAC industry to work together to put these strategies into action — today.
About Duane Bolin
Duane Bolin is a former curriculum developer and education specialist. He is currently a Marketing Content Developer for Amatrol, Inc. Learn more about Amatrol and its technical training solutions, including eLearning, here and connect with Duane on Amatrol’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube pages.