A great deal of skilled trade training takes place within companies, as apprentices work their way up.
When Dave Mejean needs a new heating and cooling technician, the search starts at area high schools and career centers.
Mejean, co-owner of B&W Plumbing Heating & Air Conditioning in Indianapolis, asks teachers to introduce him to students with strong math or mechanical skills. He asks the students if they like working with their hands, if they can deal with customers and about their plans after high school. If the student answers “yes,” “yes” and “I don’t know,” Mejean provides the opportunity to learn about plumbing and HVAC repair.
B&W offers qualified high school seniors part-time work around their warehouse or helping technicians in the field. Students can earn full-time jobs after they graduate, and start learning essential skills of the HVAC trade, including how to braze copper and troubleshoot problems with air conditioning units.
Mejean turned to high school students because of problems finding qualified HVAC techs. Few were applying, and those who did didn’t impress during their interviews and trial periods. Eventually, Mejean realized he couldn’t wait for employees to come to him. If he wanted qualified workers, he needed to find them, and entice them to stay. “We’re at the point now where you almost have to grow your own people,” Mejean says.
The skilled trades face an uncertain future and a ticking clock. Jobs are plentiful, but workers are fewB&W isn’t alone. Across the country, trades including HVAC repair, plumbing, electrical contracting, home building and carpentry can’t find enough qualified employees.
Many trade workers retired or left their respective fields in 2008 during the housing crisis. But as the housing market improved, demand for qualified tradespeople rose, and should continue to rise for most of the next decade.
The growth rate for HVAC, plumbing and electrical contracting jobs is expected to grow between 12 and 14 percent by 2024, well ahead of the average growth rate for all other occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Along with job growth, contractors need qualified tradespeople to fill the positions that older, experienced workers are leaving behind. These jobs also pay well. In 2015, the median annual salary for carpenters, HVAC technicians, electricians and plumbers was between $42,000 and $51,800.
So, what’s the problem?
Service providers say there’s long been a stigma against blue-collar jobs. High school guidance counselors typically steer students who have strong math, science and mechanical skills toward four-year colleges.
Few guidance counselors will tell the same students they can earn a living while training to become a master tradesman, says Dennis Schlekie, owner of Approved Plumbing Co. in Broadview Heights, Ohio.
“I wish schools would turn around and say, ‘College is not for everyone.’ There’s a very good living to be made in the trades,” Schlekie says. “There’s a huge amount of satisfaction when you become a good mechanic, and can go into someone’s home and solve all their problems.”
Mechanical Skills instructor Michael Cupp (right) trains apprentice Jordan Herrmann in copper offsetting at Mechanical Skills’ Indianapolis facility. (Photo by Frank Espich)
Good help is hard to find
For service providers, the shortfall means sorting through dozens of applications to find a single qualified candidate. “I tell (Angie’s List employees), if you can find me workers the way you find me customers, I would pay for that,” says Nick Cratsa, owner of Cratsa Construction in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.
Schlekie and Cratsa say there’s a misconception that trade work is only viable for high school dropouts, or someone who’s looking for an easy paycheck. Neither employer is interested in workers simply looking for a job. They need employees who have strong work ethics and are curious how things work.
Recently, Schlekie says he went through a stack of 65 applications while looking for a prospective employee, and out of the pile, only one or two could pass a mandatory drug test and background check. “We’re not even dealing with (technical) skills yet,” Schlekie says.
Schlekie says his workers regularly enter homes worth $500,000 or more, and he’s not going to hire anyone whom he thinks could embarrass the company.
“We’re not going to put just anybody in your home,” Schlekie says.
Cratsa says he expects to spend six months reviewing 30 to 40 applications for a single opening. Applicants who claim they have experience but can’t produce a resume get cut early. Others can’t pass a written test to determine their technical skills. “That separates the wheat from the chaff quickly,” Cratsa says.
Schlekie and Cratsa say they’ve tried to find employees through Craigslist ads, church announcements and local vocational schools, but those searches rarely produced applicants with the skills and worth ethic they desired.
For now, Schlekie and Cratsa say the best way to find qualified candidates is through word-of-mouth. At Current Electric in Brookfield, Wisconsin, president Chuck Smith has a sign posted outside reading “Good electricians attract good customers.”
Current Electric is always looking for more technicians. They employ a full-time human resources person whose job is to find out whether area electricians are happy with their current jobs. Current Electric interviews two to three applicants per week, and Smith says between 10 and 30 percent of those candidates have potential.
Smith says he asks interview candidates three questions: What motivated them to become a contractor? What hands-on projects have they been a part of? And where do they see themselves in three to five years? “They need to have a passion for their trade. And they need to show that passion in their actions. Actions are more truthful than words,” Smith says.
Median income for the major trades in 2015
HVAC tech: $45,110
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Training their workforce
Apprenticeships for HVAC techs, electricians and plumbers typically last between three and five years, depending on the trade. Each year, workers who are learning the trades must complete around 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, and between 144 and 246 hours of technical education, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many employers are happy to provide that training, and sometimes pay for the education of hard workers who are willing to return the investment.
Current Electric pays for the apprenticeship training for qualifying new electricians at area technical schools. That’s $6,252 annually for each apprentice’s tuition, fees and for wages they earn while in class, says Sarah Jenkins, marketing coordinator for Current Electric.
When an apprentice plumber starts with Schlekie, he fronts the $1,800 cost of the first year of apprenticeship school. If new hires keep their grades and attendance up, Approved Plumbing covers the remaining tuition costs.
The service providers also budget time each week with new and veteran employees to review their successes and failures. Schlekie, for example, spends an hour with his crew reviewing every issue that arose the prior week. “We talk about it, why it happened, how to correct it,” Schlekie says.
When Cratsa hires tradesmen, he prepares them to do a little of everything.
Cratsa’s business focuses on kitchen and bathroom remodeling, and his workers need to know how to complete the necessary plumbing, electrical and carpentry work, as subcontracting the jobs would take too long. “It would take me six weeks to complete a job that should only take two weeks, trying to coordinate all the different trades,” Cratsa says.
When Cratsa hires someone, he’s looking for a worker who’s proven in at least one of the trades, such as plumbing or electrical contracting. Then, he offers to teach them the other skills.
HVAC tech Dave Sedam, right, of B & W Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning in Indianapolis, trains apprentice Bobby Alexander in replacing a furnace unit. (Photo by Frank Espich)
Retaining their workforce
Businesses take a risk training new employees because they could leave after a few years, taking what they’ve learned to the competition. That’s why businesses are constantly asking how to keep their employees happy.
“When we find a guy who likes to work with his hands and enjoys the trade, I will do most anything to keep him,” Schlekie says.
That includes keeping wages competitive, which can mean higher prices for customers, service providers say. Health insurance, retirement plans and paid vacations are also essential. Years ago, an electrician could only expect Christmas vacation. Now, they’re being offered weeks away. “We need to be able to provide that benefit. We don’t want to burn them out,” Smith says.
Jan. 16, 2017
By Tom Lange
Tom Lange wrote about home improvement, moving, home security and other topics during his time at Angie’s List. He has degrees in journalism and film studies, and his interests include reading, running and the movies.