The financial security of the work should be communicated to young people to alleviate technician shortage, says natural refrigerant contractor Todd Ernest.
Todd Ernest, Climate Pros, at ATMOsphere America 2018
The HVAC&R industry may be facing a severe shortage of technicians, but that may be partly due to not communicating the considerable benefits of the job – like no student debt and a $75,000 per year starting salary.
"We have technicians making $200,000 [annually],” said Todd Ernest, founder and CEO of Climate Pros, a contractor based in Glendale Heights, Ill., that employs 400 employees in 10 states. Skilled technicians “don’t really have anywhere to go but up.”
Ernest brought this message – tied to his support of natural refrigerant technology – to the ATMOsphere America 2018 conference in June in Long Beach, Calif., as a participant in the food retail discussion panel. (The conference was organized by shecco, publisher of this website.)
This month, Climate Pros joined the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council (NASRC) – a nonprofit promoting natural refrigerants in supermarket applications – as a platinum member. Ernest will support NASRC’s efforts to address the technician shortage and training challenges that have slowed the adoption of natural refrigerants. Ernest founded and successfully built Climate Pros into successful company in the refrigeration industry with over 400 employeees.
The attractiveness of technical jobs is something that should be communicated to young people in schools before they decide on their career, Ernest said at ATMOsphere America. He recommended that HVAC&R employers to “go to schools and speak with the kids and the counsellors.” Ernest also advised contractors to “develop your own training programs that leverage existing programs in the area” and cooperate with training schools.
“It’s better to train them and have them leave than to not train them and have them stay.”
– Todd Ernest, Climate Pros
Ernest cited three key reasons for the labor shortage: Baby boomers are retiring at a rapid pace; high school curricula are no longer aimed at providing a vocational education; and “kids are driven to go to college [where] they are coached to believe that this is the only way to be successful.”
The retirement of baby boomers is leaving “a gap of knowledge and experience,” said Ernest, adding, “A skilled technician is a multitalented person: he knows a lot.”
All these issues are having a clear effect on demand for skilled labor, in and out of the HVAC&R industry. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, some 70% of U.S. construction firms reported difficulty finding qualified workers. It doesn’t help that “HVAC&R is dubbed one of the most dangerous jobs in America,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ernest urged contractors to make sure their current staff is well-trained. “Invest in the future of your company,” he said. “It’s better to train them and have them leave than to not train them and have them stay.” He also recommended benefits programs, supplying tools and uniforms, and creating a good social environment.
Ernest practices what he preaches. His company provides in-house training on natural refrigerant technology and opened its own training university in December 2017. The 10,000-sq-ft training center, dubbed Climate Pros Inc. University (CPIU), is run at its 50,000 sq.-ft Chicago headquarters to train its technicians on installing and servicing CO2-based refrigeration systems – transcritical, cascade and secondary.
This emphasis on training has allowed the contractor to be involved in innovative projects such as a recent installation of an industrial CO2 transcritical system, from Canadian OEM Carnot Refrigeration, at the MaMa LaRosa dough-making facility in Michigan.
“We must be prepared to do whatever it takes to attract and retain the best and the brightest out there,” Ernest said.