The skilled blue collar worker shortage is not new, but it should be a very large concern for any service business who wants to stay relevant for the future. Baby Boomers are retiring at a fast pace and leaving a void of qualified technicians/craftsmen in every occupation. Many baby boomers who worked in the trades for the last four decades have persuaded their children to pursue college degrees to have a perceived better career fulfillment, better pay, better working conditions, and cleaner working environments. There isn’t a problem with higher education, but everyone is not suited to sit behind a desk and look at the same four walls day in and day out. Just because a person has a college degree does not mean they are going to find their dream job. As a matter of fact, about 50% of college graduates have taken jobs in which they are underemployed. In essence, this means they are doing jobs for which their major or degree is not related. A considerable percentage of college graduates have jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. Another fallacy about college is earning potential, which when coupled with college debt, does not work out in favor of the college graduate. Can you imagine spending four years in college, amassing student loan debt maybe in the 6-figure range, and you have to take a job in an unrelated field to your degree? Some college graduates don’t always make enough to pay for college debt loans and provide for independent living. This is why there are so many young adults in their mid to late 20’s living at home with their parents. The inability to be independent due to the inability to find good paying jobs is happening every day in every state to thousands of college graduates.
Source of Skilled Labor Shortages
There are many reasons for skilled labor shortages; two of which are the retirement of baby boomers and the prevalence of higher education among this country’s high school graduates. These two trends contribute to setting the stage for the highly skilled blue collar worker shortage we are facing today, tomorrow, and the next decade. To be fair, some small businesses have had difficulty with paying a wage that will attract young people to an industry that many view as less desirable. This problem only gets worse as time goes on. It is imperative our industry changes the opinions previously held by those who are advising today’s youth about their future careers.
One of the industries that seem to have valid statistics on the labor force shortage is trucking. According to Peggy Fisher’s Tire Business article “Tackling the Truck Technician Shortage,” written in March of 2020, the US will need roughly 67,000 diesel technicians to replace those who are retiring and 75,000 new diesel technicians because of the expansion of the trucking industry by the year 2030. Baby Boomers make up almost 50% of the diesel technicians currently employed, and they will all be retired by 2030.
Truck and diesel technicians are not alone when it comes to a labor shortage. According to Earlbeck Gases & Technologies, 50% of all man-made products require welding in March 2016 . In 2016, the average age of a welder was 55 years of age. The welding industry estimated it will need 400,000 welders by 2024. Once again, the popular theme of Baby Boomer retirements and fewer young people taking their place has created a welder labor shortage.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in hiring is overcoming the belief that a job with a company that specializes in heat exchanger service and diesel emissions service does not provide a path for advancement, is physically demanding, not for women, low paying, unrewarding, or dirty.
Unfortunately, the Fifth Avenue marketing giants have never made a plumber, carpenter, welder, and vehicle technician sexy or appealing to the masses. For years, fancy office jobs with people wearing high fashion at work have made up the bulk of what people view on TV and in advertisements. It probably had to do with selling high fashion. After all, Carhart, Levis, Wranglers, and Cintas aren’t as glamorous as Hugo Boss, Versace, Calvin Klein, and Polo. The stigma of being called a “grease monkey” has long endured and probably has caused parents and others like educational professionals and guidance counselors to look at the trades as less attractive careers. Today’s vehicle technicians, welders, plumbers, electricians, and numerous other tradesmen can be very sophisticated and professional, but not all parents and schools recognize these as noble professions. When I was in high school, the only way you were offered Vocational training was if you had a behavioral problem or were flunking out of regular school. Some of the brightest and most intelligent kids were sent to VoTech because of this reason. They were Baby Boomers, and this helped to supply hardworking intelligent people into the trades.
The cooling systems and diesel emissions industries are not alone when it comes to a technician shortage. Currently due to outside influences, almost all businesses are looking for workers. This trend is an anomaly caused by a once in a lifetime event, the pandemic. The issues I’ve described are not related to the pandemic, but the pandemic has definitely amplified an already existing problem in today’s blue collar skilled workforce.
Our labor force shortage has roots which go back decades when college and universities became big business and needed to promote their importance and sustain their growth. There is definitely a need for higher education, but the pendulum has swung so far that we have been left with a shortage of skilled blue collar workers. The people are out there. Our population is always increasing, but for some reason the need for blue collar technicians outpaces the availability and overall population increase. It is evident the cooling systems and diesel emissions industries are not alone when it comes to a technician shortage. Every trade is experiencing a deficiency of qualified labor. Heat exchanger repair may even be at a greater disadvantage than some other industries since there isn’t formal training offered in public and private vocational/ technical schools.
When the employment landscape is surveyed and studied the cooling systems and diesel emissions industries may very well be choices never even considered by millennials or Gen Z. Even though there are people in these generations who are capable, they may never learn about careers in our field because of the lack of promotion and education.
Recruiting Top Talent
So what can you do to try to fill those job openings you have in your growing organization? First, it would be prudent to put yourself in the shoes of those young people who might be considering a career in any trade. I use the term “trade” to apply to any job that requires skills typically performed with your hands and brain. For our businesses to be successful, a key ingredient is to have problem-solvers as part of the staff. Having good eye hand coordination and being able to accomplish certain manual tasks is only part of the necessary skill set. The trades need problem solvers and people who can manage unexpected situations.
All growing organizations need additional people to staff expanding operations. Some jobs will be easier to fill than others, but the important jobs are those that produce service dollars in an operation. People who can actually produce work and provide a finished product or service to the consumer are invaluable to a company. The companies who can recruit and keep new effective talent will be most successful. One way to impress any customer is with great services and products. When you have a good work force your service will stand out among the competition.
When thinking about your company and challenges with attracting and recruiting skilled workers, do you realize who or what the competition is? In college football or basketball recruitment, each team knows who their competition is for the best high school players in the country. The recruiters know what the other universities are going to offer, so why do some top recruits pick one school over five others? Up until this year student athletes weren’t financially compensated, so what is the mindset of a top high school recruit? What is the athlete contemplating when they make a decision to join a college sports program? They are thinking, “How does this impact my future and give me the best chance for success?” The payday may be four years away, but personal growth, the program, coaching, management’s attitude, and the culture all affect the decision a new recruit makes. Most people looking for a career are probably thinking about the same thing, their future. As with college sports programs, your competition for hiring new recruits is just as savvy as the most successful college sports programs.
What Can You Offer?
The competition for new talent may consider offering the following:
- Continuing education
- Clean working environment
- Tool allowance
- 401K retirement program with a match from the company
- Access to new technology and modern equipment
- Positive team culture conducive to building long term personal relationships
- Incentive programs in addition to competitive guaranteed pay
- Clear path to advancement with written goals for increases in pay
Most of all, job seekers are looking for an encouraging attitude from management. The culture in small companies can be your biggest advantage since it is easier to control the culture of the company. Millennials and Gen Zs may not just be looking for those perks mentioned above. They may also be interested in flexible working hours, four 10-hour shifts with an additional day off for three-day weekends or shifts with different times to allow for personal interests. Smaller companies have the ability to be flexible with their workforce.
Forming a Well-Trained Team
So often we think hiring less expensive labor is the key to company profits and the financial health of an organization, when in reality this is the farthest thing from the truth. Cheap ain’t good and good ain’t cheap. Customer satisfaction is directly related to employee satisfaction. Well trained, happy team members create customers for life. If your organization doesn’t put the labor force first, then you will not have satisfied customers.
Once your company is positioned to offer the same perks and incentives as larger companies, now you need to actively recruit people. Just like with any type of sales, going to where the business is will get you in front of the correct audience.
Get Involved with the Future Workforce
Most people know Frank Finger from when he owned Wholesale Auto Radiator in New Jersey and from his many years of attendance at NARSA’s events. Mr. Frank has told me several times how he created a relationship with the local vocational school in his area. He reached out to the welding department and has successfully recruited welders out of high school. He understood the necessity of getting in front of future welders when they were being trained and offered them the chance to intern at his radiator service business. Anytime you can get in front of the future work force and offer them a path to a career through mentoring and internships, you have a better chance of finding good help before they hit the streets upon graduation. Business owners need to be in the high schools speaking on career days about the different opportunities for students who may not want to attend college and want a fulfilling career. Supporting your local vocational schools can also prove to be beneficial as you may have the opportunity to discover talented young adults who are studying and working hard for their futures. Many times the VoTechs want local business owners and leaders to support them in recommending information that can be added to the curriculum to better prepare the students for their future. Creating a relationship with the vocational/technical school teachers and administrators will help prove mutually beneficial since they want to see their students acquire good jobs when they graduate.
Consider promoting afterschool programs to high school students who want an opportunity to work two to three hours after school each day. Bring them into the business and have them shadow your technicians, run for parts, sweep up the shop, and assist with simple tasks. This type of program will allow students to decide if they might want to pursue this type of work. For business owners and managers, this is an opportunity to identify skills that some of these students may possess. The students who have an innate ability and willingness to perform the type of work they are exposed to are probably not ready for prime time, but they may be able to be trained.
Another great way for our industry to reach a prospective source of technical labor is to partner with trade schools. There are various types of trade schools which offer auto, truck and welding training. Some of these schools are training military veterans who enlisted in the armed forces soon out of high school and have devoted two to four years in the military. When they are discharged, some of them are seeking training through private vocational schools. Use the same strategy recommended for high school vocational programs and create partnerships with the private training schools. Let them know what skills you are looking for and let them help you fill those job opportunities. Private trade schools are always looking for businesses to hire their students so they can market successful placement of students. Schools that train benefit by showing prospective students they have high placement rates after training.
As a business owner it is imperative that you discover ways to attract new talent. The future of your business and the future of our country is going to depend on the next generation of skilled craftsmen and women who will be the future of services and products that are offered.The topic of labor shortage proves to be an important topic and one NARSA/ IDEA will continue to discuss. If you have any remarks or comments please e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NARSA/IDEA Executive Director
This editorial was originally published in the September/October issue of The Cooling Journal