BY JEFF DICKEY-CHASINS Special to CONTRACTOR
The specialty contracting sector, like many other parts of the economy, has a labor problem. Our workforce is aging. According to a recent survey by MEP Jobs, an employment Website catering to this sector, 78% of current workers are ages 31 to 59. What’s more, only 10% fall into the critical 18 to 25-year-old demographic. In short, over the next few years we will have fewer men and women to build and take care of our plumbing, heating and cooling needs.
Why the shortfall?
Part of the problem is perception. We live in a society that values a college education, and specialty contracting employers typically require only an associate’s degree and various certifications. A four-year degree, while coveted by our young people, is less important to those hiring in this industry.
There is also the perception that a plumber or HVAC technician will earn less but work more than a typical office employee — a belief that is at odds with reality. In fact, according to the above-mentioned survey, 46% of our workers are earning $65,000 or more per year (see graph). Many workers move from employee to employer as they gain skills and experience, eventually setting up their own plumbing or HVAC firm.
In the age of technology and air conditioned office parks, there is also a reluctance on the part of high school students to seek a career that involves “getting your hands dirty.” Unless an individual has specific experience with the rewards of skilled work, they are unlikely to see the advantages of pursuing a career in these fields vs. various business-oriented professions.
Because of these and other misconceptions, the industry is struggling to find the people it needs for the coming decades.
What can be done?
Industry leaders are pursuing numerous approaches.
As Hispanics are currently the largest minority group in the U.S., many contractors are reaching out to this segment of the population with special training programs and bilingual supervisory staff.
Some specialty contractors are also joining forces with local technical schools and community colleges to provide both financial and technical support for training programs. In fact, some participate in career days at local high schools sparking students’ interest in a specialty contracting career.
The Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Institute has also partnered with 12 other major industry associations to form the Career Education Coalition, which reaches out to potential employees to educate them about the industry.
In addition, many major manufacturers have created training programs and internships specifically designed to reach high school students before they make their final decisions about further schooling and careers.
While each of the above programs is commendable, you need good help now. And many of these programs will take years to make a difference in the quality and quantity of fish in your talent pool.
So what can you do now?
Human capital is essential to a firm’s long-term health and competitive positioning. Therefore, smart employers, including contractors, manufacturers, wholesalers and facility managers, are looking at a new, short-term method for improving their workforce. And this new method involves — you guessed it — technology.
Although the plumbing and HVAC professions are not traditionally thought of as technologically sophisticated, these industries have seen a dramatic increase in use of technology over the past decade. The men and women working in these fields are no slouches when it comes to working with computerized systems.
As such, a growing number of these budding techies are turning to employment Websites for their job search. Following suit, employers are getting their job descriptions and position requirements listed on these constantly updated, always accessible job boards.
Because there are so many Internet job sites, employers who use “niche” job boards, such as MEP Jobs, are having the best luck. Because the site focuses exclusively on the mechanical, electrical and plumbing industries, job seekers know exactly what kinds of jobs will be listed, giving them increased confidence in their search. Likewise, employers know just what kind of employee will be surfing the site, and is therefore more comfortable investing in the digital advertisement of their open positions.
The 18 to 25-year-old demographic is known to turn to the Internet first when looking for information on anything. Online job boards help employers — who may not be as technologically savvy as their target audience — find those fresh-out-of-school workers.
But young workers aren’t the only users of this technology. In fact, nearly 80% of visitors to MEP Jobs are between 31- and 59-years-old. Even the alerts sent to cellular phones via text message, which sound tailor-made for the younger job seekers, make sense for the more experienced crowd. Because currently employed job seekers (75% of online job board traffic) are often out of the office and away from a computer, mobile alerts are perfect for staying top-of-mind with this desirable set.
Posting jobs online helps employers find technically skilled and experienced workers across the country — workers who may be in short supply in their region. Online job boards give employers with small budgets the ability to search the globe for their next employee. Job seekers are also able to learn, with very little time or research, the areas of the country where jobs are plentiful.
Lastly, using the Internet to locate new employees is simple. Most job boards are as easy as “point and click” for both employers and job seekers. Additionally, it’s less costly and more efficient for employers than traditional media such as newspapers and radio.
Managers in fast-growing companies are typically pulled in many directions and need the one-source quality of online posting.
“Over the last decade we have more than doubled and now staff over 200 employees serving two offices,” said online job board user David K. Brese Jr., executive vice president of Lee Air Conditioners Inc. “I’m convinced that without our online job board we couldn’t have achieved sustained growth and fulfilled our demand for growing a professional work force.”
What should be posted?
Often employers will argue that a job posting doesn’t give enough information to really attract the best talent. There are a few tips to online posting that can improve your chances of finding your dream employee.
How to improve your odds
First, be specific and honest in what skills you are looking for in a candidate. Vague job descriptions are frustrating for job seekers and may cause them to move on to another open position.
Also, if you’re willing to relocate the job seeker, say so in the job description. Remember, you are talking to a global audience. If they are in Connecticut and you’re in Minnesota, they may just skip right over your post.
Be proud of your company. Talk about the benefits of working with your team and why your firm is different than your competitors. Always be respectful of your competition and avoid tarnishing another company’s reputation while working to boost your own.
It’s important to pay competitively. If other firms in your area are paying a certain amount for skilled technicians, but you’re unwilling to pay at that level, you probably won’t get the people you’re looking for.
Finally, be flexible. Remember that you’re hiring a person with a specific set of skills — but also someone who can learn. If the employee is a good learner, his additional skills may be a great way to grow your business.
The bottom line is there is no quick fix to the industry’s serious labor issues. Perceptions are slow to change and recruiting youth to the specialty contracting industry is a task that requires persistence, patience and resources. However, there are ways for employers to make the best of a tough situation by tapping technology now.
Jeff Dickey-Chasins is vice president of marketing for online job board MEP Jobs, a leading job Website serving the plumbing, HVAC, electrical and general construction industries. He can be reached at [email protected].