Recruiting and retaining high-performance technicians to serve contractors’ highly valued customers has been a recurring theme at nearly every construction industry convention or meeting for the past several decades. While the Great Recession had plumbing and heating contractors pivoting from recruitment to getting the phones to ring, the issue is, once again, reaching a critical point.
Not only are large numbers of baby-boomer plumbers, pipefitters and HVAC techs retiring or leaving the industry because of health issues, many construction workers left the industry during the recession for other work opportunities—and most have not come back. The plumbing, piping, heating and cooling industry has worked tirelessly to entice young people, women and veterans into the trades but has not been able to fill the gap.
“According to industry data, more than 3.1 million skilled trades jobs will go unfilled in the next two years, making recruiting new industry professionals even more challenging than it is already,” says Becky Hoelscher, director of AC aftermarket sales for Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions. “In states such as Idaho, Washington and West Virginia, where a study by the Workforce Development Foundation found job postings are already going unfilled for five to six weeks on average, the problems will be even more severe.”
The skilled trades gap is hampering the homebuilding industry.
“Lack of construction labor has been a major factor holding back new housing construction and driving the home price appreciation,” says Scholastica Gay Cororaton, research economist for the National Association of REALTORS.
And it is hindering the ability of many companies to take on more work.
“Demand for construction remains robust in most metro areas,” says Ken Simonson, the chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America, regarding June 2019 construction employment figures. “But, with record job openings in construction and the lowest overall unemployment rate since 1969, it is likely even more metros would be adding construction workers if there were enough qualified job seekers available.”
Mark Rayfield, CEO of Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed, adds: “The labor shortage is one of the greatest challenges facing the industry. Our customers are sharing their problems with us, but the workforce gap means there aren’t enough people to do the work. To solve it will require a sustained effort from leaders across the construction and manufacturing industries—and beyond. We need to work together to build tomorrow’s workforce today to combat the workforce shortage that’s impeding the manufacturing and construction industries’ ability to grow.”
Retention of the high-value employees that plumbing and heating contractors do have is becoming more critical for those businesses to stay viable. Yet a 2017 Talent Development Survey conducted by engineering and construction management consulting firm FMI notes that many engineering and construction businesses don’t see workforce development as a strategic priority—almost half (43 percent) of survey participants report that their firms don’t prepare a formal annual budget for training and development.
“Winning the war for talent requires a holistic, long-term planning approach and, as such, learning and development must be integrated into a comprehensive talent management program that purposefully links the organization’s vision, strategy, key roles and skills needed to make progress on its business objectives,” the report explains.
Industry Transformation = Advanced Training
PHCP contractors typically use a variety of options to keep their workers trained, such as workshops/seminars/classes offered by industry associations, best-practices groups, local vocational schools and manufacturers’ rep firms, as well as online services. But hands-on training provided by industry manufacturers on tools and equipment plumbers, pipefitters and heating techs use in the field is one of the more popular ways for business owners to ensure proper training at a low cost.
“As a manufacturer, the proper application, installation and start-up of your equipment is always a concern,” notes Mike Licastro, Bell & Gossett’s training and education manager, commercial building services and HVAC. “By providing the proper skill development training, we empower contractors to have the confidence to identify potential issues, develop resolutions and have a dialogue with other team members about the proper corrective actions. This offers the best opportunity for a successful experience and outcome at all levels—delivering a great customer experience.”
Adds Hoelscher of Emerson, who also is the chairperson of the Partnership for Air Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA): “Manufacturers can help look across the industry and provide the platform for training, offer tools to address challenges and develop technology that brings greater efficiency to skilled trades workers.”
But probably the most significant reason contractors need manufacturer training is the near-constant state of flux the industry has found itself in over the last couple of decades.
“Our industry, like so many others, is experiencing a great deal of change,” explains Desmond Clancy, director of training at Uponor North America. “From new materials and product innovations to a renewed focus on constructing homes and buildings with comfort and energy conservation at the heart of their design to trends such as BIM modeling and modular constructions and the impacts of a skilled-labor shortage—these are just a few of those dramatic shifts in our industry. Uponor is committed to continuing investing in our workforce and helping them respond to these trends with new insights, skills and approaches.”
Corey Dickert, senior vice president of product management for Milwaukee Tool, agrees: “Today, the skill set needed to stay competitive in a changing market is evolving, along with the tools and skills needed to do the job. For instance, as materials and methods change, manufacturers need to ensure they’re at the forefront of driving the training necessary for pros. Manufacturers such as Milwaukee Tool aren’t just developing tool solutions for the applications contractors frequently run into—they’re also partnering with leaders in the industry to update methods, safety protocols and new techniques to drive understanding and help pros quickly adapt to new skill sets.”
As materials, methods and products change, so to must codes and standards evolve.
“Manufacturers provide contractors the ability to remain knowledgeable on all products being offered into the building and construction industry,” says Bo DeAngelo, Viega’s manager of technical training. “Building codes and manufacturing standards dictate many requirements for training and aptitude. Codes require the installer to be versed in the systems they are installing, and the end-user benefits from properly installed systems that perform as the manufacturer intended.”
Another factor to consider is the rapid integration of electronic technology into an increasing amount of plumbing and heating equipment: toilets, faucets, shower systems, boilers, water heaters, air conditioning, IAQ, building management systems, to name a few. As the rate of technology advances in plumbing and heating systems surges, the rate of training for PHC installers and service techs must increase at the same degree.
Scott Cohen, Rheem’s senior manager of channel marketing and training, says: “Today’s water heating products are much more advanced and feature-rich than the products of even a few years ago. And for a seasoned plumber, it’s very different from the products they learned on. To guide a customer to the right product—whether residential or commercial, tank or tankless—the plumber needs to constantly be learning about new products and solutions so he can be the trusted advisor for the customer. Training and certification help the plumber learn how to sell, install and service these new products so he can deliver a great customer experience.”
The increasing push for more energy efficiency, more water conservation requires PHCP manufacturers to get the most effectiveness from their products while providing high performance.
“We have a global responsibility to design and develop new technologies and system integration strategies to reduce energy consumption, decrease our carbon footprint and foster the responsible use of our natural resources,” Bell & Gossett’s Licastro notes. “Whether just starting out or professionals who have been in the business for some time, the numerous technology advancements required to meet these objectives will always solidify the need for ongoing knowledge acquisition.”
The PHC contractor/manufacturer partnership not only provides highly specialized techniques and knowledge to contractors, it offers manufacturers another avenue to increase sales.
“The key to successfully growing our business is having a well-trained trade network that fully understands the value proposition of our products and how to install service and sell them,” says David Federico, brand director of Rinnai America Corp. “Knowing that there is a shortage of skilled labor in this country, Rinnai invests significant resources in training professionals on our products.”
What Manufacturers Offer
Whether you use the term workforce development, talent development or upskilling, the idea is to enhance the abilities that PHCP professionals already possess and teach them new skills to help them advance in their careers — all while providing exceptional value to their employers and customers.
“If manufacturers aren’t offering workforce development training, they’re not only missing an opportunity but ignoring a responsibility,” explains John Barba, Taco Comfort Solutions’ director of training. “At Taco, we made a decision years ago to focus on application-based training rather than product training so that we’re truly educating installers. No sales pitches!”
The plumbing and hydronics manufacturer opened its state-of-the-art Innovation and Development Center in 2012 at its Cranston, R.I., headquarters. Taco has five full-time trainers on staff and offers broad course offerings for entry-level techs and seasoned pros alike.
“There are hard realities to the work installers do every day and very real demands on their time, so we’ve packaged our training — enabling them to understand system operation, performance and efficiency — in every manner possible: face-to-face and hands-on, classroom, at many locations nationwide and online,” he adds. “Our customers are the first to tell us there’s no end to learning new stuff, so we keep them engaged and educated.”
Bell & Gossett opened its Little Red Schoolhouse in 1954, located in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. It offers courses on the basics for the entry-level person as well as more technical curriculums to help seasoned veterans increase their skills. The manufacturer recently completed extensive renovations to enhance the hands-on learning environment. And as a continuing service to the HVAC industry, Little Red Schoolhouse seminars are offered free to attendees.
“While our schoolhouse courses remain in high demand, Bell & Gossett recognizes that in today’s industry, there are many ways to access training materials,” Licastro explains. “As such, we offer access to our popular technical manuals and e-Learning library from our website. In conjunction with industry associations and our manufacturer’s representative network, we conduct numerous field seminars. Our schoolhouse staff also serves as instructors for some steam and pipefitter union apprentice programs.”
Uponor’s Training Center at its Apple Valley, Minn., North American headquarters regularly hosts a variety of plumbing and hydronic training programs.
“We offer beginner, intermediate and advanced training programs for specific applications and products, such as plumbing or hydronics,” Clancy explains. “One of the programs we are especially proud of is delivered through partnerships with several of the local vocational schools. In some cases, the program is a part of their curricula. Each spring, we host four to six of these programs at our training center in Apple Valley for their plumbing and mechanical students.”
The manufacturer also offers e-learning opportunities and is expanding its catalog of “how-to” videos to support customers’ training needs. And the sales and sales support teams hold installation best practices and other product training sessions in the field and on the job site to help customers maximize the benefits of using PEX for their plumbing and hydronic projects.
Rheem’s Water Heating Division now has four Innovation Learning Centers—Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and Hartford, CT—where comprehensive product and technology education is provided via classroom instruction and hands-on training. In addition, a team of 11 plumbing support managers—all certified master plumbers who operated their own plumbing businesses for at least 10 years—travel the country conducting local training events. Training is geared toward plumbers of any experience.
“Our plumbing support managers not only know the product but also have a first-hand understanding of the challenges plumbers and plumbing business owners face every day, and can engage with them as peers in addition to a product expert,” Cohen notes. “We hear all the time—even from master plumbers who have seen it all—that they learned something new about water heaters.”
The manufacturer has an extensive library of training content available to plumbers through the MyRheem.com website, a resource for Rheem-affiliated plumbers to access product training across the full line of company products as well as a wealth of other product information and other programs to help grow their business.
Viega recently opened its second state-of-the-art Seminar Center at its North American headquarters in Broomfield, Colo.; the other facility is located in Nashua, N.H. “We now have more 35,000 sq. ft. of dedicated training space,” DeAngelo notes. “The facilities are equipped with Interactive Learning Centers, where attendees can learn about product technology at their own pace and based on interest. We cater to all learning styles, ensuring everyone leaves with the knowledge they can apply in the field and in their careers.”
Training is a 50/50 mix of classroom and hands-on instruction. And Viega offers packages to help subsidize some of the costs to attendees, such as hotel stays, airfare and meals. The manufacturer also supports trade education on a local level through industry organizations, vocational high schools and secondary trade schools.
At Emerson, which owns tool brands Ridgid and Greenlee, “programs begin at the trade school level and help professionals at every level stay ahead of emerging technologies,” Hoelscher notes.
The company’s Ridgid brand offers custom, hands-on training by expert instructors to students, teachers and apprentices in schools and union halls. Its Greenlee business provides commercial and residential electrical certifications via trade schools across the country with its GreenApple Labs. And to help HVACR contractors stay up-to-date in the fast-changing industry, Emerson Educational offers online and instructor-led courses in topics such as compressor applications and technologies, failure avoidance and system technologies, and a hands-on air-conditioner/refrigeration simulator.
CertainTeed has a team of 20 product application trainers who travel the United States and Canada, providing hands-on training with contractors, distributors, builders and architects in the field.
“We also offer several online training opportunities, including our Master Craftsman program, which offers education and training for contractors and building professionals,” Rayfield says. “Collectively, CertainTeed provides approximately 12,700 hours of training (including webinars and in-person education) annually.”
Through the CertainTeed Academy of Continuing Education, the manufacturer offers a webinar series and credentialed education for architects and contractors.
“While we’re focused on helping to build a pipeline of entry-level talent in the construction industry through various programs, we’re also committed to providing seasoned contractors, architects and designers with the tools and resources they need to continue enhancing their knowledge on emerging trends to improve building occupant comfort and well-being,” Rayfield explains.
Rinnai offers a wide variety of training opportunities for professionals, Federico notes, starting with Level 1, covering product benefits and features, all the way up to Level 3, which includes in-depth installation and service training.
Hands-on training for installers is performed in the field by Rinnai Accredited Training team members, as well as at the tankless water heater manufacturer’s corporate headquarters. Online training is provided so installers can learn from any location.
“Over the last decade, the jobsite has changed dramatically,” Corey Dickert notes. “Professionals are experiencing a constantly changing workplace, and it is almost impossible to keep up with all the solutions that can help increase productivity. Among other technologies, the evolution of cordless technology alone has changed how work gets done. This fundamental shift on jobsites has caused an even greater need for power tool manufacturers to be more involved than ever in training—especially for apprentices.”
He adds that Milwaukee Tool has made training a “crucial part” of its work with contractors to develop “future solutions” for these users. The manufacturer employs a large team across the United States focused on managing locally based training centers.
Within the mechanical industry, the tool manufacturer supports Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees for both the United Association and the sheet metal/air/rail/transportation (SMART) industries through product endowments, training support and graduation support, Dickert explains. Milwaukee also helps build a curriculum for these partners with hands-on instruction, videos, rich/interactive content and educational tours of its headquarters.
“We must have programs for all skill levels—from entry-level to pros with years of experience,” he says. “Even the most tenured professional doesn’t know about the newest tools and processes—we have to constantly educate the market on how to be productive and safe.”
Promoting the PHCP Trades
As noted previously, the skilled trades are in a labor crisis. Only by attracting new workers—young people, women, immigrants, military vets—will the industry be able to keep pace with the growing demand for new construction and new home services.
“Society has branded a college degree as the only way to achieve career success and wealth,” Rayfield says. “Over the years, parents and educators have shifted their focus from teaching job skills to preparing young people for college. We must reverse the stigma around the skilled trades and focus on helping young people achieve careers that complement their skillsets and allow them to live comfortably without mountains of debt. Construction jobs allow people to do more than make a living; they can make a life.”
Since 2010, the Saint-Gobain Corp. Foundation has granted more than $1.6 million to YouthBuild USA, which teaches young people in-demand skills to help build sustainable homes for communities in need and exposes them to careers in construction. In addition, the company’s building scientists provide hands-on training and product donations come from its family of companies including CertainTeed and SageGlass.
“Saint-Gobain is continuing to invest in workforce development programs such as our national partnership with YouthBuild USA to change the perception of careers in both the manufacturing and construction industries,” Rayfield notes.
Its largest construction materials brand, CertainTeed, supports scholarships for SkillsUSA, a partnership of students, teachers and industry professionals working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce. CertainTeed has donated $40,000 in scholarship funds to SkillsUSA students in construction-related fields.
For the past four years, Uponor hosted “life of a pipe” presentations for local students and nonprofit partner clients. “We have hosted panels of local contractors, including plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians as part of this event,” Clancy says. “Additionally, we have advocated for the trades in public forums, including partnering with reputable nonprofit organizations such as Plumbers Without Borders, providing keynote addresses at local manufacturing award events, and authoring op-ed pieces in national publications.”
He adds that Uponor invests in broad programming at local schools to build support for manufacturing and the trades.
“As a founding supporter of the E3 STEM program at Apple Valley High School, a U.S. Department of Labor Youth CareerConnect grant, we help connect students with real-world experiences that prepare them for careers in STEM fields,” Clancy explains. “Our employees interact with students in a variety of ways, from job shadows and mentoring, to volunteering as coaches of eight local FIRST and FTC Robotics programs. We were honored to receive Apple Valley High School’s first “STEMy” partner award in 2017.”
The manufacturer also partners with local technical colleges to offer tours, training, product donations and scholarships. For the past five years, it has supported students at Dunwoody College of Technology, Minnesota State University, Mankato Twin Cities Engineering and Inver Hills Community College with scholarships to pursue careers in manufacturing and the construction trades.
“Milwaukee knows that the future of the trades is in the hands of our nation’s youth,” Dickert notes. “This is why we work to stimulate student interest in STEM education and hold relationships with many high schools to provide tools and accessories for trade-focused hands-on learning.”
Recently, the tool manufacturer hosted an event called Kids Building Wisconsin at its headquarters for more than 800 fifth- through eighth-graders to get exposure to career opportunities in the construction industry. It also provides products for annual apprentice competitions and gives each fourth-year graduate a gift of tools at their graduation ceremony to help them begin their career.
Milwaukee actively supports and contributes to strategic planning for the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s Women in the Mechanical Industry, the National Electrical Contractors Association’s NECA Women in NECA, and diversity initiatives for the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractor’s National Association, the National Association of Women in Construction and Groundbreaking Women in Construction.
“Above all, Milwaukee believes in culture,” Dickert explains. “We’re committed to attracting and elevating diverse talent within our organization and across the construction industry. In addition to growing national programs, we promote diversity on a local level through tool training, networking and projects such as the creation of equipment bags with items specifically selected to help women get started in the industry.”
Hoelscher notes that Emerson has partnerships with and has members on the board of several leading trade schools. It promotes the industry through its affiliations with industry groups such as North American Technician Excellence, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors-National Association, PAHRA, NECA, the National Coalition of Certification Centers, the International Electrotechnical Commission and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
“Through our affiliations with industry associations and trade schools, Emerson works to elevate and build skilled trades as a career option,” she adds. “The company supports SkillsUSA, SkillsCanada and the national PHCC with donations of Ridgid tools and expertise. It provides scholarships through PHCC and donates tools as prizes to winners of state and local SKILLS competitions. The company’s Greenlee business also supports the skilled trades through donations of tools for student competitions and graduations.”
Viega also supports and sponsors apprenticeship programs and competitions within trade organizations and nationally accredited programs, and works with local high schools. “The skilled trades is a declining workforce, so Viega has a vested interest in the organic growth of skilled jobs in the construction industry regardless of background, sex or physical ability,” DeAngelo notes.
Xylem, Bell & Gossett’s parent company, actively promotes plumbing, heating and piping trades by supporting trade schools and apprenticeship programs at local levels with demonstration equipment, design tools and other forms of support. “We actively participate in United Association development programs to train the trainer, educating many professionals to go out into the field, delivering recruitment and skill-building sessions,” Licastro notes.
He adds that Xylem also retains membership in many industry organizations such as MCAA, Oil & Energy Service Professionals, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers ASHRAE and the Hydraulic Institute, which offer scholarships of all types. In some cases, Xylem does offer scholarships directly to its channel partners to strengthen their teams.
Rheem has donated hundreds of systems to trade schools in the last few years, Cohen says. “Rheem is very aware of the shortage of labor in skilled trades such as plumbing and HVAC, and we are engaging with partners throughout the industry to support efforts to address this shortage,” he adds.
Rinnai partners with a variety of trade schools to promote the plumbing trade. More recently, it has focused on attracting more military veterans to the plumbing and heating trades. In 2019, the manufacturer announced a partnership with Folds of Honor, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to spouses and children of wounded or deceased military service men and women.
“Rinnai has committed $250,000 of scholarship funding to Folds of Honor; however the Rinnai-funded scholarships are dedicated to trade schools only,” Federico explains. “Our goal behind this initiative is to not only provide for the families of the men and women who have bravely served our country, but also to support the challenge of the skilled labor gap our industry is facing.”
Taco donates routinely to tech schools and colleges, Barba says: “We favor those that have effective outreach among women, young students and vets. We’re an equal-opportunity trainer. We’ve had the pleasure of helping to train plenty of women and vets.”
In addition, company leadership is involved in organizations such as Women in Energy and has provided funds for Folds of Honor.
With new technological advances, installation techniques and efficiency requirements, it is imperative that PHCP contractors participate in the numerous educational opportunities offered by industry manufacturers to stay relevant in an ever-changing industry. Manufacturers are well-versed in updates to building codes and standards, so it behooves contractors to take advantage of this knowledge.
“I learned a long time ago from Dan Holohan that ‘we’re training a parade,’” Barba adds. “It’s a constantly-moving stream of people and circumstances, new technology and improved techniques. Even the demographics of who we’re training is changing. Manufacturers—and contractors—must change and adapt to keep pace, and always be aware of the market’s ever-changing nature.”
PHCP Manufacturer Training Info
Visit these websites for more detailed information on the training courses offered by the manufacturers mentioned in this article.
• Bell & Gossett’s Little Red Schoolhouse: www.bellgossettmarketing.com/schoolhouse
• CertainTeed Academy of Continuing Education: continuinged.certainteed.com
• Emerson educational services and training: www.emerson.com/en-us/automation/services-consulting/educational-services
• Greenlee’s Green Apple Labs: www.greenlee.com/us/en/green-apple-labs
• Milwaukee Tool’s Milwaukee University: go.bluevolt.com/milwaukee/s/
• Rheem Academy: www.rheemacademy.com
• Ridgid YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/user/RIDGIDtoday
• Rinnai Training Center: www.rinnai-lms.com
• Taco Comfort Solutions’ FloPro training: www.tacocomfort.com/taco-flopro-factory-training-2019-training-dates
• Uponor Academy: www.uponorpro.com/training-and-education/factory-training.aspx
• Viega Seminar Center training: www.viega.us/en/service/training.html