No mystery why it's so hard to attract qualified people to the sheet metal and HVAC industry.

There's the image problem of hard and dirty work. There's the school counselor problem of directing only losers toward trade careers. There's the must-go-to-college mentality, even among those in the industry. In a recent speech, Bob Fitzgerald, president of the Mechanical Contractors of America, acknowledged that "we do not see many of our journeymen encouraging their children to come into the trades; they encourage their children to go to college."

Then there's the demographic problem. The emerging work force is populated largely by minorities historically excluded from the skilled trades, and thus from the family traditions that perpetuated the trades in the past.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and like mothers everywhere, she has a lot of work to do. Somehow, the unionized trades must increase apprenticeship enrollment by more than 40 percent over the next three years to meet projected demand and make up for a wave of retirements, according to Fitzgerald. That's a tall order and may yet prove impossible to meet.

But nobody can accuse them of not trying. The United Association and its contractor employers have devised a number of creative programs to boost union-trade ranks. Examples:

  • Helmets to Hardhats is a AFL-CIO program that aims at recruiting military veterans, who can enter at various levels of a trade depending on experience and capabilities.

  • The UA has partnered with a number of community colleges to offer college credit towards an associate's degree for pipe-trades apprentices.

  • The UA and its bargaining partners are spending more than $2 million a year on recruitment advertising, ranging from radio spots to ballpark billboards to putting a logo on Rusty Wallace's NASCAR auto.

    Local action

    Interesting things are happening at the local level as well. For instance, the Mechanical Contractors Association of New Jersey helped organize a construction industry career fair that attracted more than 3,000 young people to last spring's two-day event. Visit www.hvac-chicago.com to get a glimpse of a campaign by MCA of Chicago to recruit experienced nonunion service technicians.

    Nonunion contractors need people just as badly but have a much harder sell. After grabbing large chunks of market share from the 1960s through 80s, nonunion contractors were unable to kill off union construction altogether. The reason is they never had any training programs remotely comparable to the union training centers. The result is a two-tiered industry.

    The more difficult the work, the more likely it is that a union contractor will land the job. By most reckoning, union contractors still do 60 percent to 70 percent of industrial construction, while nonunion contractors dominate the cost-sensitive residential and commercial markets that comprise the majority of construction spending.

    Nonunion pipe-trade journeyman wages now average around $18 an hour nationwide, according to PAS Inc. That projects to around $36,000 in annual income. That's about two-thirds of the average union journeyman's wages, and less than half what many of them earn when projects are humming with overtime. (When I first started writing about construction 25 years ago, union wages were about double that of nonunion. Market forces have narrowed the gap somewhat.)

    Even recruiting people to the union side is not an easy sell. Sheet metal remains hard work, unglamorous and a foreign culture to a large segment of today's labor market. Handsome pay and benefits at least offer a fighting chance of recruiting top talent.

    But what powers of persuasion do contractors have for jobs paying $36,000 a year? Talented young people can make that much tending bar, waiting tables, delivering packages or in dozens of other occupations that have better status and more pleasant working conditions than most of the jobs offered in the construction industry.

    It may not be rocket science, but the average HVAC technician is still a skilled trade worker - or ought to be. They can't be plucked off the street and trained overnight. Our industry needs a lot more of them than the elite workers. Yet, low pay coupled with low status has degraded the lower tier of the trade to the point where very few talented youngsters see it as an attractive career option.

    Where will tomorrow's workers come from and how can they be adequately compensated for their skills? Does anyone have answers?

    (Jim Olsztynski - pronounced Ol-stin-ske - is editor of SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES, a sister publication of Snips. He can be reached at (630) 694-4006, or e-mail wrdwzrd@aol.com.)