During the last decade, the trade press has reported numerous efforts by industry organizations to step up technician recruitment. Dazzling literature and videos have been produced. Women and minorities have been targeted. Recruiters have reached out to college graduates and potential career changers. Yet, although there are pockets of success, there's little sign these efforts have made much progress overall in supplying talent to the sheet metal industry



This is part two of Jim Olsztynski's three-column series on changes in the HVAC and sheet metal industries. Part one ran in the March issue of SNIPS.

During the last decade, the trade press has reported numerous efforts by industry organizations to step up technician recruitment.

Dazzling literature and videos have been produced. Women and minorities have been targeted. Recruiters have reached out to college graduates and potential career changers. Yet, although there are pockets of success, there's little sign these efforts have made much progress overall in supplying talent to the sheet metal industry. Contractors almost unanimously cite a shortage of skilled or trainable technicians as their biggest business problem. Something is lacking that transcends the recruiting effort.

The consolidators promised to create companies with the resources to make HVAC careers more attractive. They talked of boosting pay and benefits, 401(k) and profit-sharing plans, lavish training programs and advancement opportunities. They fizzled out before any of this happened.

However, the organizations that represent independent contractors haven't done much to resolve the problem, either. The shortage of skilled plumbing, sheet metal and HVAC technicians remains the industry's festering wound.

One ramification is the trend for replacing - rather than repairing - HVAC systems. Diagnostic and repair skills usually take years of field experience to master. It's easier to teach installation and replacement to novices. Manufacturers are going along with this trend by increasingly designing their products with modular components that are easy to change.

Lack of skill

Diminished trade skill is only partly to blame. It's a continuation of our throwaway society. We live in an era of disposable TVs and other electronic goods that cost more to repair than replace. So it is increasingly with faucets, garbage disposals and many other plumbing products. How can anyone justify spending half a day to track down an ancient faucet stem when it takes a half-hour to put in a snazzy new faucet that will function for the next 20 years?

Unfortunately, the replacement mentality contributes to a devaluation of trade labor. A handyman of modest experience can replace most faucets and fixtures about as effectively as a veteran journeyman plumber, but at a fraction of the price.

Traditional plumbing and HVAC companies also have been hurt by the breakdown of distribution channels. Nowadays, consumers can buy almost any industry product from someone other than a contractor. TV commercials for plumbing products were rare a decade ago. Now they are routine in major media markets. Each one erodes the value of the professional plumber in consumers' minds.

It's old news that the big-box merchandisers have taken sales away from contractors. The big threat ahead is from their installation and repair services. The big boxes have stumbled around for about a decade, hiring out installation and repairs to independent contractors, but have left too many unsatisfied customers along the way. They don't necessarily want the headaches that go along with managing trade labor, but as long as the customers who buy their merchandise are in need of these services, they feel obligated to provide them. Increasingly, these stores are starting to hire their own crews.

Casting a Web

The Internet has now been accessible to most consumers for a decade. It's past the novelty stage. More and more goods get purchased over the Internet, and home improvement Web sites like ServiceMagic.com, HouseDoctors.com and MrHandyman.com now book millions of service calls each year over the Internet. Some get funneled to licensed firms, but handymen get a share of this business as well.

Moreover, the Internet offers a vast array of information about plumbing products and service firms. Internet-based referral services, such as Angie's List, operate in many markets. Some have message boards where consumers can share experiences - mostly bad ones - about service providers.

In the old days, when someone had a plumbing problem, he or she would automatically call the trusted neighborhood plumber or turn to the Yellow Pages. Today, more and more folks have taken to Google.com, and that trend is accelerating.

Next time we'll take another look at the consolidation movement.