LAS VEGAS - Customer service, making sheet metal appealing to younger and minority workers, and the industry's future were the major themes at this year's Partners in Progress meeting. Hosted by the Sheet Metal Workers union and the Sheet Metal and Air-conditioning Contractors' National Association, the biennial event was held March 29-April 1 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

And HVAC contractors looking to grow their businesses might want to consider residential retrofit work.

That was the opinion of Kevin Dougherty, a construction industry consultant who spoke to attendees at a March 30 all-day session on residential retrofit work.

"In my opinion, the residential retrofit market is the most profitable in the construction industry," Dougherty said. "I truly believe that."

However, he acknowledged that it's also one of the most difficult, since it means dealing with homeowners who often don't understand what separates hard jobs from easy ones. Service technicians, some of whom may lack social skills, have to know how to treat customers.

"We have to make sure our guys are more professional than anybody else in the market," he said. "The challenge in our industry is getting our guys to sell."

And "selling" does not just refer to those who encourage homeowners to purchase a new system, he pointed out.

"Who in your company sells?" Dougherty asked the audience. Not waiting for a reply, he told them: "We all do."

The HVAC industry is facing a worker shortage, Pennsylvania college professor Andrea D. Mitnick told attendees at the Mazrch 30 seminiar on recruiting the next generation of sheet metal workers.

Sizing up your staff

With that in mind, he asked the owners in the audience to think about the people who work for them.

"Do you have people, when they show up on the job, you don't want them to?" he said. Ask yourself: If you were a customer, would you want to let them into your home?

Dougherty was sure most companies have at least a few workers they maybe wish they didn't. He said part of the problem lies in the way the HVAC industry tries to attract employees.

"We're still trying to recruit people the same way we did 25 years ago," he said. Even worse, many companies don't train the workers. "A lot of us say, ‘I don't want to train my guys because they'll leave me.' "

Such thinking is part of the reason 18- to 26-year-olds, who make up the majority of new workers, have abandoned construction for other industries, such as technology.

Young workers today are different, Dougherty said. He drew a chart to demonstrate the differences between 25-year-olds in 1980 and those of today.

In 1980, he said, the average 25-year-old man was married with children and owned a house. His priorities were work, family and fun - in that order. In 2006, the typical 25-year-old is unmarried and lives with his parents. He now feels fun comes first, followed by family and finally, work.

Companies have to account for these differences if they want to attract young people, he said.

However, getting good workers is only part of the solution, Dougherty added. You also have to improve customer service. If your service is superior, oftentimes you can charge more, he said. He compared it to the hotel industry. The guest experience - and room rate - is very different at a Marriott than a Motel 6, although both are very popular and good at what they do.

"I don't think people mind paying extra if they're going to get something extra," he said.

Dougherty gave an example from the grocery industry. In Virginia, where he lives, Dougherty said a small grocery chain always has prices 2 percent or 3 percent higher than competitors - and always has more business.

The reason, he said, is customer service. The managers know the names of regular shoppers and what they like.

The industry also has to overcome perceptions that it is hostile to women and minorities, said the University of Kentucky's William F. Maloney.

A future problem

If the opinions of those who spoke at a March 30 seminar are any indication, "Recruiting the Future Workforce" is going to be a problem.

Construction in general, and the sheet metal industry in particular, is facing a worker crisis that threatens its survival, according to Kutztown University professor Andrea D. Mitnick, Ph.D., and William F. Maloney, Ph.D., from the University of Kentucky.

"Whether we like it or not, the world in which we live is changing radically," Mitnick said.

Part of it is that society and high school counselors pressure students to go to college, they said. The other problem is too many people in construction - including many of those at the seminar, apparently - don't want their children to enter the industry.

As a professor at a Pennsylvania university, Mitnick says she has seen many students forced into college during her 32 years of teaching.

"(College) is not the answer for so many children I've seen," she said. "Half of them probably shouldn't be there."

Maloney agreed. Echoing comments he made at last year's SMACNA convention in California, Maloney blamed a "societal focus on college."

He cited results from the Jobs Rated Almanac, a ranking of 250 jobs from best to worst, which graded careers on earnings potential, growth, working conditions and other factors. Maloney said the book's top jobs were biologist, actuary and financial planner. The bottom three were cowboy, fisherman and lumberjack.

"And this was before ‘Brokeback Mountain,'" he quipped.

Construction consultant Kevin Dougherty told attendees of the Partners in Progress conference they need to improve customer service to succeed, especially if they perform residential HVAC service.

Sheet metal worker was in there, he added - at No. 227. Other construction jobs had similar ratings.

"People don't know your occupation, and that's a problem," Maloney said.

With such perceptions, it's all the more important that the construction industry reaches out to women, young people and minorities, he said.

"We've got to make people aware of what we do," he said. "To say ‘we hang duct' is a gross understatement of this industry."

Maloney suggested those in sheet metal should volunteer to be Boy Scout merit badge counselors to teach classes on related subjects like metalworking. That would allow them to foster an understanding and interest in the industry with young people.

He also criticized the sheet metal industry's existing recruitment programs, saying they need to do more to attract women. For many women, a job in construction offers a chance at a better life, Maloney said.

"If you're a woman who can work in construction and likes it," you can earn a lot more than someone who works for $8 an hour as a cashier, he said.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.