I wonder if Generation Y is becoming the “new mold” for the HVAC industry.

I don’t mean to imply that younger workers in their twenties are something to be avoided, killed with chemicals or likely to be the subject of costly litigation. I’m referring to the popularity of the topic at trade show seminars.

A few years ago, discussions on mold and its legal ramifications were on the agenda of almost every convention Snips attended.

In the late 1990s, after mold infestations in a few high-rise buildings around the country were blamed in part on shoddy workmanship, the number of lawsuits ensnarling anyone who ever worked near anywhere mold was spotted grew like, well, mold.

The result, besides a lot of scared contractors with skyrocketing insurance rates, were convention schedules packed with lawyers and other experts on the mold menace. Some claimed it was all a media-fueled hoax while others blamed lawyers - no surprise - for coming up with so many alleged “victims.”

And pretty soon, a few trade shows had exhibitors offering products and franchises designed to help contractors make money removing the evil substance.

Mold cases certainly haven’t gone away, but their popularity as an educational session topic has waned.

The next wave

Discussions over the growing numbers of younger workers appears poised to replace them. In the last year or so, I’ve attended several sessions on the attributes of Generation Y, sometimes called “echo boomers” or “millennials,” since many came of age around the year 2000.

Roughly born between 1980 and 1994, the oldest of this generation has been in the full-time work force for several years, and demographers and pundits have begun to draw conclusions about them and their work habits.

And with the HVAC and sheet metal industry perpetually fretting over the worker shortage expected to hit in coming years as older workers retire, many are looking to this generation to fill the expected void.

The subject has certainly kept Robert Wendover busy. The director of the Center for Generational Studies in Aurora, Colo., has given a lot of discussions about the Y generation and been featured in radio and TV interviews on the subject. He recently spoke at the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s annual convention (See “Heating, cooling and counter-terrorism,” May 2008) and was part of a panel discussion at a Sheet Metal Workers union and Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association-sponsored event in Las Vegas in April.

Change

Wendover says employers have to change their expectations if they hope to attract the next generation of workers. They’re not as likely to be loyal, long-term employees and are probably going to put family first if you ask them to work overtime.

“Recognize that the overall tenure in your organization is going to drop,” he told the MCAA. “These individuals are in a very different place.”

And that place may be hard for some older contractors to accept, if what happened at a 2004 Air Conditioning Contractors of America convention in New Orleans is any indication. As I wrote at the time, a session on what recent college or trade school graduates are looking for from employers quickly became a case of older workers criticizing the panel’s 20- to 22-year-olds for “wanting what it took their parents 30 years to get” (See “Contractors in the Crescent City,” July 2004).

It seems as if there are going to have to be a lot more discussions on this issue if the generation gap in the sheet metal shop is every going to be bridged.