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Investing in Next Wave of Trades Workers and Technology
Published Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Ciardelli Fuel employee works on pipes in the field. Courtesy photo.

This past election cycle brought blue collar workforce issues into the forefront of the national conversation. Whether due to manufacturing facilities relocating to Mexico or China or automation replacing workers with machines or the coal industry’s losing battle with renewable energy, working class employees have seen job opportunities thin over the past few decades.

But opportunities abound in other blue-collar industries, particularly trade contractors like electricians, HVAC technicians and plumbers. After all, a company can’t send a robot to fix faulty wiring, a broken furnace or a clogged toilet—at least not yet.

Despite steady work, the mechanical trades are facing a different workforce problem. As trade companies scramble to replace an aging workforce, they’re stalled by the next generation’s disinterest in their offerings. It's a dilemma that’s only projected to worsen in the coming decade.

To ameliorate the situation, NH tradespeople are investing in programs aimed at convincing younger workers of the value and necessity of the trades and  preparing them for evolving technology and consumer expectations.

Competing with College
Workforce shortage in the trades is also the single greatest challenge for the manufacturers and distributors serving the mechanical trades, says William Condron, president and CEO of the Granite Group in Concord, a wholesale distributor of plumbing, heating, cooling and water supplies. He says a shortage of technicians in the industry means less people are buying his products, which in turn affects the demand for those products from manufacturers.

William Condron, president and CEO of the Granite Group in Concord. Photo by Matthew J. Mowry.

That’s why finding talent is a priority for employers at all levels of the industry, says Condron. He says employers have run into waning interest in the trades among students who’ve set their sights on attending college.

“It’s no secret that labor has been an issue for the last 15 years,” says Charles Hall, president of J. Lawrence Hall in Nashua, a commercial and industrial HVAC and plumbing contractor. “Baby Boomers are retiring, and we need motivated young people to get involved. But when people think of higher education, they’re not considering trade schools. Parents want to push their kids towards college.”

This is a particularly challenging issue in a “college-push state” like NH, says Alan Davis, owner and president of HR Clough in Contoocook, an HVAC service provider. As chair of the Oil Heat Council of NH in Concord and secretary of the New England Fuel Institute in Massachusetts, Davis has spent years working closely with the industry on recruitment efforts.

Davis says the labor force struggles are like being “on a one-way street going the wrong way.” He says the average mechanical trades technician is in their mid-50s, and for every 20 people that retire, the industry adds one young person.

Lack of Tech Schools
New Hampshire’s lack of technical high schools exacerbates this issue. Davis cites Vermont as the leader in high school recruitment for the industry in New England—the state’s 17 stand-alone technical high schools allow companies to work with freshmen and sophomores to help guide them down a trade path of their choice. But in NH, Davis says there are only six regional tech schools, which makes it difficult for companies to connect with kids of an impressionable age.

“We don’t typically have a good shot at them unless they decide to go to a tech school or into a two-year degree program,” says Davis. “There’s a program at Manchester Community College, but they only graduate 20 or so people a year, and I can’t even tell you how many job openings there are.”

Projections from NH Employment Security indicate job openings will outpace hires over the next decade. Per a 2016 report from the agency, the average annual openings for the mechanical trades are 61 jobs for electricians; 23 jobs for HVAC mechanics and installers; and 37 jobs for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters.

If these numbers hold steady, they’ll quickly surpass the number of jobs these industries will add by 2024, leaving a total of 930 vacancies.

Davis says the Oil Heat Council has tried unsuccessfully to partner with the NH Department of Education on recruiting efforts in schools. They now advise businesses to partner with schools and students directly through high school job fairs or open houses.

Investing in Training
Mechanical trade employers emphasize  on-the-job training and mentoring. Licensing varies significantly by sector, though each requires a high school diploma or equivalent as well as a combination of classroom courses and a set number of hours for on-the-job training.

Complete training for an HVAC technician requires 1,000 hours of field work and a 60-hour course for a gas piping license; 1,000 more hours of field experience and a 40-hour course for an equipment/venting installer license; and another 40-hour course for a gas service technician license.

Journeymen electricians must go through a four-year apprenticeship, which includes 8,000 hours of training and work experience under the supervision of a journeyman or master electrician as well as 576 hours of classroom education. Licensing for journeymen plumbers also requires 8,000 hours of supervised work and 150 hours of classroom instruction for every year of the four-year apprenticeship period as well as the 10-hour construction OSHA course.

Jim Fusco, a supervisor and trainer for the trades since 1982, saw a need to create an affordable option for the industry and launched Granite State Trade School in Raymond in 2006, the first independent trade school approved in NH.

The school offers two-year electrical, HVAC and plumbing programs, resulting in 300 hours of classroom education by the end of the course. Fusco adds that the $6,800 for two years is about half the cost of a similar program at a community college.

Fusco says the school grows 5 percent annually and enrolls about 40 students in each of its programs. He says about 70 percent of students come from local contractors.

Though Joy LeBlanc, CEO of A.J. Leblanc Heating in Bedford, admits she prefers hiring a licensed technician over someone with no experience, the industry’s workforce challenges have forced the company to change their thinking. Many hires must be trained, which, she adds, is a significant investment. And while the company will pay to train new workers, they require that employees stay with the company for a year after they finish training or reimburse the company for the cost of their education.

From left: Nancy LeBlanc, Joy LeBlanc, Samantha Savoie and Bryan Savoie of A.J. LeBlanc Heating in Bedford. Photo by Christine Carignan.

Along with formal training and licensing, companies like Ciardelli Fuel Company in Milford emphasize internal mentoring programs that pair seasoned staff with new recruits. Vice President Andrew Ciardelli says, “there’s nothing that teaches better than on-the-job training,” which is why the company has transferred older technicians into teacher and supervisor roles to help them transition into retirement while also supplementing the younger technician’s education with their experience.

From left: Andrew Ciardelli, VP; and Matt Ciardelli, president of Ciardelli Fuel in Milford. Courtesy photo.

“Some of our people have given us 20 years of their careers, and we want to incorporate them into training the next generation,” says Matthew Ciardelli, president of the company.

Training Challenges
However, not every experienced worker wants to train the next generation. Fusco says one of Granite State Trade School’s biggest challenges is finding qualified educators. “People our age don’t really want to work again once they’ve retired, and people midway through their career who might be effective teachers don’t want to leave their jobs,” he says.

And while medium and large companies can afford to invest in training, small businesses can’t expend the same resources. David Boyd, president of Federal Piping in Freedom, says most of the other plumbing companies in the Carroll County area are one-man shops, most of which don’t want to deal with the process of hiring and training an apprentice. “An apprentice isn’t making you any money; you’re investing money into him in hopes he’ll help grow your business one day,” says Boyd. “But for all you know, he might go off on his own after his apprenticeship is done.”

Even so, Boyd says plumbers have an obligation to pass their experience to help preserve their trade. “It’s a selfish act on their part, because someone had to train them at one point,” he adds. “What’s going to happen when they retire and bring all the knowledge with them? Who’s going to train the next generation?”

However, Boyd also expresses concerns about the next wave of workers. When he was looking to hire two new apprentices, Boyd says he interviewed one to three kids a week from May through August before finding two quality candidates, adding that many applicants either didn’t respond to his follow up or declined an offer after being asked to take a drug test.

“I know there are kids out there who want it, but I think the majority of them can’t make the commitment,” says Boyd. “These kids with skinny jeans and man buns aren’t cutting it. You have to get out of your mom’s basement and go out and work so you can put food on the table.”

Jim Howard, home systems advisor at Rowell’s Services in Northfield, which offers electric, HVAC, plumbing and septic services, says drugs have been an issue for NH’s workforce for years. He adds that this is as much an issue among younger workers as it is among people in their 50s.“[Rowell’s] has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to drug use,” says Howard. “We don’t want someone who takes drugs driving one of our $100,000 vehicles or going into someone’s home.”

Mandie Rowell-Hagan, owner of the company, adds that technicians often service customers’ homes when they’re not there, which is why it’s important for them to be able to hire trustworthy employees who can provide customers with peace of mind. “I never want a customer to call and tell me ‘I had $100 on my counter and after you came it was gone,’” she says.

Embracing the Future of Trades
The workforce outlook is not entirely bleak. William Glennon, president of the Plumbers, Fuel Gas Fitters and HVAC Association of NH in Manchester, says there are good candidates for the mechanical trades as evidenced during his time teaching at two schools in Manchester.  

“You see these new kids coming in with tattoos and piercings, and you think ‘what are we getting into? Where is this trade going?’” says Glennon. “But it’s just like when I was a kid and my parents didn’t like long hair. Once you get to know them, you find out these are good kids who are going to be good workers.”

What does concern Glennon is an effort from the NH legislature to address workforce needs by adjusting training requirements to shorten the licensing time line.

He says HB298 would condense requirements for journeyman plumbers from four to three years. “Education is the key to improving as a tradesman,” says Glennon. “We can’t sacrifice quality for quantity just to get more tradesmen out in the field. You don’t go into someone’s house to work with only half-knowledge.”

Glennon acknowledges the industry is always changing, which is why workers in every sector of the mechanical trades must take a training course whenever building codes are updated.

Condron of the Granite Group says continuing education is important as customer expectations change. Over the past few years, he says former luxuries like central air have become standard.

Whether it’s energy efficient appliances or heat systems consumers can monitor on their phone, Condron says the popularity and expectations around new technology require contractors to keep current.

“Tradesmen have always had to be sharp technical people, and now there’s a whole new layer added since they have to keep up on the cutting edge of technology,” says Condron.

Customer expectations have also inspired businesses to diversify their services. Ciardelli Fuel Company now offers a “full gamut of HVAC services,” says Andrew  Ciardelli. The company now hires and trains technicians and cross trains some of its drivers to provide technician services.

“Customers like the convenience of being able to call one company,” says Matthew Ciardelli. “If you’re not staying ahead of the curve, you’re going to lose out.”

Rowell-Hagan of Rowell’s Services was of the same mindset when she added electrical, HVAC and plumbing to her business last year. The company had focused on septic and drain cleaning, but after two slow winters, she decided they had to change to even out the work flow year round.

“If you’re consistently getting calls about a service you don’t provide, there’s a good chance it would be a worthwhile service to invest in,” says Rowell-Hagan.

It’s that emphasis on service that Condron says will always keep good tradespeople working. “A lot of these tradespeople live and work in the communities they serve, and their business relies on offering a good service and word of mouth," he says. “For many of them, the family name is the name of their company, so they have to maintain a high level of quality because they’re building their business off the integrity of their name. That type of dedication isn’t something you can outsource or do over the internet.”

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