This is the worst U.S. job market in decades, yet every HVAC contractor has trouble finding technicians. What’s going to happen when we get a real economic recovery? If we don’t take action, the HVAC industry will be in real trouble.

The thing is, as an industry we offer extremely attractive job opportunities. Ours is a growth industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for 21% more technicians in the coming decade.

The great news is HVAC jobs are lucrative. Good performers can make a six figure income. HVAC jobs are secure. An air conditioning repair cannot be outsourced to India or China. Unfortunately, no one knows about us.

So whose fault is that?

Ours, of course!

The good news is that the HVAC industry can rally. We’ve done it before. Back in the 1990s, concerned about a possible government technician certification program being forced upon us, the industry came together to form the North American Technician Excellence program (NATE). When this led to a gold rush of certification where associations formed their own programs, the late publisher of Contracting Business.com magazine, Jeff Forker brought all parties together to help make NATE the industry standard.

Can the industry manage a similar effort to promote the industry? Absolutely!

What would such a coalition do? Here are six initiatives:

Reach out to schools

There are innovative school programs where high school students effectively attend trade school to earn their high school diplomas. These should be lauded, modeled, and promoted around the country.

We should also sell HVAC careers to guidance counselors. Present HVAC like a private sector G.I. Bill. Learn the trade, start making money, and then if it’s important to you, pursue your four-year degree part time and debt free. If the job market’s weak, you will always have the trade to fall back on.

Reach out to veterans

The military is downsizing to pre-World War II levels. This will result in a lots of veterans with G.I. Bills looking for new careers. As an industry, we should work with the Department of Defense to sell them on the HVAC careers for veterans.

Reach out to the unemployed. In January the U-3 unemployment rate (total unemployed as a percent of the civilian labor force — the official unemployment rate) hit 6.6%, despite “disappointing” job growth numbers because U-3 doesn’t count people who are so discouraged they quit looking for work. The U-6 rate does and it stands at 12.7%.

I know a 57-year-old real-estate agent who recently graduated from an air conditioning trade school. Ten contractors wanted to talk with him and three offered him a job. What worked for him can work for thousands more.

Reach out to minorities and women.

I’ve written about this before (“Is the HVAC Industry Racist?” in this magazine in March 2005). As an industry we do a poor job recruiting minorities and women into our field. A quarter of our labor force is black or Hispanic. Just over half are women.

Lobby the government

Unemployment insurance has traditionally lasted 26 weeks, but stood at 99 weeks for most of the “great recession,” proving once again that when you subsidize something you get more of it. Though scaled back, many in Washington seek a return to the full 99 weeks. What about a compromise? Make unemployment insurance beyond 26 weeks contingent upon attendance at a trade or technical school (any trade). HVAC would get its share, as would other trades desperate for people.

Create an employment clearinghouse

Work with the existing companies in HVAC employment field to create a clearinghouse for people seeking to learn more about the industry, people seeking to offer themselves up for employment, and employers seeking technicians, customer service reps, salespeople, managers, and manufacturer factory workers.

Solving our industry’s labor shortage can’t be done by one person or group. It will require a broad concerted effort.

I’m in.

If your organization wants to step up, contact me. Let’s get to work.

Matt Michel, CEO, The ServiceRoundtable.comFor more immediate solutions for individual companies, register now for the International Roundtable in Las Vegas, April 15-18. The focus will be on hiring and retaining employees. Non-Service Roundtable members are welcome for an additional $50. Call 877.262.3341 to learn more.

Matt Michel is CEO of the Service Roundtable (ServiceRoundtable.com). The Service Roundtable is an organization founded to help contractors improve their sales, marketing, operations, and profitability. Call toll free: 877/262-3341 for more information about how to join.