Soaring Temperatures, Dearth of Skilled Workers Forge Perfect Storm for HVAC Vendors

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An HVAC technician, hard at work.

Oregon’s HVAC industry struggled to keep up in record-breaking heat 

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Phones rang off the hook at Southern Oregon Heat and Air Conditioning in Medford during the final weekend in June as meteorological records melted across the state of Oregon. 

The company’s small crew worked around the clock to satisfy demand. Over the course of the weekend the company added 50 clients, but received 500 calls a day, turning many potential customers away.

“We had people calling in saying how miserable and how hot they were and I had to say, ‘Look, I feel horrible but our crew is working a  12-hour shift seven days a week,’” says Jesse Phillips, a scheduler at the heating and air conditioning company. “We could only do so much.” 

During the heatwave temperatures rose to 117 degrees in some areas of the state – leaving HVAC businesses throughout the state scrambling to keep up with a sudden demand for services. 

“There wasn’t really a buildup of service orders prior to the heat wave,” says Brian Hansen, general manager of Bull Mountain Heating & Cooling in Portland. “People weren’t prepared for the temperature and there was high stress. What happened was you got this large bubble that put a lot of stress on the industry,” Hansen says. 

In Portland, only 70% of homes have some form of air conditioning, according to data form the U.S. Census Bureau. That makes Portland one of the least air-conditioned to cities in the United State — third-to-last behind Seattle and San Francisco. 

Those with lower incomes were less likely to have AC at home, leaving many Oregonians in search of oases like cooling centers or climate-controlled – or driving to cooler parts of the state.

But not everyone was able to do so, and the results were tragic: as of Tuesday morning, public health officials  99 people across the state died of heat-related causes during the heat wave. Many, officials said, were found alone in their homes without air conditioners or fans. Hundreds of others sought emergency care as temperatures soared.

And even homes and businesses with air conditioning equipment weren’t necessarily able to get them serviced: of the five HVAC companies contacted for this article, four were no longer accepting new clients. 

That’s because the HVAC industry, like many others, is facing a staffing shortage – leaving business owners shorthanded even as their services. 

“We try to bring as many people into the industry as possible. We pay to bring in a lot of people and pay for their schooling,” Hansen says. “There’s not a lot of hands out here.” 

Hansen says he will always take and train qualified people wanting to become HVAC technicians, but that he and his colleagues around the industry are having difficulty finding enough employees. 

“Not a whole lot of people want to work out there in the heat,” says Phillips. “We lost one technician on our crew. Everyone in the industry is having trouble filling positions.” 

A 2019 report from the State Employment Department found that trade workers, including plumbers, truck drivers and maintenance workers were considered “difficult to fill positions,” unable to be staffed due to lack of qualified applicants.

According to Lou Long, apprenticeship administrator at Northwest Apprenticeship Services, Oregon’s trade worker shortage has been a long time coming.  

“For a long time, I wasn’t even allowed in high school career fairs. Everyone would push colleges and no one wanted to hear from apprenticeships and trade schools,” Long says. “Now all our journeymen are retiring and we don’t have anyone to fill that gap.”

That could mean more homeowners and landlords defer or forego basic maintenance due to lack of skilled hands. 

But that trend may also be reversing, due to COVID-19 and the rising cost of college. According to a 2020 analysis by the US Department of labor, the number of citizens apprenticeships surpassed 636,000 in 2020, a 64% increase from 10 years ago. 

President Joe Biden’s administration has also signaled support for skilled trades training: the American Jobs Plan will, if enacted, allocate $48 billion for workforce training, including the creation of “one to two million new registered apprenticeships slots.”

Apprenticeships can last up to six years, but on-the-job training and booming demand could mean a swift end for Oregon’s skilled labor shortage. 

The more lucrative trade work becomes, the more it might appeal to high school students unable or unwilling to take on large amounts of college debt. 

If the weekend’s historic heat – and climate models forecasting increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including both extreme heat and cold – are any indication, the need for reliable heating and cooling systems is only going to more critical to Oregonians in the near future. And that means demand for skilled HVAC technicians will continue to surge. 

“If there are journeymen not working it’s their own fault,” Long says. “The demand is huge.”

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