Addressing the Labor Crisis in the Residential HVAC Industry

Written by Jim Bergmann

January 23, 2024

A Framework For Immediate Workforce Solutions

Solving The HVAC Labor Crisis With A New Workforce Framework

This time last year, you probably read my rant about how we’ll never achieve our electrification goals without addressing the damaging approaches that run rampant in our trade. It’s easy to point fingers, and I don’t want to be that guy, so I’m trying to do something about it instead.

At measureQuick, we’ve been obsessing over this problem for years, and now we’re ready to unveil our unique solution to the world.

Our Workforce Woes: A Skills Gap, A Labor Gap, or… The Wrong Approach?

We’re staring down a labor shortage of 80,000 and climbing. This deficit, coupled with a stark skills gap, has generated inefficiencies across the board – from installation woes to maintenance missteps. But what if we’re looking at it wrong?

Our industry is extremely resistant to change, with business models, technical practices, and a social structure that haven’t kept pace with the rest of the developed world. As leaders of the industry, we toil daily to bring about a transition based on training excellence, but it often feels like pushing a rope. There are still too many HVAC businesses built on a foundation of assumptions, fear, and inexperience servicing homes across our country.

There are still too many HVAC businesses entrenched in what has traditionally worked and not recognizing that we’re in the midst of major changes. The changes are occurring just slowly enough to not trigger immediate action, like the boiling frog fable. We seem stuck in a rut of “like for like” replacement and fixing low efficiency equipment that may be an ideal candidate for electrification. 

But change is coming, and we are in a short window where we have a choice:

Do we continue our painful path of hiring and training, or do we stop treating the symptom and address the source of our pain – our approach?

I don’t know about you, but I’m done with doing the same thing over and over again.

The HVAC Industry Has Embodied The Definition Of Insanity

It’s Not A Crisis – It’s an Endemic

Many of us talk about the labor shortage and skills gap as a crisis, but that’s not the correct term we should be using. A crisis is “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger” – a temporary and severe disruption to business as usual. Our “crisis” has persisted for over a decade, and we haven’t found a solution yet.

We are in an endemic. Our industry has a disease that we have learned to cope with, but not cure.

Its clear to me that our current forms of treatment aren’t working, because we’re focused on the symptoms. We need to get to the root of our ailment to find the source of our pain.

The Source Of Our Labor Endemic

Our HVAC Workforce Is Overworked And Under-Incentivized

1: Our Workforce Structure Problem

The roles in HVAC haven’t changed much in the last few decades, but the demands put upon them have dramatically shifted, especially for front line workers. There is critical work that is impacting system efficiency and longevity to do which is never getting done, and it’s because we are forcing that responsibility onto an unwilling, overtaxed, and under-incentivized workforce.

  • HVAC Designers/Sales: Stuck in the rut of the free quote, these roles often fall short in actualizing energy efficient designs. Simple box swaps, still thinking gas is the best or only option for heating, and not talking about long term energy use versus simple up front costs are leading to suboptimal energy use and diminished system performance.
  • HVAC Installers: Key players in actualizing designs, yet often trapped in a cycle of speed over substance, missing critical system optimization steps.
  • HVAC Service Technicians: Frontline problem-solvers, yet often caught in a loop of symptomatic fixes, more often than not overlooking root causes and compromising system longevity and efficiency.

At the heart of it, the industry is missing the concerted focus on thorough system design, commissioning, and meticulous maintenance. This gap is more than a missed revenue opportunity – it’s a roadblock to enhancing efficiency, profitability, and electrification efforts.

2: Our Workforce Skills Problem

The 3 hardest elements of residential HVAC for technicians to get right are: design, airflow analysis, quality installation (including refrigerant charging). These intricate tasks are often overlooked by our workforce, burdened by an outdated incentive system and a reluctance to adopt new methods. The reality is stark: most technicians lack essential tools for even basic measurements like airflow, temperature, humidity, and static pressure.

Residential HVAC Technicians Are Not Equipped For The Future

Adding to the challenge, key metrics such as airflow and refrigerant charge are constantly changing with load, making one-time measurements unreliable. It’s common for new installations to operate with factory-set charges, leading to inefficient systems. This skill gap is significant – we estimate that less than than 5% of technicians are fully trained, a concern supported by DOE studies.

Our HVAC Education Cannot Keep Up With Technology

3: Our Workforce Education Problem

Traditional HVAC training, deeply entrenched in trade schools and ongoing education, plays a crucial role in developing industry expertise. However, amidst rapid industry advancements, these methods are struggling to keep up. 

We recognize and commend the dedicated educators, influencers, and trainers striving to evolve within these constraints. Their efforts are pivotal, but the reality is, a more substantial, swift overhaul is essential. Our current system of apprenticeship often reinforces old outdated techniques and bad habits. Modern tools like smart probes, digital gauges, oversized evacuation hoses and new techniques are ridiculed as being not needed. Technology is changing faster than we can teach it. The industry’s shift towards high-tech, sustainable solutions demands a broader, more agile response to bridge the widening skill gap and align with modern HVAC demands.

How do we address these pressing issues promptly when traditional educational and training systems are inherently slow to adapt?

Are trade schools or heavy-handed regulations going to solve this problem in time? We don’t think so.

Thus, at measureQuick we have developed an alternative approach which will compliment our existing front-line professionals and provide them with some much needed support to ensure #betterHVAC outcomes. 

Our Businesses Are Not Prepared For Digital Transformation

The Wave of Technology Coming For the HVAC Industry

But now, the tide is turning.

Cutting-edge technologies, once exclusive to labs or industrial settings, are becoming accessible and affordable:

  • Mobile Device Integration: Our industry’s processes are now streamlined into the devices (compact computers) we carry daily.
  • Tablet-based LiDAR: With innovations from Conduit Tech, HVAC designs are simplified – LiDAR scanners in tablets enable accurate system design, and fast room by room measurement quickly isolating  and accounting for elements like windows and doors.  soon to be integrated with FSM and commissioning software.
  • Bluetooth-Connected Tools: wirelessly connected probes, manifolds, etc facilitate precise measurements, revolutionizing the traditional toolset. But without a platform like measureQuick, they are just a slightly improved interface to an analog tool.
  • Advanced Airflow Sensors: Tools like The Energy Conservatory’s revolutionary TrueFlow Grid offer accurate and repeatable airflow measurements, bypassing the limitations of manual methods.
  • Integrated Commissioning Software: This is the linchpin, synthesizing data, sensor readings, and Bluetooth tools in real-time for unprecedented system benchmarking. measureQuick is one example, but even PNNL has created an open source tool for accessible commissioning.
  • Real Time Data Integration: Synchronizing field measurements, photos, and metadata from the field to a design, sales or technical support assistant is now possible in real time. We can better leverage our best people in ways that were never possible.

Despite these hardware and software advancements, the industry lags in fully harnessing this technological evolution. The cost of equipping every technician and the time required for training are significant hurdles. Moreover, a deep-seated resistance to change within our proud blue-collar culture persists. The solution is found in a fresh approach:

Let’s apply these technological breakthroughs to a new breed of workforce, one that’s ready to redefine HVAC efficiency and effectiveness with advanced tools and an untainted perspective.

Introducing New Roles to Revitalize the HVAC Industry

measureQuick proposes two pivotal roles for the industry:

The Tech-Efficiency Specialist Powered By measureQuick
The Advanced Residential Commissioning Specialist Powered By measureQuick

Advanced Residential Commissioning Specialists (ARCS).

These roles are designed to address the immediate needs of the market while complementing the current workforce. Union or non-union workers, these professionals are desperately needed.

What follows is our overview of the TES & ARCS roles, along with their responsibilities, training requirements, how they compliment our current workforce, and how measureQuick can help make these roles a reality.

Introducing Tech-Efficiency Specialists (TES) 

TES professionals are revolutionizing routine HVAC maintenance by optimizing system operations and targeting potential upgrades. They serve a crucial role in ensuring systems are not just efficient, but also aligned with modern, sustainable energy practices. This role is vital for existing service contract customers and those considering electrification.

  • Role Overview: TES experts are at the forefront of enhancing homeowners’ heating and cooling experiences. They bridge the gap between homeowners and contractors, focusing on system efficiency and sustainability.
  • Responsibilities: TES duties include identifying systems ready for electrification or replacement during routine maintenance checks, thereby addressing issues usually discovered in emergencies. They advocate for energy-efficient solutions, playing a key role in transforming maintenance into an opportunity for system improvement and profitable installations.

Introducing Advanced Residential Commissioning Specialists (ARCS) 

ARCS are the vanguards of quality in HVAC system installation, focusing on post-installation inspections and commissioning. Their expertise ensures new systems meet industry standards and operate as intended, embodying reliability and efficiency.

  • Role Overview: ARCS ensure newly installed HVAC systems are finely tuned to design specifications. Their work is crucial in validating system performance and efficiency.
  • Responsibilities: ARCS are responsible for duct leakage testing, precise evacuation, airflow adjustment, and accurately setting the refrigerant charge. They ensure peak system efficiency, contributing significantly to system longevity and reliability. In essence, ARCS aim to minimize service needs, focusing on standard preventive maintenance and ensuring systems operate flawlessly in their initial years.

Complementing the Current Workforce

A New Workforce To Compliment The Old Workforce

Both TES and ARCS, rooted in digital technology, address the pressing needs of the residential HVAC market. They represent new, community-centric pillars, offering solutions to the industry’s labor endemic and skill gap, only requiring a small subset of the traditional HVAC skills. 

These roles are two new specialists in an industry full of generalists.

There is no need to disrupt the current workforce, instead we must compliment our front-line workers with much needed support.

  • Bridging the Skills Divide: TES and ARCS excel in optimizing systems, advocating for energy efficiency, and pioneering sustainable practices.
  • Elevating Service Quality: TES and ARCS ensure a comprehensive approach, from the initial system assessment to meticulous commissioning, guaranteeing superior performance and heightened customer satisfaction.
  • Data-Driven Advancements: TES and ARCS are at the forefront of harnessing diagnostic data to inform strategies for HVAC companies, municipalities, and policymakers, fostering informed decision-making and industry-wide benefits.

These workers do not need to know every intimate solution to every problem they may encounter. They only need to know how to use the technology to get the data to the solution providers. This is the secret of the shortened training cycle.

It’s all about better leveraging the existing workforce!

Impact on the Market

By implementing these roles, we expect that the benefits will be numerous to all stakeholders.

  • Bypassing Barriers: By adopting these roles, we bypass the need for extensive retraining of existing service technicians, installers and salespeople, mitigating the need to take them out of the field for retraining.
  • Optimized Investment: By equipping TES and ARCS with specialized tools, we achieve a higher return on investment and more consistent outcomes, rather than distributing several thousand dollars worth of seldom-used tools in each service truck.
  • Cultural Harmony: Introducing new talent pools, unburdened by conventional industry norms, mitigates cultural resistance, smoothly integrating change into a proud industry.
  • Boosting System Performance: TES and ARCS are the key to enhancing HVAC system efficiency, translating into energy savings and reduced costs for consumers.
  • Championing Green Initiatives: Their precise installation and commissioning efforts align with the industry’s push towards electrification and sustainable practices, marking a new era in HVAC evolution.
  • Solidifying Consumer Confidence: Their expertise in efficiency and sustainable solutions not only fortifies consumer trust but also fosters lasting relationships. This approach not only lowers customer acquisition costs but also amplifies company value in the long run.

Training Requirements

While TES are trained in basic electrical and mechanical safety, they are maintenance specialists with an eye for replacement/upgrade opportunity, instead of generalists in the trade. Primary skills include visual inspections, coil cleaning, filter changing, refrigerant leak detection, and refrigerant charging and identification of poorly scoring systems that would make a better candidate for replacement rather than repair – the skills which most technicians either struggle with or don’t want to do. On the air side, measuring static pressures, adjusting fan speeds and reading fan tables and basic wiring diagrams to identify fan speeds and dip switch settings.

They use tools and leverage technology like measureQuick for system analysis and refrigerant charging.  They use TrueFlow for airside analysis, and performance and Conduit for load calculations. This technology shaves years of training off to acquire the same outcome. A designer at the HVAC company will select the system.

  • Shortened Training Cycles: Unlike traditional roles that require extensive apprenticeships, training for TES and ARCS can be condensed into shorter, more intensive programs, in both union and non-union environments. Leveraging technology, we can likely produce these specialists in as little as 8 to 10 weeks. 
  • Focus on Modern Technologies: Training includes a strong emphasis on modern HVAC technologies, energy efficiency practices, and the use of connected diagnostic tools. The software interfaces leveraged by these new roles will also provide just-in-time, continuous learning experiences.
  • Accessibility and Diversity: These training programs are designed to be more accessible, attracting a diverse range of candidates, including those from non-traditional backgrounds or with prior experience in technology sectors. Because they are not setting equipment the physical demands are much lower. 

Lower Cost and Less Training: Both roles require a small subset of the training, tools and truck stock required for a service person or installer as the TES and the ARCS do not need to learn how to set equipment, assemble ductwork, braze, solder, wire disconnects, condensers, or controls.

Distinguishing TES and ARCS from Similar Market Roles

A few other front-line roles come to mind when exploring our solution. The TES and ARCS roles are a technology-first approach, distinctly separating them from traditional roles in the home building industry.

  • Program Management Technicians: Unlike the narrow focus of Program Management technicians on specific program goals, TES professionals perform a comprehensive assessment of home heating/cooling systems. They delve into system enhancements and electrification, stepping beyond the conventional scope to interact directly with homeowners, providing tailored, efficient solutions.
  • Energy Raters & Energy Advisors: The Raters’ primary role is to rate energy efficiency, but TES and ARCS go beyond this. They actively engage in optimizing HVAC systems, with ARCS specialists specializing in detailed system commissioning post-installation. This hands-on approach ensures each system operates at peak performance, a step further from the energy raters’ assessments.
  • Home Inspectors: Home inspectors provide general inspections without any repair or adjustment – their role is to represent the buyer and point out problems during a real estate transaction. Comparatively, the ARCS role is both holistic diagnostics and tuning to maximize performance, and the TES
  • The “Handyman” paradigm: The stereotypical jack of all trades often performs any and all small tasks around a house, but without strategy or structure. The training and technology which enables the TES and ARCS are strategically designed to achieve #betterhvac outcomes.

To continue with our theme – these new roles are complementary to the existing workforce.

So… How do we build this workforce?

Where do we find these workers? Though we can obviously pull from similar trades, the skills required are not commonly found in hard-labor. We need people with people skills who are willing to learn technology. Some examples of where we can find these people are as follows: hospitality workers, retail workers, home inspectors, workforce development programs (eg YearUp), displaced technology workers, and cable & internet technicians.

The ARCS and TES will become the jobs which may have the largest bottom-line impacts on revenue generation through sales and risk reduction through callback mitigation, which may mean they become the highest paying careers in the industry. And these aren’t just box-swaps, these are the lucrative, high performance systems that we all want to sell. 

This is framework is one of the key levers to create #betterhvac outcomes for our industry.

We’re already doing it – now let’s scale it.

Though these roles may be newly christened, we’ve been exploring this workforce upgrade with HVAC service company partners. 

Chad Simpson of Simpson Salute encountered challenges in growing his company, and has been pioneering this approach for the last two years. By hiring non-traditional labor from the photocopying, automotive, and cable industries – paired with an accelerated training program, measureQuick, The TEC TruFlow Grid (and soon Conduit) – they’ve been able to accelerate growth WHILE reducing callbacks and ensuring maximum performance and efficiency for every customer.  

measureQuick: Your Partner in Workforce Transformation

The traditional slow pace of change is no longer viable – we need to act now to tackle these system issues within the industry. measureQuick, in collaboration with its partners, has developed the necessary technology to support a new workforce paradigm leveraging the TES and ARCS roles. To equip this new workforce, measureQuick is creating a targeted training curriculum, combining technological advancements with practical skills. You don’t need to go it alone, we are here to help with training and implementation. 

If you are a professional or policymaker in the state energy programs, part of a municipality, or involved in an HVAC company and are looking for workforce solutions, this is your opportunity to be at the forefront of this inevitable evolution of our industry.

  1. Contact Us: For more information on how to get involved, integrate these roles into your operations, or contribute to this transformative initiative, please contact us. Together, we can shape a more efficient and sustainable future for the HVAC industry.
  2. Collaborate with measureQuick: Join us in this journey. With measureQuick’s technology and the upcoming specialized training curriculum, you have the tools and knowledge at your fingertips to make a real difference.
  3. Implement the Change: We invite you to implement these new roles within your region or company. By adopting the TES and ARCS roles, you’re not just filling labor gaps; you’re elevating the industry standard.

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  1. Great concept! There are two issues to overcome. First is that, for nus we have never had many maintenance techs, because we want to give technicians full work weeks, or close in the slower seasons. So we would have ton train the junior techs on your system. But I can see the benifits. Second is, there is an extra cost for the commisioning as described, and the corrections that may need to be done. So do you see the customer agreeing to pay those costs in addition to the install costs? If not how are the costs profitable or at least compensted for?

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