Trades desperate to replace aging workforce

ESSEX, Vt. (WCAX) — Like many parts of the country, Vermont is facing a workforce crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. From health professionals to basic commerce, businesses have the help they need to opt out. As part of a new series, we look at some of the in-demand jobs and how employers are changing their hiring strategies. Our Kayla Martin joined HVAC technician Mike Hauptman for a maintenance interview as he prepared a heating system for winter.

Mike Hauptman works for Alliance Mechanical Group, an Essex company that installs and maintains heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. He is like a multi-tool and can do a lot. “Working on heating, air conditioning, cooling. We’re doing some plumbing, basic electricity,” Hauptman said.

It is a lot of manual work to maintain systems to prevent problems that may arise in the future. In this conversation, that means changing filters. “All those nasty things out there that you want to filter out. But if you let it sit, leave your dirty filters in it, you’re not really doing yourself a favor with it,” Hauptman said.

Hauptman didn’t always expect to be an HVAC service technician. “Well, actually I went to university. Graduated from UVM in 2010 with a degree in food and nutrition sciences,” he said. But by his own admission, he didn’t find many vacancies in that field at the time. “Reconsidered things and went to trade school for a year and just decided this was something true there would be a lot of demand for it, because really, not many people are getting into it.”

Big question right. Jason Lyman, a manager at Alliance, says the majority of the industry’s workforce will retire within a decade. “I think statistics show that the average age of a service technician and a plumber and a sheet metal worker is in their late fifties,” he said.

Shaun Patnaude, another Alliance executive, says part of the problem stems from choices students are given about what to do after high school. “One of the things I think has always been a struggle for us to get people into commerce is that I think commerce has always had a bad reputation, there’s a stigma,” he said.

To address the labor shortage, Alliance has established an internship program with Essex High School’s Center for Technology program. They train the students at night and can come to work during the day and apply the skills. Alliance needs experienced workers now, but they are investing resources in the next generation to hopefully secure workers for the future.

Those who want to get into the field and have no previous experience can expect to learn how to replace a belt for a heating and cooling system on their first day. First they will inspect the belt for wear. Then start at the corner and work the strap around until it pops off. They will want to do that for the top and bottom straps and then reverse those steps to put the new ones back on.

Hauptman says one perk of work is not sitting behind a desk all day. “It’s fun because it’s hard to get bored if you’re not in the same place every day,” he said. Another advantage is the salary. A freshman can expect to earn between $16 and $20 per hour. A senior techie can earn between $30 and $40 an hour. “There are certainly many opportunities to make good money… I would probably earn considerably less doing what I actually went to school for.

To learn more about starting a new career in a variety of demanding industries, visit the: Labor Resources website of the Labor Department.

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