Amid dwindling workforce, blue-collar industries forced to change tactics
March 21, 2018
RENO, Nev. — A decade ago, Sierra Air Service Manager Ted Lenzora wouldn't put up with it — that is, HVAC technicians who couldn't get to work by 8 a.m.
"Ten years ago, my philosophy would've been, if he can't get here on time, he can go work somewhere else," Lenzora told the NNBW.
In 2018, however, philosophies in blue-collar industries are changing as the workforce shortage in skilled trades continues to climb.
Fact is, more and more older and experienced tradespeople are retiring — and fewer and fewer millennials want to pick up a toolkit and fill their work boots.
"Really, this generation, they don't want to do the manual type labor, the hard work," Lenzora said. "There are days that workers get really dirty; they're under a house, they're in an attic, they're on a rooftop — it's snowing, it's raining, it's 100-plus degrees. And they (millennials) don't really like that side of it."
The numbers don't lie. Right now, 53 percent of skilled trades workers are over the age of 45, according to EMSI (Economic Modeling Specialists International), and 18 percent are between ages 55 and 64.
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In an effort to develop a new generation of tradesman, Northern Nevada companies have found the need to change with the times — including literally changing shift times.
"The days of getting there bright and early, and the early bird gets the worm, that's not the way anymore," Lenzora said. "We've adapted some of our service schedules for some of these millennials so they can start later. They were struggling getting there early, so we said, let's work with them."
And so, in 2016, Sierra Air implemented later shifts for some younger employees, scheduling their first appointments for 10 a.m. rather than 8 a.m. Lenzora said it was a response to younger technicians who arrived at the end of their first appointment window and then had to "play catch up" all day.
"We had to react to the situation because it was in front of us," said Lenzora.
INTEREST, SKILL LACKING
For United Construction Co., one of the biggest challenges in front of them is overcoming not only a lack of interest in construction, but also a lack of incoming skill, said Jim Miller, the Reno-based company's chief operating.
"What we're dealing with is a very young workforce skill-wise, very entry-level skill, trying to do the work of a seasoned tradesman," said Miller. "And the mentoring from senior tradesman is lacking, as well, because a lot of them have retired from the industry or left the industry. There are fewer of them around to coach and mentor the new folks getting into the trade."
With that, just last year, United Construction started a training and development program to address the issue.
"We've developed a thorough training process so that we don't just hire someone and throw them in the field somewhere," Miller explained. "They come in here, there's a certificate process on certain software and equipment that they're going to be using, and they have to spend a particular amount of time working on what they'll see in person."
The Reno-based construction company sometimes even pairs new laborers with an experienced tradesmen who serve as mentors at jobsites.
"Mentoring is key now," Miller said. "You need someone who's experienced in the field and has a good understanding of what you're trying to develop in these younger people.
"The problem is the need (for workers) is right here and right now," added Miller, pointing to Northern Nevada's booming economy.
Similarly, two year ago, Sierra Air started pairing new hires with seasoned technicians for up to six months as paid in-house training, Lenzora said.
"We decided, instead of hiring right before the season, we need to bring guys in about 4-6 months before they can go out on their own," he continued. "That'll give us time to mold them and shape them into the employees that we need them to be and make sure they're doing things the right way.
"We're having decent success with that. I'd say 70 percent of the guys have worked out since we've brought them on board (through training)."
In the plumbing industry, where the national average age hovers around 50, finding a younger generation of skilled plumbers has become especially challenging. Just ask Duke Gutierrez, owner of Gardnerville-based Duke's Plumbing Heating & Air, which services the greater Reno-Carson City-Minden area.
"To find someone with any type of skill-set is impossible today," he said. "They are coming in here with zero experience. Every single one of my employees, I have to personally train them."
Even then, Gutierrez said, the hard work and long days become deal-breakers for many younger tradesman.
"It's hard to find the old-school traditional type of employee that want to work a full 8 to 10 hours a day and get overtime," he said. "Most of these young guys today want to clock in and out — in our industry that doesn't happen."
Joe Ortiz, owner of Carson City-based Hoffman Plumbing, which services the greater Reno-Carson area, said he's expecting to see a major workforce shortage within five to eight years as more and more seasoned plumbers in the region retire.
"We're going to be losing a lot of experience and a lot of ability to be able to service customers," he said. "It's going to come quickly in terms of actually being able to give service to people that need it."
In an effort to combat the problem, Hoffman Plumbing is in the process of building a program centered on recruiting high students that are curious about getting into the trade.
Ortiz said he's optimistic it will help develop a new generation of service plumbers.
"We're focusing on trying to get younger people to take under our wing and train them," Ortiz said. "And teach them that plumbing is a real necessity and we can make good money. Whether you're trying to get rid of waste or bring in fresh water, everyone needs a plumber at some point."