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Thought Leadership | February 4, 2021

Attracting and Training a New Generation of Contractors Through Sustainability

John Fitzgerald, EVP, Operations

For the last several years, it has been an increasing challenge for the HVAC and Plumbing sectors to attract talented young people to the industry. As Baby Boomers and Gen Xers retire, this challenge continues to grow. Two years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics warned of the need to increase the HVAC workforce by 50%, and it predicted a 12% growth in demand for plumbers by 2024 (versus the previous decade). A recent survey by Stratetech Education Group revealed that while 90% of parents would support their child’s decision to pursue a trade career, 51% of students felt barriers to doing so. In short, it’s hard to find skilled, well-trained plumbers and contractors, and we need them now.

The talent shortage has been driven in large part by the shifting priorities of young workers, many of whom feel pressured to attend four-year universities and avoid jobs that are traditionally thought of as “blue collar.” Gen Z workers are driven by purpose, and they want to feel that they are making a positive difference in the world. Rheem is striving to show the next generation that the company and the industry offer an opportunity, not just for good-paying work, but for meaningful, “green collar” work, where environmental stewardship is a vital part of the job.

To that end, in 2017 Rheem began opening state-of-the-art Innovation & Learning Centers (ILCs) worldwide. Our ILCs are designed to accelerate training through both hands-on and online education modules. We’re spreading the word and making ILC courses widely available by sponsoring contractor and plumber-focused trade groups.

And with our A Greater Degree of Good Initiative, Rheem added a new layer to our ongoing training efforts. By consolidating sustainability into our coursework for 250,000 plumbing and HVAC professionals by 2025, we give plumbers and contractors one more reason to feel good about the work that they do every day—a reason that goes beyond job security to satisfaction about making the world a better place. This attracts new people to the HVAC and water heating industry while giving seasoned tradespeople a powerful new tool to advance their businesses.

The competitive advantage of sustainability for contractors

If students apply what Rheem teaches, their companies can become both more sustainable and more profitable. “Our message is not just ‘be green to save the planet.’ We share practical benefits and real-life success stories,” says Mark Roach, training manager at Rheem’s U.S. Water Heating Division. “Students may come in never having thought about running a sustainable business, but when they leave, they understand the importance of it.”

The events of 2020 have shifted the focus of some Rheem training. Prior to COVID-19, we were teaching more about sustainability best practices. In recent months, we’ve adapted our strategy to emphasize sustainability features and products. It’s a message that resonates with students right now, and it’s a great way to lead into best practices as a next step.

Expanding on these points, Philip Oglesby, education and content development manager for Rheem’s Air Conditioning Division adds, “If we don’t present the sustainability message in the correct context, it falls flat with a lot of our students.” He explains that Rheem has to give students the why, not just the what. “It comes down to marketing. When we present evidence like, ‘Your phone will ring more, and your average ticket price will go up,’ that’s when we get the buy-in. It’s factual, and it works.”

Additionally, on the labor shortage issue, part of our training mission is to convince Rheem’s entire distribution channel to encourage contractors to have an education plan as a way to increase their business. Providing their employees with ongoing opportunities for professional growth will help contractors attract good quality talent and be more competitive. And that education plan should include Rheem training. “We have training resources, and we know how to help businesses reach profitability sooner,” says Oglesby. “We believe in training as a tool to recruit people to our industry, as well as to recruit more contractors to sell our products.”

Global training opportunities and experiences

Around the world, Rheem is putting sustainability training into real-world action. For example:

  • In MEA, along with Leminar, our Air Conditioning partner, we launched a new ILC in July 2020. At this digitally advanced facility, Leminar’s customers benefit from live demonstrations and working models, which help them get hands-on experience and understand the detailed mechanisms behind our technologically advanced products. Since its opening, the facility earned the Dominic De Sousa Award for Innovation as well as a Climate Control Award.
  • In China, we opened a new ILC in September 2020, bringing our accelerated learning platform to a population that has been underserved by educational opportunities. The grand opening brought in distribution partners from across the region for a tree-planting event to highlight their commitment to “take root and grow together with Rheem China.”
  • In Australia, the Rheem Apprentice Plumber Grants Program pays for tuition, textbooks and tools for apprentice plumbers, many of whom come from underserved communities.
  • In Canada, we donate our equipment to high schools, technical schools and colleges as teaching aids in repair and installation classes. This helps to develop a new generation of technicians who enter the workforce already familiar with our sustainable technology.
  • In Mexico, we have an alliance with the public education sector and are the only brand licensed to certify technicians in key energy-efficient HVAC and water heating technologies.

To summarize the far-reaching sustainability effects of Rheem’s training efforts: this is a chance to go beyond the confines of one company and have a catalytic influence on the behavior of an entire industrial ecosystem. We want a better, healthier planet. That’s not just a marketing goal; it’s part our culture, and we’ve discovered that training is an effective way to achieve it.