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Help Wanted: Trades desperate to replace aging workforce

Published: Oct. 5, 2021 at 6:40 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 5, 2021 at 7:34 PM EDT
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ESSEX, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont, like many parts of the country is facing a workforce crisis that was exacerbated by the pandemic. From health care workers to the basic trades, companies have the help wanted sign out. As part of new series, we’re looking at some of the high-demand jobs and how employers are changing their recruiting strategies. Our Kayla Martin joined HVAC tech Mike Hauptman for a maintenance call as he was getting a heating system ready for the winter.

Mike Hauptman works for Alliance Mechanical Group, an Essex business that installs and maintains heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. He’s like a multitool and can do many things. “Working on heating air conditioning, refrigeration. We do some plumbing, basic electrical,” Hauptman said.

It’s a lot of manual labor maintaining systems to prevent problems that could arise in the future. On this call, that means changing filters. “All of that nasty stuff in there that you want to filter out. But if you leave it, you leave dirty filters in, you’re not really doing yourself any favors,” Hauptman said.

Hauptman didn’t always expect to be an HVAC service technician. “Well actually, I went to college. Graduated from UVM in 2010 with a nutrition and food science degree,” he said. But he says he didn’t find many job opportunities in that field at the time. “Re-thought things and went to trade school for a year and just decided this was something was gonna be in high demand because really, not a ton of people are getting into it.”

High demand is right. Jason Lyman, a manager at Alliance, says a majority of the workforce in the industry will be retiring within the next decade. “I think statistics show that the average age of a service tech and a plumber and a sheet metal worker is low fifties,” he said.

Shaun Patnaude, another Alliance manager, 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 in the trades is I think trades always kind of had a bad rep, there’s a stigma,” he said.

To help address the labor shortage, Alliance has an apprenticeship program set up with the Center for Technology program at Essex High School. They give the students training at night and they can come to work and apply the skills during the day. Alliance needs experienced workers now, but they’re investing resources in the upcoming generation to hopefully ensure workers for the future.

Those looking to get into the field who don’t have prior experience could, on their first day, expect to learn how to change a belt for a heating and cooling system. First, they’re going to inspect the belt for any wear and tear. Then, start at the corner and work the belt around until it pops off. They’re gonna want to do that for the top and bottom belts and then do those steps in reverse to put the new one back on.

Hauptman says a benefit of the job is not being stuck behind a desk all day. “It’s nice because it’s hard to get bored when you’re not at the same place every single day,” he said. Another perk is the pay. A first-year apprentice can expect to make between $16 to $20 an hour. A senior tech can make between $30 to $40 an hour. “There’s definitely a lot of opportunities to make some good money...I’d probably be making considerably less doing what I actually went to school for.

For more information about starting a new career in a variety of high-demand industries, visit the Labor Department’s Jobs resources website.

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