Aug 23, 2023 - Business

Twin Cities HVAC company turns to teaching amid worker shortage

A classroom with adults sitting from behind at tables with red chairs and a mannequin at a practice heating system.

Genz-Ryan renovated its Burnsville headquarters to add classroom space and units that students can use to practice skills. Photos: Torey Van Oot/Axios

For Twin Cities cooling and heating company Genz-Ryan, prepping for this week's heatwave began months ago in a newly constructed classroom in its Burnsville headquarters.

What's happening: Earlier this year, the company launched a 12-week in-house training academy aimed at recruiting and retaining technicians amid an industry-wide skilled worker shortage.

  • More than half of the 26 Genz-Ryan workers taking calls this week are graduates of the program.

Why it matters: The technician shortage is more than an inconvenience at a time when extreme temperatures can turn heating and cooling problems into potentially dangerous situations.

State of play: The U.S. heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration industry will need tens of thousands of new workers in the coming years to replace those leaving the field for retirement or other professions, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and industry leaders estimate.

  • The gap between supply and demand in Minnesota is expected to hit close to 4,000 additional workers over the next decade, per the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Zoom in: "There's an overwhelming need for our services, and there just isn't the talent pool in place," Genz-Ryan owner and president Jon Ryan told Axios during a tour of the company's headquarters.

  • The program's goal, he said, is to attract young workers who might be reluctant to pay for trade school or go through a longer apprenticeship. It also aims to give them both the technical and customer service training needed to succeed and stay in the field.

How it works: The academy combines classroom instruction with hands-on practice on air conditioning, heating, and refrigeration units custom-built to replicate problems technicians might encounter in the field.

  • Trainees, who are paid $16 an hour, spend the final month going on customer calls for system cleanings and other basic service tasks. Those who graduate are eligible for full-time employment with a raise and benefits.

What they're saying: "I think what caught us off guard is not only how many people that would finish the program, but how many people we would retain," Ryan said this week of higher-than-expected graduation and retention rates, which have replaced a staff deficit with a surplus.

Zoom out: Other local training programs are also seeing high demand for their workers. William Bobick, a senior instructor teaching the trade at Dunwoody College of Technology, told Axios his classes typically have a 100% job placement rate.

  • "There's so many people calling, [but] I only have so many students," he said.

Between the lines: Bobick argues students are best served through an accredited program, which delivers standard training that he said is more likely to be accepted and sought after by a wide range of employers.

  • Ryan told Axios he's exploring whether his program can and should become accredited in the future.

What's next: Given the response to the first phase, Ryan next plans to launch installation and duct cleaning training programs. Continuing education, including management training, is also part of the plan.


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