“We can’t keep up with the employers’ demands,” says Lonnie Huffgarden, HVAC teacher.

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Business owners and educators are watching in dismay as young people pass on — or are steered away from — some of the most in-demand jobs in America.

Greg McAfee, owner of McAfee Heating & Air Conditioning, and leaders at the Miami Valley Career Technology Center (MVCTC) see the same problem: Young people shy away from the fundamental skilled trades — skills that have long supported a high standard of living for customers while providing good careers for many workers.

Good jobs such as electricians, plumbers, machinists and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) technicians and other trades are going unfilled, they say.

“We can’t keep up with the employers’ demands,” says Lonnie Huffgarden, an HVAC teacher at MVCTC.

According to the Manpower Group’s “talent shortage survey,” skilled trades workers top the list of the hardest jobs to fill in 2015.

That is a shame, say both McAfee and Robert Ewry, who is the school-to-apprenticeship coordinator for MVCTC. These can be decent jobs, they say, depending on a student’s abilities and location.

“Some of our students make more than their parents,” Ewry says. “It’s unbelievable.”
High-growth jobs

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth in jobs for HVAC technicians through 2024 will be 14 percent, much faster than average job growth nationally. The 2014 median pay for those workers was $21.46 per hour, or $44,630 a year, the bureau reports.

For plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, expected job growth until 2024 is 12 percent — also faster than average, according to the bureau. The 2014 median pay for those jobs was $24.36 an hour, or $50,660 a year.

For electricians, the numbers are even better: 14 percent expected job growth with a $51,110 2014 median annual salary.

McAfee and Ewry agree that students should be given options. Not every young person is suited for college — which may not end in a decent job and sometimes saddles students with heavy debt.

Current student loan debt exceeds $1.3 trillion, according to MarketWatch, which says student loan debt grows $2,726 every second.

And often, college students leave without a degree. More than 40 percent of students who start college don’t graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But there are other paths. McAfee says he rarely hires new workers with experience. And yet he has one employee who has been with his Kettering-based company in Ohio for just four years, and he’s already making nearly $60,000 a year.

“We pay well,” he says.

McAfee believes the problem goes back to high school and earlier. Too often, schools are cutting shop, industrial arts, woodworking and drafting classes. “I just think it’s the first thing that gets cut in a school budget — let’s cut industrial arts,” he says.

McAfee, who started his HVAC company more than 25 years ago, also owns a sheet metal shop in Dayton. He has trouble finding workers there, too.
Vital services

While trade work in construction can be seasonal, other trades are more constant. In a city with hot summers and cold winters like Dayton, HVAC systems get a workout.

“These are all services that honestly none of us can live without,” says Chris Bryant, a 21-year McAfee employee who trains the company’s new hires.

“We can’t do without them,” Huffgarden says of skilled trades. “Nothing is going to replace them.”

Those who teach skilled trades readily admit that these jobs have an image problem. Parents in the last recession too often heard news of dormant construction sites and decided to direct their kids away from skilled trades.

“Now we have a big shortage,” Ewry says.

But parents shouldn’t be afraid of giving their children good options, Huffgarden says.

“The trades are noble kinds of jobs,” he says. “They are something to be proud of. When you go home and you’re tired, and you’re dirty a little bit, you take a shower and it washes off.”