By Jill Nagy
Area businesses are taking different approaches to deal with a shortage of skilled workers in the building trades.
Jim Curran Electric in Saratoga Springs is a situation where the owner was rescued by a son who, seeing his father “overwhelmed,” relocated from Virginia to join the company.
Mr. Electric of Queensbury runs ads year round on several online help wanted sites. Eastern Heating and Cooling has a well-established apprenticeship program in order to “grow our own.”
Electricians are busy. “There is an avalanche of work,” according to Fred Giardinelli of Eastern Heating and Cooling. “Nine out of ten companies will give you the same answer: it’s “almost impossible” to find qualified people.
Curran reported that he is “too busy to train somebody in the proper way.” Mr. Electric also is “extremely busy.”
Curran, for his part, has soured on the idea of trying to hire and train new people.
“I used to try to hire people,” he said, “but they were not skilled enough.”
People hired as apprentices often did not show up. At the other end of the spectrum, “if they get too trained, they go out on their own.”
He has been on his own for most of his 33 years in business. Since March, his son Jeff, a licensed electrician in Virginia, has been working with him and will soon become a partner in the business. Jeff and two other sons all worked with him as kids, he recalled, but the other two are following other career paths.
“The trades are paying very well now,” Giardinalli pointed out. He starts novices at $20 an hour, plus a 401(k) retirement plan, paid vacation, insurance, and 80 percent of their health care costs. More experienced employees may earn as much as $50 an hour. “A lot of people are making a six-figure income,” he said.
He filled some vacancies in the last few weeks but still has openings, especially for sheetmetal workers.
Once they are trained, Mr. Electric’s employees start at $14.50 an hour plus profit sharing. He pointed to one recent hire, someone who was close to completing a master’s degree in psychology, and said “I am looking at him being our next rock star … Education is good. It doesn’t matter what it’s in.”
The former graduate student, however, is an anomaly. The more common new employee is a recent graduate of a high school BOCES vocational program or a community college, according to Giardinelli. At his company, their initial training is in safety. “Safety is such a big deal; it’s the first training we do.”
Then the new employees ride with an experienced technician for a year, learning on the job. After a year, they get their own truck “and we start them out with baby steps. Our people are out in the field. They’re on their own.”
Training is “definitely a serious investment,” he said. “We train them so they can leave and treat them so they will stay.” He said his company has a very low turnover rate.
Giardinelli bought his company in 1986. In 1997, he and 12 other contractors combined to create Comfort Systems USA, a national company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Comfort Systems has $2.6 billion in annual revenues, he said.
Mr. Electric of Queensbury is quite a bit smaller. They have nine employees, each in his own truck, which they bring home at night.
“I could probably hire three more if I could find them,” said Sean Dion, who owns Mr. Electric of Queensbury, a franchise of a national company. A call center handles telephone calls. There is a warehouse but no office, except Dion’s home office. While the technicians are pretty much on their own, everyone meets on Monday and Thursday.
Dion came to the area in 2011 to work for GlobalFoundries in Malta. He became Mr. Electric in 2017.
He prefers to hire people currently employed in the field who are looking for a change and sees a gap in an applicants resume as a warning sign. When screening people, he says, he looks for integrity and motivation, “somebody currently working and looking to grow.”
He thinks the current shortage of qualified people may be the result of many factors, including generous unemployment benefits. “It doesn’t make much sense to work if you can earn more not working,” he said.
Giardinelli said “all the good people are working.” Meanwhile, the easing of the COVID pandemic has released a lot of pent-up demand.
“Projects are coming out of the woodwork,” he said.
His formula for meeting the demand for skilled workers is, “pick them carefully, train them well, and treat them with respect.” When someone makes a mistake, his aim is to fix it, learn how to avoid it in the future, and then move on.
“We are constantly investing in our employees,” he noted, providing training and proper tools and the opportunity to “advance as you progress.”