The industry’s labor shortage wears a white collar just as much as a blue collar, according to much of the discussion at just one educational session held during the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s annual convention.

And they're off ... runners in Anvil's annual 5K Fun Run/Walk at the Mechanical Contractors Association of America's convention in Orlando, Fla., leave the starting line.

The industry’s labor shortage wears a white collar just as much as a blue collar, according to much of the discussion at just one educational session held during the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s annual convention, Feb. 25-March 1, Orlando, Fla.

“We’re going to get a smaller piece of a smaller pie,” said Tim Wentz, professor, University of Nebraska, at the session aimed at hiring student interns.

An aging existing workforce is a common factor when talk turns to the plumbing industry’s diminishing labor pool. But Wentz also pointed out that graduates of engineering/technical bachelor degree programs are 20 percent less than the peak levels reached back in the 1970s.

MCAA members are finding that one way to ensure their employment needs are met is to plan and act ahead by hiring summer interns. A session handout put the reason well: “While student interns are temporary employees, they are also professionals in training.”

Promoting the mechanical industry to college students has been the focus of the MCAA’s student chapter initiative started in 1998. Currently, 38 such chapters around the country belong to the association. Students, among other benefits, compete for top honors each year in a contest presenting proposals on real-life projects. This year, for example, a record total of 20 chapters prepared proposals to retrofit a former Dallas utility office building into condos and retail shops. More than 160 students and faculty members attended this year’s convention.

The seminar included three one-time student chapter members and former interns now employed by mechanical contractors.

“I didn’t realize the opportunity that existed within the mechanical industry,” said Scott Garrett, adding that he probably would have gone on to work for a general contractor. Garrett graduated in 2004 and is a project manager for Art Plumbing, Georgia.

“The best internship program has a plan,” said Jack Wilhelmi, Waldinger Corp., Nebraska. “It may include, for example, three weeks spent on estimating followed by three weeks out in the field on a jobsite.”

To help defray any costs to setting up an internship, the Mechanical Contracting Education and Research Foundation is offering $2,000 internship grants. There’s a limit of one per company and MCAA members need to send a request by May 15. Preference will be given to interns who are members of MCAA student chapters. Go to www.mcaa.org/careers for a current list of student chapters. For more information on the grants, contact Ann Mattheis at amattheis@mcaa.org.

By all means, Wilhelmi, who also served as chairman of the association’s Career Development Committee, said “internship” doesn’t mean “secretary.”

“We don’t just give them ‘busy’ work,” he said. Which is a good thing, since Wentz also talked about how the so-called Generation Y hates busy work and expects to know how an individual job fits within an overall business.

Wentz added that Generation Y likes to win, likes to learn, expects to work with technology that’s cutting-edge (which also means they don’t mind at all that technology will always change) and wants to hear they’re doing a good job.

“Generation Y is more optimistic and, quite frankly, more capitalistic than Generation X,” Wentz added. This generation is only beginning to make its mark and will do so for some time to come. While statistics vary, the youngest Generation Yer is currently only half-way through the 4th grade.

Getting involved in a local college is one way to get to know your future hires, said Maureen Weidner, Georgia Institute of Technology. And the sooner the better.

“Students are making decisions on whom to work for in their freshman and sophomore years,” Weidner added. She brought along six Georgia Tech students to the convention.

She highly recommended that contractors join a college’s professional advisory board to help educators determine what they should teach based on what the real world demands of new employees.

“General contractors have dominated these boards in the past,” Weidner added.

Even informal get-togethers have proved popular with her students. Although field trips sound more for grade-schoolers, Weidner said her students have definitely had their eyes opened to the plumbing industry by taking tours of local mechanical companies.

Pamela Mullender, executive director of the ACE Mentor Program, also outlined how to promote the mechanical industry to high school students. Currently, the program has initiated mentoring programs in more than 700 high schools located in 77 cities reaching more than 5,500 students and has plans to start 51 more programs this year.

More than 14,500 students have already gone through the program in the past 10 years since the ACE, for “architecture, construction and engineering,” program began.

Essentially, each mentoring team is comprised of multiple construction and architectural firm owners, college faculty and 15-20 students. The teams meet about 15 times a year, visiting construction sites, prefab shops and business offices. Students may also learn how to prepare budgets or draw up construction schedules. During the second half of the school year, students work on preparing a realistic project similar to the MCAA student chapters.

High school students who benefit from the program will no doubt be MCAA student chapter members since Mullender said 90 percent go on to college.