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Building the refrigeration technician workforce of tomorrow

Beitler, Ernest, McGarrity and Smith at the FMI Energy & Store Development Conference
(Image credit: FMI; Beitler, Ernest, McGarrity and Smith at the FMI Energy & Store Development Conference)

Food retailers run on refrigeration, and stores count on qualified technicians to maintain their essential equipment. However, issues including employee burnout and trouble recruiting new trainees are threatening the future of this important workforce. Finding ways to recruit and retain refrigeration technicians will be key for HVAC and refrigeration suppliers and the retailers they serve, especially as they make the transition to natural refrigerants, a panel of experts said during a session at FMI — The Food Industry Association’s Energy & Store Development Conference this week in Baltimore.

“We have a challenge in this industry. We have a growing technician workforce gap. There are simply not enough technicians not only to address this transition that the industry is going through right now away from [hydrofluorocarbons]…but also just to keep up with ongoing operations and maintenance,” said Morgan Smith, program and communications director for the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council

The number of US stores using refrigeration systems powered by CO2, the leading natural refrigerant replacement for the HFCs that are currently being phased out, is expected to increase by 313% by 2027, according to data shared by NASRC during the conference. The installation of new and replacement systems will require qualified technicians who are up to speed on the latest technology, while the gradual rollout means technicians will also need the skillset to work on existing systems. Without an influx of new refrigeration professionals, the industry will struggle to maintain or update its refrigeration systems. 

“The technician workforce is retiring out,” Smith said. “There are not enough new technicians entering our trade. And we’re experiencing what we call technician burnout…as more technicians exit and this shortage becomes worse technicians start to experience even more unsustainable schedules when in many cases that was already a challenge for them.”

Robert McGarrity, vice president of facilities for Publix Supermarkets, echoed Smith’s sentiments, saying, “We need more in-house expertise. People are retiring faster than we can replace them.”

Smith, McGarrity and executives from refrigeration and HVAC companies Coolsys and Climate Pros discussed ways the industry can begin to reverse this trend and grow the ranks of refrigeration technicians.

Recruit early and often

McGarrity said one of the best places to recruit new refrigeration technicians is inside retailers’ own stores. 

“Our best source for people is our existing Publix associates. We’ve got 250,000 people working at Publix already, and many of those folks are in high school right now working in our stores. And they have an interest in staying at Publix, but they maybe don’t have an interest in working in stores their whole career. And so we’re really working to reach out to them and let them know, hey, you can stay at Publix because we have…this other trade and you can grow from the bottom up,” he said.

Schools and career fairs are also ripe for recruitment, and the process can start even earlier than one might think. Bryan Beitler, vice president of special projects at Coolsys and Todd Ernest, founder and CEO of Climate Pros, said they attend recruitment events at high schools and even middle schools. Starting early with educating students about jobs in refrigeration can make a difference when they start thinking about their career path.

“Me going out and talking to kids at half a dozen middle schools doesn’t get the job done. Every one of us needs to be thinking about that in our area and in our region,” Beitler said.

When it comes to recruiting at vocational schools, the panelists agreed on the importance of speaking with students who may be more familiar with HVAC job opportunities and not as familiar with the refrigeration field. Emphasizing training opportunities can also be a powerful incentive, since “it’s hard to recruit if you can’t offer people a certain level of training,” McGarrity said.

Focus on training

Publix recently opened a training center at its headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., where refrigeration technicians can learn to work on every piece of equipment they might encounter in the field. McGarrity said the facility offers three classes a month at all skill levels.

Having a place to train technicians that isn’t on the job site is key, especially for those at the entry level, Ernest said. He also emphasized the importance of having teachers and mentors who know how to work with trainees and recommended bringing in an outside firm to train the trainers to deliver their message in the most effective way. “Make sure the people training the people know how to train people,” he said.

Beat burnout

In addition to training its trainers, Climate Pros has also developed a one-day seminar for store managers to train them on when to call a refrigeration technician. Having store employees who know how to triage issues and call in professionals at the appropriate time can go a long way toward reducing technician burnout since off-hours emergency calls are one of the top factors that drive employees away from jobs in the industry. Ernest predicted that technology tools will also be helpful in preventing emergency calls, “if we can get more predictive about when things are going to fail.”

Store managers and employees can also help make technicians’ jobs easier by keeping the areas where they work clean. Ernest said stores should keep the path to equipment clear and make sure the motor room is free of debris.

“If you treat a supermarket refrigeration technician like a janitor, they’re not going to come back to you,” he said.

Tell a story

All of the panelists agreed that one of the most effective ways to recruit refrigeration technicians is by telling a compelling story about the important role that refrigeration plays in keeping not only food and beverages but also products like pharmaceuticals cold.

“You have the opportunity to really support the community where you live,” McGarrity said, referring to grocery stores’ important role in supplying fresh food.

Ernest echoed the importance of storytelling and education, especially when it comes to making students aware of the careers available in refrigeration. “These kids have no idea what we do and it’s so cool – no pun intended.”

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