McALLEN — National shortages in the HVAC industry are having an impact on local contractors that experts say may leave some Rio Grande Valley residents feeling a little hot under the collar.
A supply shortage is leading to longer wait times and less options for repairs and replacements, according to local insiders, while a lack of skilled technicians is feeding a demand that’s likely to continue to grow in the near future.
Ruben Sanchez owns Colair Inc., a Mission HVAC company with just under 20 employees that focuses on residential repairs, sales and replacements across the Valley, but primarily in Hidalgo County.
Sanchez, who’s been working in the industry for practically all of his 36 years, says last year was an unprecedented one for the air conditioning industry. The industry never missed a beat, and as more people stayed home, running their units at cooler temperatures throughout the day, Sanchez and his employees stayed busier than ever.
“We attribute that to people being at home more and using their systems more,” he said. “More repairs, more breakdowns, more systems just going kaput. So last year was a record year for almost everyone I’ve spoken to in the industry, even with shortages.”
Like in other industries, Sanchez says air conditioning contractors were affected by supply chain and inventory problems. He says those problems have continued to worsen and are likely to continue affecting Valley contractors and consumers through the summer.
Periodically, Sanchez says, he’ll get emails from suppliers telling him what’s available and what’s not. The emails are generally scant on reasons for particular shortages, but Sanchez suspects they’re due to labor shortages and transportation snags.
Those shortages leave Sanchez and other Valley contractors scrounging for parts like coils and gas furnaces and condensers.
Sanchez says there’s no reason to panic — if you need an air conditioner you can get one — but it may not be the unit you’d had your heart set on.
“Whenever we promise a customer anything we literally have to tell them, ‘Hey, we’re going to do whatever we can to get this brand, but more than likely it’s going to be a brand you’ve never heard of. But, we’re going to get you some type of cooling,’” he said.
One customer, Sanchez said, even reported talking to an HVAC installer who was offering to put in a loaner unit temporarily and swap it out for a client’s preferred brand when it becomes available.
“Whether or not he’s charging double or extra for that, I mean, that’s great, but it’s definitely something to consider as well,” he said.
There’s not much Sanchez and the other 500-odd licensed HVAC contractors in the Valley can do about those shortages. He says that falls to wholesalers and manufacturers, and that customers and contractors will have to wait for those companies to piece themselves together in a post-pandemic economy.
“If you look close enough you can scrounge up a system to service a customer, but nowhere near where it should be,” he said. “We as a service provider should be able to go into our wholesaler, pick out whatever system we want and be able to sell it to a customer.”
Another factor is affecting the Valley’s HVAC market, one that was here before the pandemic and not likely to abate after it: a shortage of technicians.
Frequently Jorge Martinez, the HVAC coordinator at South Texas College, gets a call or an email from an air conditioning contractor. Almost invariably, that contractor asks if Martinez can line them up with a graduate from one of his programs.
The answer is almost always no; there simply aren’t any graduates to be had.
“I think it’s an emergency high, I guess I would put it,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of work out there and some companies even tell you they have to leave work behind or there’s delays on providing customers service because of it. And it’s not only local, it’s countrywide.”
Martinez started getting one or two of those calls a week in 2018. Now they come in every day.
He’s noticed that demand affects how his students go through his program as well. It takes three semesters to get an HVAC certificate and four to get an associates degree, programs that teach things like basic electrical and refrigeration fundamentals, safety and tool use concepts, and commercial and residential HVAC practices.
Before 2018 Martinez says students would usually graduate before joining the labor force. Now employers snap up students after a bare semester, something the college has tried to accommodate by making its programs more flexible and introducing an internship program, measures that let students work and study at the same time.
A demand for qualified technicians is hardly a Valley-specific problem. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates demand for HVAC technicians to rise by 15% between 2016 and 2026.
Martinez says all you have to do to see that demand is hop in your car and take a cruise.
“If you drive through the expressway Valleywide, you just see a lot of growth,” he said. “If you drive down certain streets you see new communities, new apartment complexes. And I started just thinking, ‘This is a lot of work.’”
The demand is good news for Martinez’s program and aspiring tradesmen — the college has seen a spike in demand for enrollment and its students have no trouble finding jobs.
However, the 30 HVAC graduates the college averages yearly won’t be able to meet demand on their own. He says the answer to the shortage lies in the industry, and it’s an answer no one wants to hear.
“I think one of the solutions to this problem — not only here locally — but I would say prices overall need to increase. So what I mean by that is that consumers will have to pay more so that employers are able to increase the wages to make it more enticing,” he said. “So that’s something that employers and consumers don’t want to hear, but that has to be said as well.”
According to the BLS, the national median wage for HVAC employees is $24.32 per hour .
Martinez says most of his students average $10-$12 an hour coming out of the program, about half that national average. Some graduates score big, snagging jobs that pay $20 or $22 an hour, although those high paying jobs are still too far and few between to draw more people to the field in significant numbers in Martinez’s opinion.
Sanchez, the Colair contractor, agrees that wages need to go up if labor supply is going to catch up to demand. Bumping up wages for entry level jobs would attract more young blood, young blood that’s desperately needed.
“The trades aren’t easy,” he said. “Working in the heat, working in tight, confined spaces. We as an industry need to realize that people that enjoy working in the trades are definitely worth the compensation.”
Martinez says he thinks STC and local contractors can address the HVAC labor deficit by collaborating, something he intends to try to coordinate himself.
“We need to come together as an industry and work things out,” he said. “Just like other bigger cities in Texas, they typically have their organizations that meet every once in a while to discuss ongoing issues. I think the Valley needs to do something similar so that everybody realizes what needs to be done in order to fix this problem.”