Industrial Refrigerant Apprenticeship Program Nears Completion

A consortium of agencies including RETA, IIAR, ARF, the Global Cold Chain Alliance, FASTPORT and Lanier Technical College has been working diligently to build the Industrial Refrigerant Apprenticeship Program and to get it up and running with the U.S. Department of Labor. It is with great pleasure that we announce that the process is nearly complete.

In the December issue of the Condenser, Lois Stirewalt O’Connor, executive director of the Ammonia Refrigeration Foundation remarked that there are over 40,000 refrigeration jobs nationwide waiting to be filled, and a nationally recognized apprenticeship program would help fill that gap. The program will have many benefits, particularly in terms of bolstering a shrinking workforce and also assisting companies that rely on industrial refrigeration to remain viable.

Jim Barron, executive director of RETA, the organization selected to be the administrator of the program, said the program is nearly ready to be put into action. RETA drafted the program’s policies and procedures and outlined the requirements of the program. These policies and procedures were reviewed by members of the agency consortium, and RETA is now considering the consortium’s notes and suggestions.

While Barron cannot share the names of companies in which interest has been piqued, he said there are several large players who are interested in participating. “There are already companies lining up for this program,” Barron says, “so we need to get this out and start getting apprentices going.”

Barron said the importance of this program cannot be understated. It is coming together at a critical and historical moment in the industry. A large segment of the refrigeration workforce is nearing retirement age, and there are no skilled workers to replace them. “The baby boomers are retiring out,” Barron says. “When you have companies saying, ‘We’re going to lose 40 percent of our refrigeration staff in the next three years to retirement,’ you have to look at that, and you have to get serious.”

This shortage of refrigeration technicians is not a new topic of concern. According to Barron, it has been discussed for at least a decade, and he contends that if the problem is not addressed immediately, the industry could be facing an existential crisis. “It’s come to the point now that we must do something to keep our food safe,” he added.

Barron said the apprenticeship program will help entice young people, particularly those who are searching for a career with job security and competitive wages. “Not everyone is meant for a four-year college degree. With that being said, what do we have out there for the rest of these folks who are maybe mechanically inclined? Those are the kinds of people we’re looking for,” Barron states.

Dave Harrison, executive director of National Apprenticeship at FASTPORT, said that veterans are a perfect fit for this program, and has been actively working to get them involved. “A focus of this Industrial Refrigerant Apprenticeship Program is veterans and transitioning services members,” he said. “One of the benefits to this, if you’re a trainee and you have GI Bill benefits, you’re eligible to draw a monthly housing allowance based on the zip code where you will be training. The average is approximately $1,500 a month to start.” This is paid directly to the apprentice from the Department of Veterans Affairs and is in addition to the training wage drawn from the company with whom they are training. “Transitioning military personnel,” Harrison stated, are a perfect fit. Not only is the program lucrative for the apprentice, but also Harrison said he feels that generally speaking, veterans have the right mindset and work ethic for this industry. “If you engage transitioning military, they have higher retention rates, trainability and the ability to overcome obstacles. They’re better employees,” he said. “By and large, they will be better than their civilian counterparts.”

Harrison also stressed the prioritization of accessibility in the design of the program. “What we’ve done very successfully is design a process for this registered apprenticeship program… this process allows multiple companies to engage quickly and seamlessly. We’ve built a national standard for the consortium. This is an industry-wide apprenticeship program.”

To achieve maximum buy-in at the organizational level, the program had to be designed in such a way that employers could opt-in to predefined training elements. “This allows each employer to adopt a training process which has been approved, or they can substitute their own as long as it’s relatively close,” Harrison said. “Each company can tailor the training process to its own individual needs as long as the company is getting the proper certifications.” He explained that this allows for flexibility from an employer’s standpoint and also ensures that the program can be altered so that it will fit each company’s particular needs.

By standardizing this apprenticeship process and making it as accessible as possible to companies, Harrison said that it will eventually create a pipeline of qualified technicians ready to fill the gaps left by exiting workforce members. “If you give people a process, a guideline, a map,” he said, “then they will become a valued turn-key member of the industry.”