THE MECHANICS OF CHANGE: Developing Industry-Specific Education to Narrow Industrial Refrigeration’s Skills Gap


Much has been made of the so-called manufacturing skills gap in the United States as manufacturers across a wide swath of industries report that the pool of prospective workers with the skill sets and certifications required to perform highly specialized job functions is narrowing, even as U.S. manufacturing continues its steady climb.

And for ammonia refrigeration, an industry poised to expand dramatically in the next decade – thanks to new technology and environmental mandates that are shifting the focus to natural refrigerants – a widening skills gap could be the one factor with real potential to hinder growth.

In a report recently released by the Manufacturing Institute, and research firm Accenture, titled the 2014 Manufacturing Skills and Training Study, more than 75 percent of manufacturers reported a moderate to severe shortage of skilled resources, and over 80 percent reported a shortage in highly skilled manufacturing resources.

While those numbers may seem amorphous, they represent an all too real problem that will only grow for the industrial refrigeration sector, said Jim Barron, Executive Director of the Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians Association.

“People right now in our industry can’t find anybody to fill technical roles essential to operation. We’re facing a real skills shortage,” said Barron. “We love what we do, and we’ll keep doing it as long as we can, but we need to plan for the future. Now is the time to use the talent we have in our industry to train the next generation.”

Eric Girven, Project Manager for SCS Engineers agreed with Barron, adding that while some end-user companies are acutely aware of the problem, the industry as a whole has yet to meaningfully address it. “It may be a common theme throughout our industry – that the upper management of facilities may not understand the coming impact of a general skills shortage as much as they should. There simply aren’t enough skilled technicians,” he said.

“It may not be recognized now, but if we don’t do something soon, there will come a day when we look around and wonder where all the skilled technicians are. The awareness that we have a growing skills shortage is certainly there, but I don’t know if it’s on the front burner as much as it should be.”

Getting the issue on the front burner, much less beginning to address it may be much more complicated than it may seem for an industry focused on keeping facilities running. As baby boomers begin to exit the workforce, taking their years of experience with them, businesses will have to put primary resources towards keeping the talent they do have, rather than developing new talent.

Meanwhile, even though manufacturing as an industry has become more efficient through automation, which has resulted in a smaller workforce overall, a greater percentage of remaining US manufacturing roles require skilled workers who need many months, and, in some cases, years of experience and training to perform their jobs efficiently and effectively, according to the Accenture report.

That’s a trend that can clearly be seen in the ammonia refrigeration industry, where automation has led to greater efficiency, but has, at the same time thrown the need for skilled technicians into sharp relief, said Dave Rule, president of the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration.

“There’s a real need for qualified, trained operators who are highly skilled, but also understand industrial refrigeration at a level that goes beyond the basics,” he said.

While the industry does have many resources in place to train and educate technicians, through shorter-term programs like the ones provided at the Garden City Ammonia Program and Lanier Technical College, or even through longer-term efforts like private training programs run by companies within the industry, there is not yet a generally accessible educational track capable of funneling new talent, from the vocational school level for example, directly into the industry.

That’s something IIAR and RETA are working to change with a new effort to combine the resources of the two organizations to develop a standardized core refrigeration curriculum that can be offered by any community college across the nation.

Rule and Barron said IIAR and RETA are now looking for ways to develop that program.

“RETA and IIAR are working together to create one standard industrial refrigeration curriculum that can be integrated into educational programs at the community college level to make sure anyone who may be interested in coming into our industry can get the tools they need to excel in existing refrigeration programs and successfully attain the certifications and experience that will make them the kind of skilled operators we need,” he said.

“With this effort, we’re really laying the groundwork for a more holistic knowledge of refrigeration that will prepare students to move directly into more advanced operator programs.”

The exact structure that such a core curriculum might take, and how it might be integrated into existing community college vocational programs across the country is still being worked out. But, said Rule, the fundamental progression would take the form of a one- to two-year degree track followed by a formalized apprenticeship program.

Such a large effort would, of course, depend on the buy-in and support of the industry in general, but Rule and Barron agreed that once a structure is put into place, end users and manufacturers alike would see it as a valuable resource.

“If we can put a structure in place to start turning out ready-to-hire operators, knowledgeable about refrigeration systems and theory, and prepared to attain industry certifications, that would be a very big step in starting to close the skills gap in our industry,” said Rule.

“This effort is going to take all of us working together in our industry, and even beyond it,” said Barron. “It’s time to pull together and find a way to start using the community colleges to deliver a solid foundation for ammonia refrigeration education and hopefully create a stepping stone into industrial refrigeration for individuals who may not have considered it” as a path to a viable career.

Building pool of potential highly skilled technicians at the community college level will be valuable to any business in the industry, said Girven, especially given that the current educational burden at that level rests almost entirely with the end user.

“One of the biggest concerns for companies within our industry is that they may spend a large sum of money training internal candidates, only to see them leave the company and take an expensive training investment with them,” he said. “With this effort, IIAR and RETA are hoping to partner with accredited schools to develop that fundamental training and help end users find qualified people right out of the gate. That removes some of the responsibility for providing an educational base from the individual employer and passes it to the industry.”

Additionally, providing a way for a potential technician to enter the industry via a formalized career track could attract students who may not realize that ammonia refrigeration can be a rewarding, and well-compensated long-term career.

“This is really about creating a formalized track to RETA’s CIRO certification. It’s a way we can say to the next generation entering the workforce ‘here’s a track for you’ and at the same time show them what the end result would be,” said Girven.

While the main goal of a standardized educational program would be to help the industry deal with its general skills shortage, the development of the curriculum will first focus on meeting a specific regulatory need in the state of New Jersey, said IIAR’s Rule.

That need stems from a unique regulatory environment in the state which, in addition to having a much lower ammonia threshold quantity than anywhere else in the U.S., requires that all ammonia facilities must have at least one “gold seal” certified operator on site at all times in order to operate.

The “gold seal” certification requirement is specific to New Jersey, defined by the state, rather than the industry, and has created an environment where finding, hiring and supporting gold seal-certified professionals is prohibitively expensive, said Rule.

Meanwhile, as HFC’s, including R-22, are phased out, the future of refrigeration in the state is uncertain.

To address that uncertainty, and to promote the use of natural refrigerants, IIAR worked with New Jersey legislators to find a more attractive solution to the certification requirement problem.

The result, said Rule, is that New Jersey will allow industry to develop its own certificate program – in the form of a standardized educational track – and will accept that program as a replacement for gold seal certification.

“It is our hope that this initiative would help to relieve the immediate regulatory burden that is keeping our industry out of the state,” said Rule. “But perhaps more importantly, developing a standardized education program that can be offered at any community college across the country would be a valuable investment for our industry.”

“In putting together such a program, we’re solving an immediate regulatory problem in New Jersey, but we’re also starting to address something that is bigger than just a local regulatory issue,” said Rule. “The need for qualified, trained ammonia refrigeration technicians is consistent across the country. This is an investment in the long-term health of our industry.”