Del-Air Heating & Cooling
One Florida Contractor Takes Action
Developing Your Workforce on a Local Level
There’s an old joke that goes, “Everyone’s talking about the weather but no one’s doing anything about it”. For many, it might seem like the lack of skilled labor available to the plumbing heating and cooling trades is some- thing we talk about but, like the weather, is impossible to do anything about. Unless you are a one-man show your business is likely struggling to find (and keep) qualified help.
Fortunately, we have some great industry associations like the Plumbing, Heating, Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC) doing important work to find solutions to the problem. Associations like PHCC are taking our issues to the top reaches of the Federal government but also doing important work at the grassroots level supporting scholarships, competitions and more to grow interest in the plumbing, heating and cooling trades at the high school level. Change is happening but change takes time which is frustrating when you need workers today.
There are also examples of local-level programs that are producing concrete results. One great example is unfolding in central Florida.
Bob Dello Russo, founded Del-Air in 1983. He built his company into a powerhouse covering a large swath of central Florida, that today, bills itself as Orlando’s largest Heating and Air company. He was so successful that by the 2005 he initiated a sale of 47% of the company to his employees. Then the Great Recession of 2008 hit and Dello Russo had to let go over two thirds of his 960 employees and park hundreds of his trucks. He invested millions of dollars in the ensuing years to keep Del-Air viable until business began to creep back in 2012-13. By 2015, with the company firmly back on track, Dello Russo sold the remainder of the com- pany to the employees and turned his attention, not to playing more golf (he has owned six courses over the years) but, instead, to helping his industry. Del- lo Russo is bothered by the fact that kids graduating from the local high schools can’t find jobs. They are competing for low-paying jobs while, at the same time, Del Air needs workers more than ever. So Dello Russo approached Seminole County Schools Superintendent Walt Griffin with a proposition; he wanted to see the HVAC trade taught in the lo- cal high schools. Says Dello Russo, “I want to see kids graduating from High School walking into good paying jobs in the HVAC industry instead of competing for a minimum wage job at McDonalds”. For that to happen, they need training while they are in high school…not after. Dello Russo agreed to offer his expertise in setting up a curriculum for the school.
Setting up a program at each High School was going to be prohibitive from a logistics and cost standpoint, how- ever, the County already had a very successful Magnet Program for Aviation Maintenance, Robotics, Cosmetolgoy and Barbering as well as Technical Design and a Building Trades Program. But Dello Russo wanted to see an in- depth program focused solely on HVAC.
Jill Fierle is Seminole County Public Schools ePathways K-12 Coordinator for Career Education and Readiness Initiatives and it fell to her team to establish the curriculum that would fol- low state standards and match that curriculum to an instructor. They found that instructor in their existing Building Trades program. Jesus Hernandez had former experience working in the HVAC field and was interested in teaching the after-school course. Last spring and summer, the program was promoted via social media and emails sent home to families and with the school year that began in August 2019 all 25 spots in the new program were filled allowing the program to launch at full capacity with a waiting list to boot.
Today, as the students are well into their second semester, twice weekly, these students trek across the county to Lyman High School in Longwood FL for a 2-hour classroom and hands-on lab with Mr. Hernandez. Says Fierle, “I was worried about low enrollment, but there was great interest right out of the gate and I believe next year the program will continue to grow”
This summer, Seminole County Public Schools will break ground on a 25,000 sq ft building dedicated to class- room and lab space for 5 programs that include Building Trades and Construction, Electrical, Welding, Automotive Maintenance and Light Repair and of course, HVAC. In addition to classroom space there is collaborative lab space that allows the programs to interact with each other. Practical, real world experience under ideal lab conditions.
Could this model be replicated in other districts? Fierle says one of the biggest challenges is finding an instructor. “Since the construction industry is doing so well right now, it can be very difficult to find someone who is willing to leave and become a teacher.”. Having an industry partner, however, really made this pro- gram come together. Dello Russo and Del-Air not only donated all the equip- ment for the Seminole County Program they are ongoing partners by providing another very key element…keeping the curriculum relevant. Instructors who are only in the classroom quickly fall behind all the advances that the HVAC and Plumbing fields are experiencing on a daily basis so it’s important to have a partner like Del-Air as a sounding board. “Our students won’t be success- ful in the marketplace if they don’t have the skills companies are looking for in employees” says Fierle. “Businesses tend to be reluctant to hire students just out of high school because of their age and assumed lack of training, but if they graduate from our schools having com- pleted meaningful training through par- ticipation in a program like this, they are much more marketable to employers. ”
Bob Dello Russo approached Seminole County School’s Superintendent, Walt Griffin, with the idea of expanding the school’s trades program to include HVAC-specific training.
Another way businesses can play an important role is to provide intern- ships where local schools have such programs. Internships provide students hands on experience that make them valuable employees after graduation.
Externships serve an equally important roll. Instructors who devote their livelihoods to training our next generation of workers benefit two ways from externships. They appreciate the extra cash they can earn from a summer externship but even more importantly, they
get hands-on experience in the field they are teaching so they return to the classroom energized and with first hand knowledge of what these kids need to learn to be “marketable” employees at graduation.”