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Addressing skills and knowledge shortage a key HRAI focus

Dan O'Reilly
Addressing skills and knowledge shortage a key HRAI focus

Already suffering from a lack of skills tradespersons, the heating, refrigeration and air conditioning industry needs to pivot in response to an evolving marketplace, says that sector’s association vice-president.

“Canada is transitioning to a low-carbon economy and technologies such as heat pumps, variable refrigerant flow systems, and new building practices are the wave of the future,” says Martin Luymes, vice-president of government and stakeholder relations for the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI).

The Atlantic Provinces, which are heavily dependent on oil, as well as British Columbia, are actively promoting the installation of residential ground source heat pumps, he points out.

Demands for alternate sources of energy will increase as the country moves closer to its net zero targets. In many jurisdictions, such as Toronto, it will be mandatory for new homes to be built to net zero standards by 2030 and, under the federal government’s Climate Change Plan, the goal is to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050.

However, a major stumbling block to attaining those net zero objectives is the lack of skilled technicians to design, install, and maintain low-carbon systems, coupled with the industry’s own comfort level, he says.

“Our industry is resistant to change.”

The overwhelming majority of HRAI members are small contractor companies who are more comfortable promoting and installing relatively inexpensive natural gas heating and cooling systems to their customers than advocating for more expensive technologies such as heat pumps, he says.

Addressing that skills and knowledge shortage is the objective of a major funding proposal that HRAI submitted in early March to Employment & Social Development Canada, the federal department responsible for employment and skills training.

If the application is successful, the funding will be used by HRAI to offer a range of different training and retraining programs. There are a number of other objectives including measures to help contractors adapt to marketplace changes.

“We don’t usually ask the government for money. We’re a small non-profit organization supported by its members. But, in this case we’re asking for help, so we can help them (the government) achieve its goals.”

A decision on the application should be announced by mid-summer, which would allow HRAI to launch the training programs by September, says Luymes.

One solution to help bridge the gap between the demand for new technologies and required skills training is Ontario’s Residential Air Conditioning Systems Mechanic (313D) apprenticeship program which HRAI advocated for about 15 years ago, despite some initial opposition from commercial contractors.

Consisting of 4,020 hours of on-the-job training/work experience and 480 hours of in-school training, it prepares apprentices to install, maintenance and service air conditioning and heat pumps. If at least four other provinces implemented similar programs, graduates could become Red Seal certified.

Citing the drive for heat pumps in the Atlantic Provinces, he says Red Seal Certification would enable licensed technicians to take advantage of work opportunities in different parts of the country.

As the country moves closer to the respective 2030 and 2050 net zero carbon goals, the federal government will most likely offer a series of rebates. Combined with carbon tax hikes, those incentives will make it more palatable for homeowners to switch to more expensive low carbon technologies, he says.

For the heating, refrigeration, and air conditioning industry, the challenge is to have a skilled workforce which can meet that demand, says Luymes, adding the HRAI’s official position has always been that incentive programs should be conditional on system installation by qualified contractors.

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