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Health & Human Resources

Remaining Proactive In The Face of a Labor Shortage

How this 101-year-old HVACR company is seeing its highest staffing levels in recent history.

Originally published
Originally published: 6/27/2022

It has not been an easy year for companies in the service industry. There’s a growing shortage of skilled trade workers. The workforce that many industries are holding on to so tightly, is showing signs of burnout. We’re recovering from disrupted supply chains and material shortages, facing price increases and inflation, and at the same time, working in tandem with customers to keep each other safe from the still-waning pandemic.

When you run a business that has been thriving for more than a century, as I have, you learn a thing or two about resilience. I’m grateful once again to see that resilience on display with our team at Atlas Butler. None of us could have anticipated the arrival of COVID-19 or forecasted how long the pandemic would last. None of us understood the many ways it would impact our world and our local communities. Now, as we continue to endure the ramifications of the pandemic on our economy, we’re looking to our history as a reminder of how we can survive the present. 

Lesson #1: Hiring for Character vs. Hiring for Skill

Certainly, this isn’t the first time we’ve been confronted with a labor shortage. When we couldn’t find enough skilled HVACR labor to keep up with demand in 2002, we committed to creating the workforce that we needed. We worked with a local community college to establish the Atlas Butler Academy. Although that program has since ended, it taught us the value of creative recruitment and on-the-job training.

A key lesson we learned is that hiring based on someone’s character is more important than hiring for skill. We can teach someone how to service, repair, or install an HVACR system. It’s much harder to teach someone the importance of quality customer service, especially if they don’t have the right attitude for it — that comes from within the individual. What does this mean in terms of recruitment tactics? We don't necessarily need people who have the right work experience, but rather, we need people who can expand our efforts regardless of their industry experience or age. 

This thinking is what led us to create our high school job shadow and internship program, Ride TO Decide. 

Lesson #2: Embrace the Future

The Ride TO Decide program allows high school students, ages sixteen and over, to learn firsthand what it's like to work for the company and the HVACR industry in general. From looking at peers in the HVACR industry and beyond, we’ve learned that the most successful companies are the ones investing in today’s youth. 

If you are waiting until your most skilled tradespeople retire before you have a plan in place, you’ve waited too long. Ride TO Decide opens the door to allow high school students the opportunity to explore and consider a career in the trades before they even graduate from high school.

The program has two options for students to choose from 1) a one-day unpaid job shadow during the school year and 2) a three-week paid internship during the summer. Successful interns are immediately offered full-time jobs with the company. 

If you think you can’t do something like this, you can. To launch the program, we took a grassroots approach – contacting school counselors in both urban and rural school districts to get feedback during the planning process so we could ensure that the program would be valuable to the career exploration process. 

We have had 35 students express an interest in our inaugural year, several of whom have already participated in the one-day job shadow portion of the program. We recently interviewed the top 12 candidates for the internship and have selected six of them to participate in the inaugural internship cohort. 

We’re thrilled to see students, parents, school representatives, and our employees excited and invested in the program. Having this 360-degree support tells us that we are on the right track and can hopefully not only continue this program but also grow it in years to come.

Lesson #3: Find Your Own Recruiting Edge

Between expanding recruiting efforts to those outside the HVACR industry and those who have yet to enter the workforce, we’ve learned how to showcase the best of what the trades world – and specifically what our company – has to offer. 

A career in the trades can be extremely rewarding and profitable; however, it requires hard work. So, we must find the people who find reward in a challenging career. Compensation is one piece of it, and we are proud to have a large number of high-paying opportunities that do not require a degree. But workplace satisfaction is another major component of successful recruitment.

To help with this, we place a massive focus on creating a culture in which people can thrive. We foster a culture of family, ensuring that our current team members are cared for and know their value in our company. The leadership team spends a lot of time focused on how to make Atlas Butler a “best place to work”, a place that team members are happy to come to every day.

To that end, I’d be remiss not to mention that safety is also a huge priority in our recruiting efforts. Working in a manual industry like the trades, people do have concerns about whether it is a physically safe work environment. The only acceptable answer is ‘absolutely, yes.’ So, when we hire, we make sure we are bringing in people with good driving records and clear background checks. Safety for our employees and our customers is a core value at Atlas Butler, and therefore it is a core requirement when we hire new team members.

We’ve also recently brought an in-house recruiter to our team. Having a dedicated person who understands our culture and priorities has been invaluable in putting a renewed focus on building our team.

Lesson #4: Celebrate Success & Commit to Learning

Our current approach to hiring didn’t happen overnight and has taken a lot of collaboration with and among our current team members as well as local schools. Especially in our efforts to launch our Ride TO Decide program. But we remain optimistic about where it will lead us. The program is only in its infancy, but thanks to our prior approach of recruiting and hiring straight out of high school, we are currently at our highest staffing levels in recent history. And Millennials and GenZ make up more than 60% of our employees.

Still, we are cognizant that we cannot become complacent. We are committed to keeping a proactive and celebratory approach to supporting the workforce of our company and within the trades. We’ll continue to work with guidance counselors at local high schools so that we can educate more students on the potential of a trade career. After this inaugural year ends, we’re excited to gather the information learned and improve where we can for next year.

For those interns that discover they want to pursue a trade, are a fit for Atlas Butler, and we feel they are a fit, we will have signing days that celebrate their decision to work for us – cake, local media, all of it. Anytime a young person finds their career path, it is worthy of celebration, and we plan to make that happen for many years to come. 

Nothing we did was a plan that can’t be replicated. We paid attention to a need, understood our recruiting edge, and acted upon it. We ventured to think outside the box. I hear from other HVACR owners about the struggle with labor shortage issues all the time. It’s a real problem for many small businesses. As an industry, let’s get collectively creative. If it's not Ride TO Decide for you, maybe it’s another brilliant idea. Let’s work to make impactful change. So, in ten years, the steps we took today will have made all the difference toward a newly thriving workforce.  

After graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in finance Mark Swepston began working for Atlas Butler, where he has spent the past 45 years. He currently serves as the CEO and third-generation owner of Atlas Butler. 

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