Interview with a Union Contractor & Leader – A Guide to HVAC Worker Advocacy & Resources

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“One of the reasons that other parts of the country that are non-union have trouble getting and keeping successful HVAC technicians is because they’re not paying them enough, they’re not giving them the proper benefits, and they don’t give them the proper training. That’s what the union program supplies: it gives them the training, the benefits, and the salary to be able to earn a decent living.”

George “Butch” Welsch, Past President of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA)

HVAC workers keep America comfortable. By harnessing technical skill and customer relations, they ensure what many take for granted: the proper healing, cooling, and ventilation of homes, businesses, and offices. This is a growing profession, and a changing one. At a time when many Americans are using their homes as offices, HVAC workers have been more essential than ever.

As the weather starts to heat up, International Workers’ Day (May Day) and National HVAC Tech Day (June 22) provide an opportunity for the general public to recognize the important contributions of HVAC workers across the country.

For new and aspiring HVAC workers, it’s also a chance to explore the benefits of union membership and union apprenticeship in servicing the profession as a whole. To learn more about the issues most important in the HVAC community today, read on.

Meet the Expert: George “Butch” Welsch, Past President of SMACNA

George “Butch” Welsch is a legend of the HVAC industry, and the fourth-generation owner of Welsch Heating & Cooling Company in St. Louis, Missouri.

Over a 57-year career, he’s been the recipient of numerous awards: National Legislative Contractor of the Year, Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Contractor of the Year, and the Legends of the Industry Lifetime Achievement Award, just to name a few. Welsch is a Past President of the St. Louis Chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), and he also served as National President of SMACNA from 1988-1989.

The Role of Labor Unions in HVAC

“The biggest thing that HVAC contractors around the country indicate as their number-one problem is finding qualified people,” says George “Butch” Welsch, Past President of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), and fourth-generation owner of Welsch Heating & Cooling Company in St. Louis, Missouri. “But the St. Louis area is one of the few areas where we are union in residential work, and, quite frankly, we have absolutely no trouble getting qualified people.”

Labor unions are often misunderstood in the United States, but they’re a crucial resource in supporting American workers. Research says that labor unions reduce income inequality and that membership in a union can even reduce racial disharmony. For many new and aspiring HVAC workers, however, the most alluring benefits of union involvement are much more immediate and much more tangible.

“One of the reasons that other parts of the country that are non-union have trouble getting and keeping successful HVAC technicians is because they’re not paying them enough, they’re not giving them the proper benefits, and they don’t give them the proper training,” Welsch says. “That’s what the union program supplies: it gives them the training, the benefits, and the salary to be able to earn a decent living.”

Welsch isn’t just a union man, he’s a business owner, too. Half of his employees at Welsch Heating & Cooling Co. have been with the company for 15 years or more—a statistic that’s practically unheard of in the HVAC industry.

“We’ve worked with the union to develop different types of programs that allow us to not only keep our workers happy but keep us competitive as a business, too,” Welsch says.

The Benefits of Union Apprenticeships for HVAC Workers

Consider the apprentice program offered through Welsch Heating & Cooling Company and the Local 36 SMART Sheet Metal Workers. While attending school, service apprentices will ride along with an experienced journeyman, gaining hands-on experience with practical applications. For the first 124 hours, the union pays the apprentice’s full wages and benefits. For the second 124 hours, the union pays the wages and the contractor pays the benefits.

“We have nearly 300 applicants on our apprentice list in the St. Louis area,” Welsch says. “We’ll take in maybe 75 to 100 apprentices a year.”

The promise of high-quality training, a competitive salary, benefits, and a secure pipeline into the HVAC career—all with no student debt—makes union apprenticeships highly sought-after. Applicants will need to take an aptitude test, and also interview with an in-person apprenticeship committee.

To make themselves more competitive, Welsch says applicants should bone up on their math skills and boost their general HVAC knowledge (e.g., know what a furnace combustion chamber is, or how the refrigeration cycle works). But it’s about more than just hard skills: the interview and public speaking are very important, too.

“Sometimes HVAC workers think of themselves as not having to deal with the public, but that’s not the real world,” Welsch says. “Even our new construction installers have to deal with the foreman, with other trades, and with homeowners. The way they present themselves to those people is reflective of our company, and the wrong word can be very damaging.”

Advocacy Issues in HVAC

HVAC is a continually changing industry. For many Americans, it’s reached new importance under the Covid-19 pandemic. As more people work from home, they’ve come to realize that maybe their second floor doesn’t stay cool during the daytime, or that a guest room, when used as an office, isn’t quite as comfortable as they thought. For HVAC workers, however, some of the top issues are more technical.

One pressing issue has to do with the type of refrigerant that HVAC systems use. Today, that refrigerant is R-410A. But regulatory requirements are phasing out R-410A and replacing it with something that doesn’t affect the ozone layer as much.

What they replace it with, however, has been a topic of contention. One replacement refrigerant, R-454B, is mildly flammable. Historically speaking, standardized refrigerants have never been flammable, and HVAC workers will have to adapt.

“There’s going to have to be a lot of training done to teach the new apprentices, even existing HVAC workers, how to use and operate the new refrigerants,” Welsch says.

Another layer of complexity is added in that there might be two possible refrigerants replacing R-410A. While the standard refrigerant has changed over the years, there’s always been just one; if the industry does begin to incorporate two, then that would make things more complicated for HVAC workers.

“If we’re going to have two different sets of tools and two different tanks of refrigerant, then that’s a real challenge for contractors and for future technicians in the industry,” Welsch says.

There’s also an issue in heating, particularly in furnace efficiency. Currently, regulations have set the minimum gas furnace efficiency at 78 percent; but there’s now a possibility that regulators will increase the minimum efficiency to 90 percent. While that sounds good on the surface to the environmentally-minded, it could have detrimental side effects.

“Unfortunately, what happens to the products of combustion between 78 and 90 percent requires an entirely different venting system,” Welsch says. “As a result, if this goes through, there are thousands and thousands of housing units that won’t be able to utilize the gas furnaces they’ve used in the past, and the new gas furnaces will not work with the venting system they have.”

The Future of HVAC

Welsch Heating & Cooling Company is over 125 years old. They started out selling pot-belly furnaces, then moved on to gas furnaces, gas furnaces with blowers, and then various types of air conditioning. The company, and the HVAC industry, are continuing to evolve to this day.

“What our company has seen the most of in 125 years is change,” Welsch says. “We’ve gone through a lot of changes, and there will be more changes in the future.”

Today, Welsch’s company is exploring geothermal work: extracting heat from the ground to provide heating in winter, and also using deep wells to cool refrigerant in the summertime. And Welsch himself is looking at ways to optimize the waiting lists for apprenticeships: perhaps sharing applicant lists across different regional areas, simultaneously helping new HVAC workers get trained while supplying more contractors with qualified workers.

“This is a profession with a lot to offer the world,” Welsch says. “It’s going to be here in some form for a long time, a lot longer than me. It can definitely provide a good future, and a good occupation, for a lot of people.”

Resources for HVAC Workers

When skilled labor unifies to safeguard its interests and advance its trade, everyone benefits. To get more information on what’s important to the HVAC community, and to learn more about the role that labor unions play in supporting it, check out some of the resources below.

  • Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA): Founded over 77 years ago, SMACNA is an international trade association representing over 1,834 member firms in 97 chapters across the US, Canada, Australia, and Brazil. Their HVAC Contractors Council develops programs, services, and products that help members compete effectively in HVAC duct fabrication, installation, and building life-cycle markets.
  • Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration News (ACHR News): Established in 1926, ACHR News is one of the HVAC industry’s most trusted news sources. In addition to contractors, their readers include manufacturers, distributors, parts and supply wholesalers, and service companies with their various departments.
  • Air-Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA): For over 50 years, ACCA has been the only nationwide nonprofit association strictly dedicated to professionals that install and maintain HVAC, indoor environment, and building performance systems.

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He's been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt's writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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