Challenge for LI tech firms is finding skilled labor
Ted Bier's business started at the top. He founded T.M. Bier & Associates Inc. in 1977 in the attic of his Roslyn home. The company, which designs and installs controls for commercial air-conditioning, heating, lighting and security systems, had three employees then: Bier, his wife and their son.
From that perch, his biggest worry was drumming up enough business. Now, 35 years, 600 clients and 76 employees later, the biggest concern of the Glen Cove-based company is finding enough qualified engineers and technicians.
"Our biggest single challenge is people," said Bier, who has a master's degree in engineering from Cornell University.
Among the reasons for the shortfall: The defense industry cutbacks in the 1980s and 1990s made parents skittish about their kids' majoring in engineering, science and math. Struggling school districts have cut funds for vocational programs that train technicians. Finally, the cost of living here spurs many young Long Island graduates to leave the Island for more affordable locales.
Staff shortage, long hours"In general, your young engineering graduates want to go someplace else," Bier said. "And the big national companies recruit them, and they offer them packages."
Bier's "green company" uses technology that helps employers cut their energy costs, in part by reducing lighting and heating in rooms not in use.
He employs 16 engineers and 35 technicians, and wants to hire three more of each. A shortage of personnel sometimes means he has to pass up jobs. For the staff it means working longer hours, especially during big projects.
"All of them put in far more than 40 hours a week," Bier said. His clients have included the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan and the LIU Post campus in Brookville.
Sammy Chu, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Labor, said that on-the-job training of experienced engineers could help ease the skills gap. He noted that the Island has a history "rich with engineering culture" because of the once-dominant defense industry.
The department's on-the-job training program, which includes subsidizing wages, might be enough for some engineers to upgrade their skills to what Bier is looking for, he said.
"A career change isn't always about reinventing yourself 100 percent," said Chu, who is also the vice chairman of the Long Island chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. "Sometimes it's reinventing 20 percent of yourself."
Despite the cost-of-living factor, Bier focuses on engineering graduates from the metro area, including Long Island. Unlike recruits from other states, they are familiar with the area's costs, and their families often live nearby.
Promoting opportunities"When we can show them that we have exciting employment opportunities and a chance for advancement, and they can be with their families, that's a home run for us," he said.
"RIT graduates with engineering degrees are the type of person who likes to work hands-on, more so than people who are interested in theory," he said.
As for technicians, he has had some luck with a local vocational training program. He recently hired a graduate of the United Way's YouthBuild Long Island program, whose focus includes green-collar job opportunities for low-income, at-risk youth ages 18 to 24. Bier also has contributed equipment to the program.
"That's a very good source for technicians," he said. "They have put in the time. They got good training."
AT A GLANCE
Name: T.M. Bier & Associates Inc., engineering firm, Glen Cove
Founder/president: Ted Bier
Revenue: About $20 million in 2011