Refrigeration company looking for workers

East Coast Refrigeration president and chief executive Jeff

East Coast Refrigeration president and chief executive Jeff Tempone, right, gives new employee Justin Nicotri some pointers as Nicotri trains on a refrigeration simulator. (Feb. 15, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan)

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Given the sluggish economy, Jeff Tempone finds it quite surprising he's having difficulty filling openings at his Deer Park refrigeration company.

He could easily hire 10 more workers if only he had enough applicants, says Tempone, president and chief executive of East Coast Refrigeration, which services commercial and industrial refrigeration systems.

Many seasoned workers stay where they are or have retired, and the younger generation isn't gravitating toward the field in large numbers, says Tempone, 34, who started the business in 2005 with $261 and now has nine employees and does more than $1 million in sales.

Tempone's difficulty in finding workers isn't uncommon.

A ManpowerGroup survey last year found 52 percent of U.S. employers were having difficulty finding available talent, with skilled trades topping the list.

"There aren't enough young people going into the trades," explains Melanie Holmes, a ManpowerGroup vice president in Milwaukee.

Part of the problem is they can be perceived as "dirty jobs," she says; many parents want "their children to go to four-year colleges and universities."

This has contributed to a decline in the trades, say experts.

Number of workers falls
Regional statistics show that employment among installation, maintenance and repair workers, which includes HVAC/refrigeration workers, has dwindled. In 2005 there were 46,548 workers in these occupations on Long Island, compared to 40,126 workers in 2010, according to the New York State Department of Labor.

The skilled-worker crunch "is going to become more acute as existing skilled trades workers begin to retire in large numbers," says Pearl Kamer, chief economist of the Long Island Association, noting many of them are baby boomers.

Tempone's solution to this challenge is to grow his own. The company has instituted a formal training program for employees and recently purchased a $10,000 refrigeration simulator to train workers.

He's also begun to try to recruit via word-of-mouth and wants to reach out to local schools to talk to young people about opportunities in this field.

Suffolk County Community College, which has a certificate program and an associate degree program in HVAC/refrigeration, has been reaching out to high schools and partnering with industry to build its programs, says Mary Lou Araneo, the college's vice president for institutional advancement. Enrollment in its degree program has grown from 50 students in 2008 to 65 in 2011. In comparison, its nursing program has 800 enrollees.

Recruit sees opportunity
Although Tempone's own outreach efforts have just begun, he's already found at least one new recruit, thanks to a referral from an existing employee.

Justin Nicotri, 23, of Islip, started in October learning the field after leaving his job at a local hardware store. A graduate from SCCC last year with a major in criminal justice, he hasn't ruled out a career in law enforcement but sees a future in refrigeration.

"It's a really interesting field," says Nicotri, who attends weekly training sessions at the company. "It's a great opportunity."

Tempone's hoping he will get more recruits like Nicotri, enabling him to take on more business and promote existing staff.

"We need to start to recruit and bring in talent -- whether it be two or three employees a year -- so even the senior people have a ladder to climb," says Tempone.

Every bit helps, as demand is only expected to grow.

"As we install equipment, it needs to be serviced," says Richard Roberts, business agent-at-large for the Enterprise Association of Steamfitters Local Union 638 in Long Island City, of which Tempone is a member.

The group has an apprenticeship program and also participates in Helmets to Hardhats, a program to train returning military veterans for careers in the trades.

Tempone is optimistic. "We're going to take the initiative to go out and find people," he says.

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