It’s no secret that one of, if not the hottest discussion in the home service industry today is the shortage of skilled labor. Especially in 2020 as contractors were deemed essential, the problem was less finding leads and more simply having enough labor to meet demand. But what are we doing about it? Recruitment can only get us so far, and Chris Roth, CEO of National Technical Institute, has valuable insights that could help us pave the best path forward to grow the labor force in our industry.
We’ve all heard the story of the person who didn’t find the trades, but the trades found them. In Chris’ life, this takes on a whole new meaning. He was just an average high school kid, spending the majority of his childhood growing up in Las Vegas. Chris’ father ran a pawn shop, and would reinvest his profits into rental real estate. The biggest expense in owning rental properties was HVAC repair, and Chris’ father made a decision that would shake up his world. Chris was pulled out of his high school and placed in a vocational school to learn air conditioning.
Understandably upset, 14 year-old Chris suddenly found himself thrust into the world of HVAC. He worked through the two-year program, working for a contractor during his training. He graduated at the age of 17, and went right into the trades working for a contractor in Las Vegas. Chris had a knack for the industry, and honed his skills in both the residential and commercial sides of heating, cooling, and refrigeration. Chris worked for several companies during this time (including working for Ken Goodrich!), teaching at nights through it all. At the age of 23, he started his own commercial refrigeration company in Las Vegas. What Chris learned was that while he was a fantastic technician, he wasn’t the best business owner. Still, his company grew quickly and he had the opportunity to sell to a large national organization.
Even fresh out of vocational school, education remained a steady part of Chris’ life. Right out of school, he was also helping as a teacher’s assistant for one of his former HVAC teachers at a local community college. After just one semester, Chris was given the opportunity to teach his own classroom at the age of 19.
Teaching was the highlight of every day for Chris. He was honing his skillset by teaching at nights, and then putting it all to work out in the field during the day. After 13 years of teaching, Chris was promoted to the department chair at the college. He really enjoyed teaching, and would have done it full time if it paid enough. However, the college was state-run and needed degrees to be awarded in order to be effective and profitable. Chris’ programs weren’t designed with this goal in mind. People were coming through his classes and being career-ready quickly, and would leave without finishing their degree. Chris designed a short-term program, got approval, and changed the program from a 2 ½ year to a 9-month program. Shortly after, the university president changed positions, and his program was scrapped. Chris was pissed, and decided to open his own trade school at just 27 years of age.
He officially launched the school in 1999. It was focused on HVAC training, and used Chris’ short-term program as a launching point. They wanted to get Title IV funding for their students, and targeted government funding. The consequence of this was needing to extend the program to a longer duration because the state was dictating the number of clock-hours required for graduation. While they wanted to cater to the students in having a short-term program, the government quickly became their customer, forcing Chris to conform his program to a whole new set of rules and restrictions.
Chris ended up selling his first trade school, and was enjoying a sort of semi-retirement and was investing in real estate. As life played out, he went through a tragic divorce, a 3-year ordeal that cost him virtually everything he owned. Education was the only thing that couldn’t be taken from Chris, and he went back into the HVAC world, starting a company in Las Vegas in 2012 with just a single technician. He joined some best practice groups to stay on the cutting edge of things, and notes that joining Nexstar was the single biggest move for the company. Nexstar enabled them to really grow and scale, and gave them the opportunity to work with some of the best providers across the country. The company was growing incredibly fast, but they were consistently bottlenecked with labor. They had more clients than they could serve!
In order to solve the labor issue for his business, Chris did some guerilla marketing and took a class at a local college to recruit candidates. While it worked, it only resulted in a handful of technicians a year, and they were growing at a much faster rate. They tried incorporating a model into the business to bring in younger, newer technicians instead of grabbing older techs from other companies. They added another layer of management to pull out students and teach them. Still, they continued to struggle to keep up with the demand for skilled labor. So, what was the solution? Chris decided to go out and acquire a school. This was a way to give back to the industry, and help create more labor to slow down the poaching that goes on in our industry and try to reduce the demand for labor.
National Technical Institute (NTI) was a small, one-program school in Las Vegas. The biggest class they had ever graduated was about 70 people. Chris and his partners acquired NTI in early 2018, and now they are graduating over 1,500 people a year. He was loving being back in the classroom, and when he had an M&A opportunity to sell his company to a great partner and go back to teaching full-time, he pounced on the opportunity.
NTI is a private, for-profit school that doesn’t collect any public funding so that Chris can have full control over the program. With locations in Las Vegas and Phoenix and expansion plans for locations in Texas and Florida, NTI’s HVAC, plumbing, and electrical programs are focused on entry-level training for an up-and-coming generation of skilled tradespeople. NTI takes in a lot of feedback from contractors to design programs, and look at contractors as their customer and the students as the product. With the typical 4-year college cost around $65,000 on average and the average cost of a career college between $18-24,000, NTI’s program of less than $8,000 is a very attractive option. Many contractors are getting involved, even taking on monthly payments for new hires to give them incentive to stay onboard. It’s an attractive non-traditional option for this generation as well, as it’s a pandemic and rescission-proof career path with tons of money to be made and plenty of opportunities to make quite a nice life.
Labor is still an issue, and most often the single biggest challenge for contractors in our industry. If you’re passionate about your business and struggling finding enough labor, get involved! We can’t continue to complain; we have to be proactive and take action. Chris suggests being involved with your local schools as a possible step. Each of these publicly funded schools requires an advisory board, and you can join the board to influence things to get the outcomes you want. Also, these programs are always looking for guest speakers to come in and talk about opportunities in their business. You can teach a class, drop in just to recruit, or even connect with National Technical Institute to see if there might be a way for you to be involved.
If you’d like to get in touch with Chris, you can find on him almost all social media, connect through National Technical Institute, or shoot him a message on LinkedIn! He’s always more than happy to help, and is passionate about education and helping contractors who want to solve the labor shortage in our industry.