Transforming the industry

By John O’Donoghue of BJ Cooling

The scarcity of qualified technicians and the challenges that come with the revised B-BBEE codes are placing enormous strain on local HVAC&R businesses.


This follows on from my letter that was published in the Financial Mail of 29 November 2017 about the tragic state of technical skills in the country.

An excerpt from this letter reads:

Technical skills are nothing less than a disaster at the moment. Government keeps reminding us that business must train employees. Sure, but qualified technicians to use as trainers and mentors are just not around anymore. How can we train technicians when the majority of school leavers do not have mathematics and science as subjects? These subjects teach one to think and solve problems …

So my question is: how long will it take to train technicians, and who must train them when the basics are not taught in our schools or technical schools? It makes it extremely difficult to identify potential candidates for apprenticeships.

So, a lot of work and financing is required from government, particularly at school level. The private sector can do its part only in partnership with the government.

Grant Laidlaw and everyone involved in developing education modules and programmes have done a sterling job. But we still have a host of problems in the industry.

Education and training

HVAC&R is a huge industry that offers great potential for young entrepreneurs as well as for passionate business owners. Unfortunately, there are also the opportunists who make misuse of the system.

We (and I think I speak for a sizable portion of the HVAC&R industry) are totally frustrated with the quality of technicians available.

So-called technicians, for example, cannot tell the difference between air-conditioning and refrigeration compressors and the related refrigerants. The worst is that technicians are either unable or too lazy to diagnose faults.

The movement of technicians and their work record of only staying in a job for a couple of years is the norm. They job-hop for the most ridiculous reasons.

Formal classroom training is one thing, but in the field it is something else.

As mentioned earlier, it is virtually impossible to find above-average technicians as journeymen or trainers. We not only have to train technicians as ‘technicians’ but we also have to do driver training. A technician drives an expensive vehicle and when one tests him on the basics, for example how to check the engine oil, his response is that he does not know because the petrol attendant normally does that. I had an incident of an engine overheating and the engine seized. The technician’s response was that he is not a motor mechanic and only drives the vehicle.

There is a big gap in producing good technicians. Institutions and associations like the South African Institute of Refrigeration and Air Conditioning (SAIRAC) and the South Africa Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors Association (SARACCA) should move away from being an ‘old boys’ club and rethink how we can transform the industry.


At the same time, transformation in the industry, on the surface of it, does not seem to be taking place. When one looks at the RACA Journal, very little is written about B-BBEE successes and/or failures in the HVAC&R sector. Are there successful start-ups sponsored by HVAC&R contractors or have we left it up to incubating companies? Is the SARACCA and SAIRAC membership representative of our demographics as per the Employment Equity Act? Contractors shy away from B-BBEE, but one must remember that it is here to stay.

We fall in the Construction Industry Sector Codes of Good Practice and are under enormous pressure to be B-BBEE compliant. To be able to get work from any of the large construction companies, banks, government, quasi-government, and the like, we have to be B-BBEE compliant. Did the industry comment on the draft Construction Sector Codes before they were gazetted?

Transformation we understand, but the process of achieving this is a burden on the resources of small and medium businesses. But why should it be a burden? It should not be a burden if the industry would get together and find workable programmes. There must be solutions. How about a workshop and think tank on this subject?

For a qualifying small enterprise (QSE) between R10m and R50m turnover, the following approximate base points apply:

  • Ownership: 27
  • Management control: 20
  • Skills development: 24
  • Procurement and supplier development: 29
  • Socio-economic development: 5
  • Total: 105 points.

The above is a simplified breakdown, but within those categories there are very complicated guidelines. Overall, these new codes are very onerous. Even more so for large enterprises.

Apart from training technicians (skills development), management is required to comply with not only the above B-BBEE codes, but also employment equity reports (for which there is a hefty fine of R1.5-million), petty Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) cases, and so on. These statutory requirements place additional expenses on a business, particularly in the area of employing personnel to manage these government regulations. B-BBEE consultancies (mainly white) are the ones that are benefiting from all this.

The ‘startup’ businesses where we have assisted black enterprises, for our Enterprise Development points, have not succeeded for a host of factors. This aspect of the B-BBEE codes requires a lot of ‘handholding’, and small and medium businesses cannot afford this or have the resources to see this through.

Moreover, we have to work our way through the poor economic environment and the reduced spending of the government on infrastructure.

My challenge to the industry is the following: In the long term, and if possible the medium term (five years), why can’t the HVAC& R industry lobby the government to establish technical high schools where the main subjects include air conditioning, refrigeration, ventilation, machine construction and drawing, health and safety, supervisory skills and, of course, languages, mathematics, and science?

If the government procrastinates on this, why can’t the industry establish these in joint ventures with the likes of Curro, Spark, and Sparrow schools? I am sure the industry can contribute to establish one technical high school at a cost of approximately R28-million.

What are we going to do for the future of this industry and country? Be passive citizens or be proactive, innovative, and world leaders? Are we passionate about what we do? If not, then we should not be in this business.



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