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The need for workers is touching every aspect of the local economy, from the restaurant industry to skilled workers to professional level positions.

But with enhanced unemployment, tax refunds and stimulus checks, the workforce of the county has dwindled over the past few months, leaving many businesses facing hiring dilemmas.

Paula Thompson with the London-Laurel County Economic Development Authority, said that businesses are wanting to locate in the area, but the shortage of persons interested in working is definitely a concern. She said that currently 60% of the county's workforce is from out of Laurel County.

While the trend for drug testing is mandatory for many jobs, other companies do not require drug testing.

"Only government contracts test - others do not," she said. "But if they suspect drug behavior, they test. Companies are hiring employees from rehabs now - giving them another chance."

Another aspect of the need for workers is the skilled labor force.

Dwight Larkey with Larkey's HVAC said the need for skilled labor is growing and may soon become a real need in the area.

"I have a hard time finding experienced or qualified people," he said. "If they are experienced or qualified, they must be working for somewhere else. There aren't that many people going into the HVAC area or they are going to other jobs."

Larkey said many of his employees come in without experience and earn their certification through "hands on" service.

"I have one guy who went through the HVAC program at Somerset Community College and he's been with me for over 20 years," he said. "The bulk of the employees I have came in and earned their journeyman's license while working here."

Larkey explained that as a business owner, he is required to maintain his Master's license. His supervisors must have the minimum of a journeyman's license.

"We have to have one person on each job with a journeyman's license on installation jobs and our service technicians have to have them," he explained. "We can hire in people without experience, but they have to get their journeyman's license to oversee a job."

To obtain a journeyman's license, an employee must have 3,000 working hours, then take an exam. The fee for that license is relatively inexpensive, only $100 for the exam and around $70 for an annual renewal. But those with journeyman and Master licenses must undergo educational classes in order to keep up with the latest trends, new codes and other information pertinent to their jobs. Larkey said the cost is higher for those with Master license, ranging around $300 a year.

"But it's a good living and the costs are not that expensive - not like a college degree," he said. "Being a HVAC tech is a mid-range income job and we need more people to know how to install and service heat and air units."

He sees a potential deficit in skilled workers in the next few years - not just in HVAC but in areas of plumbing, electricians, auto mechanics and auto body repair.

That concern has prompted him to work with the Laurel County School District's Center for Innovation to develop more skilled labor classes.

"The closest thing they have to HVAC is industrial maintenance. I'm on the advisory board at CFI and I'm working with the principal and the school system in hopes of offering an HVAC class in the future," he said.

He said working in the HVAC industry was "a good living" with minimal investment compared to the costs of college.

"It's never dull," he added. "You may get a job that lasts over a day, but mostly you move around and migrate to a new spot every day. The service techs go numerous places every day. It's always a challenge. There's not many days that go by that you don't learn something new."

But finding an available electrician, HVAC or plumber can often be an issue for homeowners. That problem is common for customers visiting Hibbitts Brothers, who sells parts for electrical and plumbing but does not perform services at businesses or residences.

Like HVAC, plumbers and electricians must undergo training and be certified before they can work, even independently. A spokesperson from Hibbitts said that they are called frequently for referrals for qualified electrician and plumbers and keep a list of qualified persons/businesses in the area.

"There definitely is a need for plumbers and electricians," she said. "That's why we keep a list of people who can do those services."

That need was also addressed before the London-Laurel County Chamber of Commerce last week, with Brad Hall with University of the Cumberlands addressing the growing need of skilled workers. Hall said he is working with businesses to focus on the more vocational aspects of career choices.

"How do business owners like you understand how you take high schoolers in and train them what they need to be trained and work with an institution such as Cumberland to give them college credits," he said. "So that's what we're going to do with Appalachian Institute."

That facility, once a hotel near Interstate 75 in Williamsburg, is being renovated to accommodate classrooms and workrooms to train students on vocational jobs.

"We're going to take the whole first floor and put in garage doors and bring in automobiles and we're looking at new opportunities to help employers meet the skilled demand they have," Hall explained.

Larkey supports such efforts, knowing first-hand the difficulties that could arise in the near future if more people are not recruited into that labor force.

"There needs to be more emphasis on skilled trades, or we're not going to have anyone to do those services," he added. "Eventually, skilled workers will be in high demand."

njohnson@sentinel-echo.com

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