Contractors Offer Hiring-Retention Advice

August 20, 2007
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Contrary to what some people may believe, the best employees are not of the homegrown variety, at least that’s the general feeling of the 75 respondents to The NEWS’ recent online survey which asked contractors, “Where do you look for new hires and what do you look for in new hires?”

It is no secret that the HVAC contracting trade has been dealing with a shortage of qualified employees - namely service techs - for many years. U.S. Department of Labor statistics have shown there is a shortage of approximately 20,000 HVAC service techs each year.

Some contractors are fortunate to have a steady pipeline of service techs to their business and are able to retain these great employees who have a solid work ethic, attitude, and ability to fix both the HVAC equipment and the customers, too. But there are others who struggle to find and retain people who have the skills to move their companies forward.

One contractor, Michael Curtis of Arctic Air Inc., Palatka, Fla., acknowledged that today’s workers may not be cut out for the HVAC trade. “HVAC is not for wimps,” he said. “The generation millennium people today want more than the baby boomers and generation Xers. They also are looking for a place that can be fun.

“They want to work only 40 hours and the rest of the time is theirs. Getting overtime out of them can be a challenge, which is difficult for us in the summertime.”

Some young people think that HVAC work is a breeze, according to Adrian Jones of Alpine Air, Jacksonville, Fla. “They think they can start out of the box and be the top mechanic,” he said. “I have had to stop some (most) of them who said “I know how to ...” just before they tried to solder pressurized lines, or worse.”

But it is possible to find people willing to work; it just may require a little creativity and investigative work. The NEWS wanted to know how contractors found their employees and what characteristics they looked for in new hires. In most cases the answers were predictable, yet interesting.

Figure 1.

WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?

We first asked contractors where their last new employee came from (see Figure 1). The most recent hires give an up-to-date picture of each contractor’s hiring practices. The top reply was “from outside the industry” which represented 35 percent of the answers. The next most popular answer was “from a competitor” with 26 percent.

Pete Kiefhaber of Kiefhaber’s Quality Home Service, Star City, Ark., has advertised for help in the past and has found that most applicants come from the HVAC trade. “My experience with hiring people is that, in most cases, when we advertise for help, we get someone who has been in the industry already,” he said. “The percentage is something like 80-20 concerning the applicants. The issue here is that you very seldom find anyone who is what you are looking for when they come from another company. I have had two in the last five years that were keepers.”

In a slight twist from the first question, respondents answered where their best employee came from in the next question (see Figure 2). The most popular reply by almost twice as many responses as the next reply was “from outside the industry” with 45 percent. It was clear that almost half of the HVAC contractors in the survey found their best workers came from outside of the HVAC trade.

Figure 2.

Eric Detmer of Detmer & Sons Inc., Fairborn, Ohio, said that good workers come from outside the trade because of layoffs and plant closings. “We have found it to be a bit easier the past year,” he said. “The problems in the auto industry, as well as other big unionized industries in our area, have left many people looking for alternative careers. We have found many older and experienced workers out of tech schools that are looking at starting over.”

He added these workers are often more easy to train because they haven’t had time to acquire any habits that are hard to break. “Obviously, they aren’t experienced HVAC technicians, but many are hard workers none the less,” Detmer added. “We will take an inexperienced hard worker and train them rather than try to change an experienced technician who is set in his/her ways.”

His point-of-view was shared by 67 percent of respondents who said they would rather hire a person with no experience and train them rather than hire someone with HVAC experience and retrain them (see Figure 3).

Respondents were asked the best place to find new hires and the overwhelming choice was to find them through referrals by current employees (see Figure 4). Referrals gathered 47 percent of the answers, much more than the second most popular answer, local votech schools which came in at 19 percent.

Kiefhaber said referrals are like word-of-mouth advertising - and just as effective. “The way we will have to improve on the attractiveness of this career is through word-of-mouth, just like we grow our companies,” he added.

The final question in the online survey was: “What is the top quality you look for?” While having experience and a mechanical aptitude may seem the obvious choice, the most popular answer to the question was attitude, which received 43 percent of the total answers, followed by soft skills at 18 percent. Mechanical aptitude and experience were further down the list with 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively. Leadership qualities received 2 percent.

One respondent broke down his response this way, “The person has to be willing to learn, do as he or she is told, and show up every day.”



Figue 3.

READING BETWEEN THE LINES

Knowing where to find a new hire with the right qualifications is only the beginning. If a person has a good attitude and willingness to learn, it is the responsibility of the contractor to give them all of the tools they need to succeed, according to Detmer. “I think to make this career more attractive there has to be a sense of need,” he said. “Technicians need to feel wanted and needed. If we treat this industry as if anyone can walk in off the street and do it, I think the value of the industry goes down. If we can make our technicians feel like they are doing a job not everyone can do and provide them with a good lifestyle in the process, it will help make this industry more attractive.

“I think the increased technology in this industry will help. In three years you will have to be tech savvy, as well and mechanically savvy, to make it in this industry as one of the good ones.”

Kiefhaber agreed. “Hard work is needed in all professions for you to be successful, but this one entails manual labor also.

“We must be able to provide advancement from the manual labor to make it attractive. We also need to charge enough to provide good vacations, good retirement packages, holidays, bonuses, and a good, clean respectable place to work - a place they can be proud of.”

Figure 4.

Curtis said having the right working conditions can go a long way to improving the attitude - and the future - of service technicians. “We provide some flexible hours and shift technicians around so they can have some mornings off and still work an eight-hour day,” he said. “They can take time to get personal business taken care of and they can feel good about management being concerned. We work with co-workers on their vacation times, and those times when they have to have some personal time to resolve stuff that comes up from time to time.”

Kiefhaber used a baseball analogy to describe the current crisis in finding people for HVAC careers.

“There are very few people who even consider it a career,” he said. ‘Strike one is that they consider it a second-rate profession. The fact that it takes hard manual labor is the second strike against it. The third strike is that we do not charge enough to provide the benefits and perks they are able to obtain in other professions. Three strikes and you’re out.”

But there is hope and contractors keep trying to find ways to hit home runs. Just ask Adrian Jones. He said that contractors need to get people interested by encouraging young people in the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades, telling them the good things about HVAC.

“We have to stress the good side of the business, like the challenge of creating environments that are healthy, productive, and clean; safeguarding the food supply; being out in nice weather and not bound to a desk; being in charge of your own work; and by making people realize how many things we wouldn’t have if not for HVAC,” he said.

To view more online surveys, visit www.achrnews.com and click on ‘Surveys’ in the upper left corner.

Publication Date: 08/20/2007

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