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So many problems, but there are solutions

July 28, 2000
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When I was asked to find out why technicians are leaving their jobs, I had a pretty good idea what the responses would be. I’ve interviewed many contractors and technicians over the years, and many times I’ve heard why people are unhappy: It’s the money, it’s the lack of appreciation, it’s the long hours. Indeed, these were the first, second, and third reasons why technicians are leaving, according to our survey.

What was interesting to note was that many technicians had ideas for how to improve their work situations. The question is, why isn’t anyone listening to them? I know that’s not true in every contracting firm, as I’ve interviewed some truly stellar contractors who do everything short of adopting technicians in order to make them feel part of “the team.”

But it seems that too often, employers turn a deaf ear to employees, thinking “Oh, they just want more money.” I know that from personal experience on both sides of the fence — employee and management.

Too often we start thinking of employees as being expendable, and if they want to leave, then they weren’t committed in the first place and good riddance to them. It’s not until they’re gone that we realize what they brought to the company (if we’re not too stubborn to admit it to ourselves).

As our survey shows, it’s not always the money, but let’s start there with some observations.

Sometimes it is the money

First, it seems that many technicians have a legitimate gripe over pay and benefits. Now before all you contractors start calling me up and yelling at me, hear me out.

I live in Arizona, where the pay scale is far below most other states. However, I know for a fact that it’s possible to go to work at the local grocery store and after one or two years of proving yourself, you can make $13/hr plus benefits that include paid holidays, vacation, medical, dental, etc., working in a comfortable, air conditioned environment.

I’ve talked with technicians whose starting wages are below $10/hr and only after many years are they nudging the $15/hr mark. Many of these technicians also have relatively few benefits, even though they’re working in some pretty extreme conditions.

Quite a few of these technicians have also attended school or even obtained an associate’s degree — something that isn’t required at the grocery store. Yet their pay often does not seem commensurate with their education and experience.

Now contractors are going to start saying that they’re just barely making it, as profit margins are pretty thin. Yes, that’s true. However, I’ve spoken with many contractors who are making more money by changing the way they do business. Some are no longer accepting marginal accounts, instead focusing on more profitable customers who pay on time. Still others are changing their company philosophies, and training their technicians to offer profitable add-on items such as humidifiers, air cleaners, and programmable thermostats.

Still other contractors say that an extensive service contract program is what’s helping them make more money. By offering service contracts to every customer, they’re able to keep their technicians busy during the non-peak times — not to mention that they can offer add-ons during those service contract calls.

Many other contractors are bucking the urge to sell on price, saying that they’re tired of being the “low-ball guy.” Instead, they’re focusing on quality and educating customers about the differences in equipment, quality, and service. These people refuse to quote over the phone, instead arming their people with plenty of information in order for customers to make an informed choice.

One way contractors can offer technicians more money is through profit sharing, which several technicians mentioned in the survey. It seems like a great idea. Let everybody know who’s making what, what the profit margins are, and how much money is left in the pot to be distributed.

If employees know they can directly impact how much money they’ll make, you can bet they’ll be a little more motivated. Profit sharing also makes technicians share in the responsibility of the company, provided they’re given enough information to see how they’re impacting the business.

Besides the money

That leads us into respect and appreciation. Many contractors keep tight control over all the information in the company, refusing even little bits to leak out. This leaves technicians uninformed and also resentful. They think the contractor isn’t giving out information, because it shows just how much money he’s making and how little the technicians are receiving.

But telling your employees about the state of your company shows that you respect and trust them enough to give them that information. Employees will appreciate it, especially when they see that you have nothing to hide.

And don’t be afraid to show your employees appreciation. Some people seem to think it’s a sign of weakness to say thank you, but believe me, it makes the other person feel great. There is absolutely nothing better in the world than to be told that you did a great job and are an asset to the company. Too often, this just doesn’t happen.

Finally, onto the point about long hours and poor work conditions: Unfortunately, the working conditions aren’t going to change. Technicians are going to have to work in the heat and the cold, and nothing can be done about it. However, I am amazed at how many technicians work 80 hrs/week, especially in the summer.

Personally, I think this has to change. Whether you have to hire someone to pinch hit during busy times (if you can find someone), or you start turning down some of those marginal accounts, it seems that technicians should be allowed a better quality of life.

Consider one contractor who says his technicians don’t work long hours, because he won’t accept customers who don’t have service contracts. The preventive maintenance keeps them from having to run out at a moment’s notice to fix problems, as they’ve usually been identified and taken care of ahead of time.

If you’re still not convinced that technicians should work more reasonable hours, just think how you would feel, arriving at a hospital and having as your doctor a resident who’s been on call for 80 hrs. Would you trust that she’s making the correct diagnosis? Would you want her handling your problems when she’s dead on her feet? I know I wouldn’t.

The first step toward making the workplace better for technician and contractor is communication.

Communication

Contractors, listen to your employees. Hear what they have to say, and see if you can accommodate their requests. Tech-nicians, don’t whine, gripe, or grumble to everyone else about the poor working conditions. Instead, take the direct approach and talk directly with your employer in a calm and reasonable fashion.

If your employer won’t listen to you, then you’d probably be better off finding another place to work.

Only by working together will technicians and contractors change the way the industry works, allowing everyone to be more professional, profitable, and happy.

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