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What is the best method for finding and retaining workers?

May 1, 2000
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This article is part of The News’ many-pronged attack on the problem of serious shortages of qualified field technicians and mechanics in the hvac trade.

In addition, The News recently started up a “Work Seekers” program to bring graduating hvac students and contractors together (see our first ads in this issue).

We asked The News’ Consulting Board the following questions:

  • What is the best method for finding qualified workers for your business?
  • What measures do you take to retain your employees and/or keep them happy and energized?
  • What should our industry do to make itself more appealing to young people?

Let’s see what our contractor panel had to say.

Finding qualified technical workers

Aaron York thinks that contractors can do a better job of showing untrained workers the benefits of working in our trade. That takes commitment and involvement.

“Maintain involvement in community training programs such as career centers and vo-tech schools,” he said. “Become involved in the Urban League, where limitless Black Americans await a job. Involve ourselves with Latin Americans who work hard and have high mechanical aptitude.

“We hosted a pizza and soft drink party through the Urban League, which is involved with lots of schools in our area. Speakers from various fields addressed industry needs, training requirements, etc. Almost 100 people attended and many are now working in hvacr.”

Scott Getzschman works closely with his local high school. “We take three students every two weeks for two hours per day and put on training that gives students an overview of our industry,” he said.

“We teach them one day of basic industry knowledge, two days on swedging, flaring, soldering, and brazing, and the remainder of the time involved with sheet metal layout.

“We stress the importance of all trades, not just hvac, and we show them that a four-year degree isn’t always necessary. During this time we plug our in-house scholarship program for students taking hvac at a trade school.

“If they maintain a 3.0 GPA, I will pay them $500 per quarter for their tuition. As long as students come back and work for me at least two years, they owe me nothing. If they quit within the two-year period, they pay back a prorated amount.

“As a result of the program, we have retained two employees and they are progressing very well in the company.”

Harry Friedman thinks that image plays a big role in attracting new workers. How a company is “perceived on the street” goes a long way toward how successful they are in lining up new applicants.

“The difference in whether or not a potential qualified worker joins your organization may depend on your reputation on the street and how you treat your employees,” he said. “The problem is, every other aggressive business is doing the same things [to attract workers].

“All things being equal (i.e., pay scale and benefits), if the potential employee has heard good things about your company, he will be more likely to choose you over another company that he knows little about, or one with a poor reputation with employees.”

Bill Flynn believes that using referrals takes a lot of the guesswork out of a new applicant’s background and work ethic. But referrals are just one way to find good help.

“The best way to find quality employees is through referrals, preferably through existing employees,” he said. “This improves your odds for making a good match.

“After referrals you have to try everything else: Internet, newspaper ads, industry publication ads, and recruiters. This takes a lot more time to find good candidates, and your chances of making a good match are a lot riskier.

“We use an extensive interviewing process to help make the right hire. We use personality profile and competency tests, multiple team interviews, and reference checks.”

Jeff Somers agrees with Flynn; contractors should try every method at their disposal to find qualified workers. “There is no one method that we feel works the best.

“Here are the methods we use, and most of them at the same time:

  • “Advertise on HVACJOBS.com and other recruitment Web sites;
  • “Have industry-specific recruiters for both technicians and office staff;
  • “Pay a finder’s fee for providing referrals;
  • “Advertise on cable TV; our local ACCA chapter produced and is airing a 30-second commercial for one year promoting the industry along with our website to locate potential employers;
  • “Make requests to the local union (which hasn’t worked);
  • “Run newspapers ads for several months in at least two weekends per month; and
  • “Put requests for workers into local trade schools.”

Steve Miles takes a light-hearted approach to finding employees, although he takes the subject seriously.

“Finding qualified applicants at times seems to mean, ‘Can they fog a mirror?’ Be prepared to pan through a lot of mud to find a nugget or two.”

Retaining workers

According to Roger Grochmal, “We do three things to keep employees on board.

“First, we involve them in the operation of the company through regular team meetings, keeping them abreast of changes, and to solicit their input on issues that affect them.

“Secondly, we have a strong profit-sharing plan to tie them into the profitability of the company. We keep them informed of the financial performance of the company in order to build trust in the numbers.

“Third, we provide continuous training to keep them at the top of their game. Good technicians always feel important when being informed about the latest advances in their trade areas.”

Jo Navaretta agrees. She believes that keeping an open line of communication keeps the workers interested and enthused.

“We try to keep employees motivated by offering incentives for sales,” she said. “Equally important is giving feedback on jobs so that our employees know that we appreciate their efforts in performing professional work.

“Listening to their input, offering a complete benefits package, and having a team atmosphere are also key factors in keeping employees energized.”

Tom DiPietro thinks that contractors must look at employee retention from many different angles. There’s bound to be a good angle in there somewhere.

“To retain employees, we take a multi-faceted approach,” he said. “We look to our strong points and reinforce them with both our existing and potential employees by pointing out a strong benefits package as well as a pleasant working environment.

“We encourage employees to continually upgrade their skills through in-house and outside training. It is recommended that employees view their jobs as a career path; we try to fulfill that path.

“We work with people individually and encourage them to work in areas that they enjoy and are motivated to work in. Within the team, we have found that we can balance both corporate needs and personal satisfaction.”

What the hvacr industry can do

Tom Lawson said it all boils down to a few things.

“All companies in our trade should make it a point to take better care of their coworkers,” he said. “We should have a website geared to visitors who don’t know about our trade, so that young people can see what the hvac industry is about.

“Let’s get school counselors involved by providing them with videotapes or brochures for students to look at.”

Mary Marble thinks that if you can get into someone’s head, the battle may be easier to fight.

“I feel the basic problem is the mindset of the general public,” she said. “They feel that if you don’t have a college education, you are a nobody.

“In recent years this thinking has started to change. However, it is going to take a lot of advertising, etc., to educate the general public of the monetary achievements that can be reached by ‘working with your hands.’

“Look at the flashy TV commercials for our armed forces to attract young people to serve our country. We have to get an early start to begin promoting our industry to high school students.”

Hank Bloom agrees that our trade is misunderstood and suffers because of it.

“Show people what the real picture will be down the road,” he said. “Most people that look at our type of work only see the filter-changing and the coil-cleaning side of the business.

“We should demonstrate the high-tech end of the field to attract the young.”

Dave Dombrowski thinks that contractors shouldn’t emphasize their strengths and their competitors’ weaknesses when trying to lure people into the trade.

“It is only when we stop comparing ourselves with other contractors and start comparing ourselves with the IBMs of the world, that we will deserve to get the professionals back to our industry.”

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