The millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, numbers more than 80 million, and they are entering the workplace in greater numbers each year. For HVAC contractors, this trend is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, younger workers are needed to replace the large number of service technicians who are quickly approaching retirement age, but on the other, this generation comes with a unique set of challenges.

As Mike Atchley, president, Atchley Air, Fort Smith, Ark., noted: “Millennials require a lot of attention. They are extremely confident in their abilities – sometimes a bit too confident – and attention is needed to make sure they don’t get in over their heads. They aren’t afraid of anything, but it does take more work to keep them happy and focused.”

Changing Work Ethic

Millennials can also be impatient in terms of receiving promotions, Atchley said.

“They are motivated to move up quickly,” he said. “They have no desire to slowly make their way to the top – they want to be at the top right now. Of course, this can be a good thing, as I don’t want unmotivated people working for me, but if they aren’t regularly given opportunities to tackle more complex issues, they can get frustrated.”

This desire to quickly move up the job ladder may be foreign to some contractors, many of whom were raised on the belief that you start at the bottom and work your way up over the years. Millennials are not always so patient, as evidenced by the 2010 Pew Research Center report, “Millennials: A Portrait Of Generation Next,” which states that millennials are the only generation that doesn’t cite “work ethic” as one of its fundamental claims to distinctiveness.

Joseph Kokinda, president and CEO, Professional HVAC/R Services Inc., Avon Lake, Ohio, has noticed that “hard work is something millennials shy away from. It could be due to society, but probably caused more by unrealistic dreams brought on by social media. This generation has been led astray by a myriad of influences and is attempting to get something for less effort on their part. Most of those who have success work hard at it. That should never change.”

That being said, Adam Gloss, vice president, Bel Red Energy Solutions, Mukilteo, Wash., believes that millennials are career oriented, though they “may come to it a bit later in life than previous generations did. They also seem more matter-of-fact about their approach to work and to the challenges they face.”

For example, Gloss said, his company has a customer satisfaction bonus structure in place for installers who receive written reviews. One of his installers began bringing in his own tablet in order to have customers write up their reviews right then and there. By eliminating the risk that they might not return a mail-in review, he increased the reviews he received, as well as his bonus.

That coincides with Atchley’s observation that millennials are not afraid to go the extra mile when it comes to customer service. In addition, “they are less likely to grumble about having to work evenings or weekends. And, they are less likely to have developed bad habits from working for other contractors who don’t have the same level of expectations that we have.”

Compensation, Training

But money is still important, and compensation seems to be the biggest motivating factor for millennials, along with new gadgets like tools, trucks, or phones, said Atchley. “If an item is offered with a digital touchscreen display, then that’s the one they want.”

Kokinda agrees that compensation is high on the list of motivating factors, but ultimately, motivation has to come from within. “I believe a good leader must state the brand and vision/mission statement, use policy manuals, offer good pay and benefits, etc., but this does not truly motivate a millennial. They want top wages, they want to be respected by their peers more so than their co-workers, and they seem to be distracted when not physically working by all that they believe to be important. Learning what we do is not high on their lists, I am sorry to observe and report.”

Ted Atwood, founder of Polar Technology, Brentwood, Tenn., has also found that while they are tech savvy, “millennials have less time for after-work training, and unlike previous generational workers, they are less flexible in morphing to accommodate the onsite or last-minute fluctuations that come with a job. They are also less inclined to be at a job or a position as long as their predecessors.”

Since millennials are less likely to stay on the job for a long period of time, Atwood has had to change the way his company trains and recruits. “This group is far more likely to leave a job without notice — or limited notice — than previous generations of workers, which becomes expensive, because training can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars.”

In the past, Atwood was more likely to bring new staff members onboard and start investing resources in them right away. Now, he creates more short-term goals, encourages training, and then waits for the next period to elapse before talking with them about moving, to the next level. “During this time, our recruiters continue to treat these folks as though they were new hires and remain engaged. We make sure they remain interested and don’t feel like they are stagnating in a position.”

Training is definitely a challenge for Kokinda, who noted that millennials often lack the skills necessary to be successful in the HVAC industry, including cognitive thinking skills, manual dexterity, an understanding of science and math, an ability to be a leader and present a professional demeanor in the field, and the aptitude to communicate effectively with on-site customers.

“Millennials are not in the ball game here,” Kokinda said. “Trade school graduates are not properly prepared, and high school graduates are woefully short on these basics, also. It is very difficult to find candidates who are prepared for our regimen, which is why we spend most of our time training, training, training.”

Setting Expectations

Carter Stanfield, program director, Air Conditioning Technology Department, Athens Technical College, Athens, Ga., grew up in the air conditioning business, and his family still owns and operates a local contracting firm. He regularly talks to his students about what HVACR work is like, in addition to stressing common job expectations such as showing up on time every day.

“One of the differences with this generation is that they have grown up in an online world where decisions, actions, and results all happen instantly,” said Stanfield. “They measure time in minutes rather than hours, and they sometimes have to work at developing patience. We have to teach them that careers are built over spans of years — an idea that is foreign to someone who downloads things in seconds and considers five minutes an eternity.”

Another issue that sets this generation apart, said Stanfield, is that fewer of these individuals spent their childhoods taking apart their bikes or playing with their dad’s tools. “Most millennials don’t have a lot of kinesthetic mechanical experience that many people now in their 50s had. This simply means they need to spend more time with tools in their hands. Telling someone exactly how to use an adjustable wrench is like trying to describe how to throw a football – there is just no way to do it without a lot of actual physical repetitions.”

David Skaves, professor of engineering at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine, believes students today are no different than students of 25 years ago in terms of ability, interest, work ethic, and the desire for life-long learning. “However, the societal workplace has changed during that same timeframe. Millennials are not necessarily looking for something different in the workplace – they generally do not even understand what the workplace is. Students are strongly influenced by the media and their peers, and the idea of a career is very often a foreign idea to many students.”

This is why every program at Skaves’ college requires students to take part in co-operative experiences in industry during the summer. “Prior to the co-op experience, we describe the expectations of the workforce to students; however description alone does not fully prepare them for what they may encounter. Students mature tremendously during this experience, and they discover if they are suited for the career they are studying in school. Upon graduation, there is less apprehension of what to expect in the workforce.”

While it is important for educational institutions to set standards and expectations, some of the onus also rests on contractors to define their expectations to new employees, said Skaves. “Like all students, there will be some who try to bend the rules (e.g., texting in the classroom or on the job), and they have to be told this type of behavior will not be tolerated. Any new graduate entering the workforce cannot be expected to have communication skills and the customer-savvy relationship that someone working in the field for a number of years would have. It is important to team new employees entering the workforce with mentors who can guide them appropriately.”

For contractors hiring millennials, the key to this group, said Stanfield, is to understand that they need to enjoy the work and make money. “I think we just need to show that our field is intellectually engaging and financially rewarding. A big plus we have is that employees in our industry have far more control over their own destiny than many other jobs, which appeals to millennials. HVACR is needed all over the country, so they are not tied to a particular company or location, and there truly is a career ladder.”

SIDEBAR: Tattoos And Piercings

According to the 2010 Pew Research Center report, “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next,” nearly 40 percent of millennials have a tattoo (and about half of those with tattoos have two to five, and 18 percent have six or more). Nearly 25 percent have a piercing in some place other than an earlobe — about six times the share of older adults.

While multiple tattoos and piercings are becoming more socially acceptable, they are not always welcome in the workplace. Mike Atchley noted that being in a conservative part of the country, he asks employees to keep tattoos covered, and jewelry is not allowed to be worn during the day.

Millennials definitely embrace tattoos and piercings, noted Adam Gloss, but many customers still have negative perceptions about them.

“As a result, we don’t allow visible tattoos or piercings of the face or tongue. While we can work around some issues with long sleeves, etc., it may become a problem in the future for us.”

Publication date: 10/21/2013

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