Creatively Attracting the Industry’s Next Generation
Contractors discuss how they attract and retain younger employees
In the labor market, the term millennials has become almost a dirty word. Millennials are entitled, high-maintenance, have no loyalty to their employers, and the list of stereotypes goes on and on. Today, more than one in three workers is a millennial. Millennials have surpassed their predecessors and now outnumber Gen-Xer’s in the American workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
And, as a shortage of labor continues to plague the HVACR industry, it’s more important than ever for contractors to attract and retain a younger generation of employees.
Rich Morgan, president of Magic Touch Mechanical Inc. in Mesa, Arizona, recently implemented a digital applications process that he believes is more appealing to younger prospects.
“We implemented online applications, a résumé upload function, and more on our website a few years ago in order to make it easier for younger, tech-savvy workers to apply,” Morgan said. “We’ve also implemented the use of social media marketing specifically geared toward the recruitment of millennials.”
Magic Touch offers employees extensive hands-on and online training programs, among other things, to keep them satisfied in the workplace.
“We offer from-the-ground-up training via hands-on learning labs at our facility four days a week, online training programs, senior tech ride-alongs, and mentoring programs for the younger generation, which helps keep them engaged and focused on developing and growing their careers in the industry and with Magic Touch,” Morgan said. “We also offer a clear career path so they can anticipate future incentives, bonuses, commissions, pay, and benefits. We also offer a relaxed, fun work environment, which the younger crowd seems to prefer.”
APPEALING TO A YOUNGER CROWD
Scott Merritt, owner of Fire & Ice Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, has had great success finding new employees through local trade and technical schools. To cultivate this pipeline, he serves on the advisory boards of two local technical colleges.
Additionally, Merritt is teaming with his local ACCA affiliate to create a program that allows him and a few others to speak directly to high school students.
“I just spoke as the keynote speaker at my alma mater, the American School of Technology, at its graduation ceremony with about 700 people in attendance. Many young adults were there, as well.”
Merritt has had success attracting younger employees through sign-on bonuses.
“Admittedly, we don’t seek out employees 25 or younger very often,” he said. “I like ex-military guys, or individuals who grew up in the country, where hard work is normal fare. It’s difficult to keep younger employees satisfied. You have to pat them on the head every day or so, and, for the most part, they feel like they’re owed something.”
The managers at St. Paul, Minnesota-based Minneapolis Saint Paul Plumbing Heating Air Inc. (MSP) also serve on local trade school advisory boards, said Andy Ryan, general manager, MSP.
“We’re reaching younger folks where they’re most likely to see us,” Ryan said. “We aim to reach them through various social media sites and attract them with recruitment videos on YouTube and so on. Programs like Troops to Trades and other organizations like Explore the Trades are great avenues for reaching a younger demographic. In addition, some of our most talented employees were in the corporate world and left, went to trade school, and are happier than ever working in this industry.”
MSP also incentivizes employees based on performance, which helps keep younger employees satisfied.
“Performance-based pay programs allow our younger technicians to reach their personal goals outside of the workplace, such as home ownership or buying a new vehicle,” Ryan said. “Moving out of mom and dad’s house and getting a new home is a goal for many of our younger employees, and it makes us happy to help them achieve this. We look to develop them as young men and women and watch them grow.
“Additionally, younger employees want to know the work they’re doing means something,” he continued. “At MSP, we have a forward-thinking environment. Our management team is open to changes. We know how important it is to engage our younger generation and all employees, for that matter. We ask their opinions on the company and our daily operations. We use a system called, ‘TINYpulse,’ which enables our team to give feedback on various topics in the workplace. It gives them an anonymous platform to give us feedback.”
Tualatin, Oregon-based Reitmeier HVAC Services created its own certified training program to help attract new employees. Reitmeier University is a two-year continuing education program for training and certifying new employees in commercial HVAC services. The program was established in 2015 and features first- and second-year courses, which consist of five students each. The program is led by Reitmeier’s educational director, a technician, and an accredited instructor.
“The program includes both classroom instruction and a mentorship program where the apprentice works in the field with a senior-level technician,” said Robyn Benedetti, vice president of operations at Reitmeier. “The education includes the technical information students will need to have, but it also teaches our culture and values. The curriculum is all online. Students are in class for two hours one day a week, and the rest of the time, they’re in the field with a mentor.”
Reitmeier decided to make the curriculum accessible online because millennials prefer online communication, such as text messaging, but also because the company is working towards becoming completely paperless.
Additionally, the contracting company encourages employee satisfaction through leadership development book clubs, smart and measurable goal-setting based on positions, a safety incentive program, and an HVAC bulletin board, where praise from customers is displayed.
“We rolled out a better interactive safety incentive program — the Red Flag Recognition Program — in January of last year,” said Benedetti. “We laugh about this as a red flag usually indicates a negative occurrence. So, we put a flip on it. Employees receive a Reitmeier hard hat, and, when someone demonstrates safe behavior, he or she is awarded a sticker for their hard hat [similar to NFL sport teams]. It’s not only an acknowledgement of that employee’s contribution to safety, but, after receiving a set number of hard-hat stickers, the employee receives a $25 gift card of their choice.
“We also have an HVAC bulletin board, which stands for ‘Helpful, Valuable, Awesome Crew,’” she continued. “When compliments [safety, friendliness, courteous driver, etc.] of any sort come in about employees, they’re hung on the board for everyone to see. At the end of the year, during our team celebration, we award the top recipient with the prestigious Reitmeier’s HVAC Award. The employee’s name is placed on a plaque and he or she receives an award, which sometimes includes cash.”
CREATING A CO-OP
When Brian Hooper, vice president of operations at MSI Mechanical Systems Inc. in Salem, New Hampshire, was having difficulty finding new employees to meet the demand in his market, he looked into creating a co-op program with a local high school to train young talent.
“We tried using want ads, monster.com, and HVAC recruiters, but what I found was, the people who were available were available for a reason,” Hooper said. “They all seemed to jump from one company to another.
“We’ve had the most success hiring kids fresh out of high school. That was the only way to find someone who hadn’t been trained the wrong way and didn’t have bad habits.”
MSI reached out to its largest client, EMC Corp. in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, and then looked around at surrounding vocational schools.
“We needed a customer base where if we did bring high school kids on, it would have to be close to where they live because, a lot of the times, they’re driving a junk block or getting a ride from somebody to work,” Hooper explained. “They don’t have a dependable vehicle themselves. You can find a really good student, but, if he can’t get there because it’s too far, he’s not going to come. Then we went to Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School and asked administrators if they would be willing to start a co-op for HVAC, electrical, and plumbing. They were excited to learn there was a huge demand for jobs in those areas, so when students graduated, they could find placement. We worked with teachers and built the program.”
Each year, MSI interviews three junior-level students and chooses one to participate in the two-year program. The student works the rest of his junior year, through the summer, and up until senior year graduation. If the student works out, Hooper offers him or her a full-time job with MSI upon graduation. After 11 years of operation, he’s hired seven full-time employees from the program.
“Right off the bat, they have to have almost perfect attendance and a letter of recommendation from the teacher,” Hooper said. “The third thing they must have is good grades. A lot of people think grades should be the only intangible, but I don’t care how great academically a student is if he or she’s always late or absent. We take the top three and conduct interviews at EMC. Legally, we can’t hire these students until March of their junior years, so every year, we interview students in their junior years to get ready for the March start date.”
The program allows a student to alternate between one week in school and one week on the job.
“My service manager likes it because he can plan work for the whole week,” Hooper noted. “Some programs release students at 2 p.m., and you might have them for an hour and a half. Massachusetts does it this way, which I love, because it allows students to grasp what it’s like to go to work every day. That means going to bed early, getting up in the morning, being on time, and planning their day. It’s a real job. When students leave at 2 p.m. in other programs, they don’t get that same experience. This way, it teaches them how to manage their time, which is a big part of becoming an adult and entering the real world.”
Students are supervised by an MSI employee at all times while on the job, Hooper explained. “They work in our maintenance division, usually with the high school student who graduated the year before. They connect in a way I can’t, as they talk the same lingo — they’re on Instagram and Snapchat — they’re in that whole world where I have no idea what’s going on. They replace filters, clean coils in the spring, change belts, tighten and grease fittings, check filters, and do all the maintenance work. It’s very cheesy work, but it’s work that needs to be done. And, we actually give our customers a discounted rate when we have a co-op student working with us, which they love.”
Hooper said the biggest challenge is keeping new millennial employees satisfied so they don’t leave for other jobs.
“There’s no real guarantee. You try to pay them well and make them realize the importance of working for a reputable company, but, with the new generation, to be honest, this is difficult, because many of these individuals are most focused on ‘What can you do for me today?’ One former student of mine left to go to a union shop because he could earn more there. Another student left to start his own company. But, considering everything, I think we have a very good retention rate.”
Hooper is working to continue the success of MSI’s program into New Hampshire, as well. However, New Hampshire releases students at 2 p.m., so Hooper has been working with state representatives to see if he can get some of the rules and regulations changed.
“This program works because everyone is happy,” he said. “The students are happy because they are getting job experience, the school is happy because we’re giving the students jobs, the customers are happy because they’re getting a discounted rate, and I’m happy because I’m getting a workforce that’s getting stronger every day. It works out for everyone involved.”
Publication date: 3/28/2016