For several years, we have been hearing about the shortage of qualified technicians throughout our industry. During that period, I have smiled and said, “We have not had those problems with our company nor has it been a big problem here in the St. Louis area.” However, with an extremely warm summer, an increasing amount of industrial pipefitting work, and the fact that so many technicians left the industry during the economic downturn that started in 2008, for the first time, we are seeing more demand for labor than there is supply available.
Our company theory has always been to pay our employees fairly, acknowledge their good performance, and treat them like family. The definition and understanding of “paying them fairly” has been an issue this summer.
FAIR OR FOUL?
Our service technicians are members of the Service Division of Local #36 SMART (formerly known as the Sheet Metal Workers). The total wage and benefit package for member service technicians is $10.95 lower than it is for regular journeymen. This is the case because, in the residential service market, we are competing with approximately 700 nonunion contractors. Thus, in order to keep us competitive in that market, we have continually negotiated a lower wage contract for our service technicians. Unfortunately, we have found that, as of late, this lower wage level has made us susceptible to pirating of our people.
We have lost two technicians to the pipefitters and have had to work out some deals with a couple of other guys. In addition, we’ve had conversations with several of our most valuable people to make sure they’re happy where they are. We have gotten favorable responses, but, nevertheless, we have taken a look at several of our processes and policies to make sure we remain a highly desirable place to work. Our ability to retain key people and have them understand our philosophy of business is very important to us. It is not an accident that 41 of our 85 employees have been with us for 15 or more years and another 14 for 10 years or more. We are not only proud of those numbers, but feel they add greatly to our ability to provide quality service and installation to our customers.
IN PURSUIT OF RECRUITS
Upon a review of our current employee list, we have determined that we have several retirements coming in the next year or so. As a result, we have increased our recruiting efforts. It may sound strange for a union company with a hiring hall contract to have recruiting efforts. However, we have a presence at local job fairs and especially at the local vocational trade schools in order to talk with potential apprentice candidates. The fact that our apprentice program is paid for by the contractors, in addition to the fact that the apprentices are paid while attending school, gives us an advantage when we are addressing trade school graduates who have just spent several thousand dollars to learn trade basics. In addition, we make every attempt to screen the people we are about to hire to make sure they will fit into our company culture. A practice we use is to hire for attitude, because you can train for aptitude.
In addition to apprentice training, we continue to provide training for all of our employees in all of the many technical areas of the business. As those in the business are aware, the HVAC industry has become much more technical than it was just a few years ago. This requires a consistent commitment to training. In addition to the training we provide, we are going to step up our efforts to show our employees that we appreciate their efforts. Surveys have shown for years that showing employees appreciation for the work they perform is the No. 1 thing on their wish lists. Interestingly, while some fringe benefits rank high, actual wages typically are about fifth or so on such lists.
We have found that we need to increase and improve on our efforts to attain and retain good employees. I encourage you to look at all of your processes in this area so that you don’t end up with a shortage of employees just when the work you are wanting arrives. If you would like to discuss or have other suggestions, please feel free to contact me.
Publication date: 10/31/2016