Why Do I Work in Such a Boring Industry?
To answer the challenging question of my headline, I have to raise an answer that mimics an attitude I frequently hear in the HVACR industry. From weathered executives to fresh-faced counter people, I’ve heard comments about the unexciting aspects of our industry and how it isn’t at the forefront of many young people's career track. Those comments, however polite, are almost always apologetic. “Gee, it’s not the most exciting industry,” or something similar, are a familiar refrain when the discussion turns to the recruitment of young talent. It has the aura of mounting black paper crepe in a room for a memorial service.
It shouldn’t be that way.
For starters, we must be brutally frank about what we do. We’re in the comfort industry and provide goods and services that allow people to feel content in their environment. Let’s settle this immediately. Stand outside in freezing weather for an hour and tell me how it feels to come inside to a warm house. Conversely, stand outside during a heat wave. What would you pay for the comfort of an air conditioned living room? We suffer an identity crisis of our own importance for an obvious reason: we’ve been so successful at it that our public takes temperature control and comfort for granted.
Now that we’ve removed the importance of what we do, here is that second hurdle: would-be employees don’t regard us as an exciting industry.
So what? Is the lumber industry, the restaurant business, the insurance business, the construction business, the IT business or writing a column that exciting? OK, the latter can be pretty cool. Bottom line: There are very few industries that most people consider exciting and the only two I can think of that most of us can agree upon are the entertainment and sports industries. (Yeah, sports. If you’re a tennis player, go out every day and hit serves for an hour. Let’s see how excited you feel about that at the end of the month.)
Where does that leave us? This means the field of potential recruits is more level than we think, and it’s up to us, as individual companies and as an industry, to generate the trifecta of attracting good employees: enthusiasm, interest and pay.
It helps to be enthusiastic yourself. If you’re trying to recruit talent to the industry, it might help to maintain some semblance of enthusiasm during the process.
The secret? Ensure that anyone who talks to recruits is a bundle of enthusiasm. If your point person isn't excited, why would a potential recruit be different? It's important to note that I’m not implying that the loudest bark is the most enthusiastic. It’s a matter of genuineness and not volume.
The next step is to create interest. You do this by providing an opportunity to grow professionally.
I would suggest that the initial five years into a career are critical to keeping that person in the industry. That’s where newcomers develop a sense of the industry, as they begin to develop their expertise and gain at least a modicum of increased responsibility. Don’t forget that the half step to developing expertise is having confidence that you are an expert, even if you don’t use that word as a term of self-description.
Five years is equivalent to a college undergraduate degree and, in some cases, a master’s degree. I believe we can apply that analogy to an on-the-job degree. I don’t have an evidence-based study proving that my five-year rule is a critical nexus, but my reckoning is uncomplicated. Five years into a profession still allows a person to believe they can “jump ship” and move elsewhere. Also, personal circumstances dictate career choices. How many times have we seen an employee change after marriage or a child enters their life? A carefree attitude can begin to narrow when you have a spouse who enters the equation or children are at home waiting. I’m not suggesting a lifestyle change traps you. However, we’ve all witnessed when our frame of reference changes, sometimes dramatically, we have significant shifts in our decisions. Smart employers, managers and personnel directors would be wise to consider these issues as they try to massage the career path of their best employees.
I say this repeatedly. Every study I’ve ever read regarding what’s important on an employee’s satisfaction list rarely puts money in the top three reasons. Important, of course. But most important, probably not, and that might be because if they jump ship, they know intrinsically that there’s probably not going to be a significant monetary bump. It’s the other stuff — that you, owner or manager, can often control — that is the glue. I also suspect, and this is purely conjecture, that millennials, whom we seem to discuss endlessly, will seek flexibility over more traditional requests or demands.
Pay. Let’s not get too idealistic. Your employee must pay the rent or the mortgage. You must pay the going rate in your market. If you’re at the bottom quartile and that baby comes along, or your employee gets married that additional 50 cents an hour suddenly seems a bit more appealing. (It’s $1,040 per year.) That might not push them to jump ship, but what if it’s an extra $2 per hour more?
If you’re going to worry about the lack of overt excitement in this industry, there’s nothing you or I can do to make it more appealing. What you can do is make the company, the culture, the zeitgeist in the workplace so appealing that the employee who becomes an “expert “in his job in five years is incapable of imagining that he or she would pull up stakes and join a different industry. And that’s what makes all of this a real thrill.