How times have changed. When I started working in the trades 17 years ago, things were very different. At least, it seemed that way in my eyes.
From the very beginning, I always knew I wanted to own my own business. That vision was always clear; but, how would I get there?
Only three things were certain: death, taxes, and my willingness to do whatever it took to become an entrepreneur.
Fortunately, a hard, driving work ethic was instilled in me from very early on. And, as an Italian with a healthy helping of genetic patterns that go back many generations, I was destined to work hard with my hands. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to work smart.
Although I am not afraid of a little hard work, when my business was just getting off the ground, there were several unknowns. So as I made my way through the early stages of starting the business, I had to leave my comfort zone.
But, even as a greenhorn, the variety that I experienced each day added to the excitement; this was the sort of challenge I could enjoy. I tend to seek out immediate gratification, and the type of hydronic and HVAC work I do rewards me with that sense of accomplishment each and every day on the job.
THE PROBLEM WITH PEOPLE
I went out on my own as soon as I received my Philadelphia master plumbing license. I was 25 years old. When I had that cert in hand, I spread my wings ... and flew right into a thunderstorm.
I’ve learned many things in the last 17 years. Perhaps the biggest learning curve for me has been with people. Of course, as individuals, we’re all different.
Some of us are aggressive; some are passive. Some of us are great at bull work, while others are more adept with technology and troubleshooting.
Knowing and accepting that, I’ve now had the challenge of winning the interest of technicians to hire — grooming them, nurturing them, retaining them . . . and then learning, with many experiences to show for the effort, that they’re either well-suited to the work, or they’re not.
Sure, I’ve made mistakes along the way. When work piles up, and new opportunities arise — sometimes quickly — we may work too many hours; I know I’ve sometimes pushed myself and my employees too hard.
In my own defense, I couldn’t let my family down, either. Having a wife at home with our first child, I’d do anything to be sure that I was providing support for them. But I’d see, too, that working my men so hard did more harm than good.
In hindsight, there was a small handful of young men who I let go that I wish today I would have retained. But life’s about learning, and I am learning each day.
WHERE’S THE AMBITION?
What’s disheartening is that the talent pool has so severely diminished over the years. When I entered this industry, I was shoulder to shoulder with a working corps of young people that’s all but disappeared today.
Sadly, many of the people I’ve hired have very little ambition. There’s no flame to the fire of self-improvement or the desire to work hard for their loved ones. There’s little effort to show me that they want to learn a craft and put their good mark on it.
I’m hanging my head here … wondering what’s happened, and where we’ve gone wrong.
Hello? Honest, hard-working techs — are you out there? Give me a call!
Amazingly, most of the business owners who read this column are now experiencing the same. I feel for you. There are entire communities of good customers out there who need what we provide, and yet we struggle to find the resources to meet those needs.
Many of us in the HVAC and hydronic contracting field have found that the hardest part to maintain and sustain a good company is finding and retaining good employees. Part of the challenge is that many young men and women today have a sense of entitlement: They want to get paid more than they’re worth, unwilling to grind it out because they don’t see the financial reward as quickly as they expected.
We all have a variation on that story, but the easy street theme is often a common denominator. I’ve had people take a lunch break — even a cigarette break — and never return. They just walk off the job. And, maybe they’ll call to tell me they’ve changed their mind, their kid sister needed a ride, their uncle just won the lottery and promised loads of dough, or — this was a good one — that their terminal illness was suddenly refueled, and they couldn’t return to work (after just 11 hours of experience).
My last apprentice hid in an attic for three hours at a customer’s home while I was out getting material. When I returned and asked why nothing had been done since I left, he told me that he simply wasn’t compatible with the work. He then sat out the rest of the day, playing on his phone, waiting for a ride while I continued to solve the customer’s problem.
Here’s one I struggle with, too: that perhaps most people would rather work for a larger company.
Is the day of the small contractor coming to an end? I sure hope not, though with experiences like these, my mind runs through this stuff all the time.
Could candidates be thinking that a smaller company is harder to work for? I’d like to defend my position! Maybe it’s true that there are fewer places to hide, that all hours are accounted for, and that a technician’s wee idiosyncrasies may be more noticeable — but, hey, we’ve all got something that our spouses grouse about, right?
I believe that those who work for smaller shops are more appreciated and can learn that there is a source of immediate gratification — because here in blue-collar Pennsylvania, a hard day’s work earns a great day’s wage and a future that’s bright, and full of good challenge.
Publication date: 8/13/2018