It’s being called “The Great Resignation.” Workers in all fields are leaving their jobs. Retiring Baby Boomers drive much of this shift, along with a change in priorities post pandemic. It has employers looking at what they can do differently to keep staff. For the HVAC industry, where hiring is always a struggle and turnover is already high, it’s a crucial issue to address.
A key issue is the workload. It’s the nature of the business that HVAC technicians need to work a lot more hours during certain times of the year. Many people leave the trade because they find themselves spending too much time working rather than spending time with their families or pursuing outside interests.
WORK-LIFE BALANCE: HVAC contractor Matthew Holtkamp has been married to his wife Susan for more than 25 years, but there was a time he wondered if he would have the chance to meet a potential spouse because he worked so many hours. He tries to limit the hours at his firm. (File photo)
Matthew Holtkamp remembers what that was like. The owner of Holtkamp Heating and Air in Suwanee, Georgia, remembers working so much when he started out that he wondered how he would ever meet a wife to start a family. Many of his coworkers opted to leave. At one company, he ranked highest in seniority after only three years.
“They would just churn through people,” Holtkamp said.
He works to ensure his current employees only work 40 to 50 hours a week to avoid burnout. Holtkamp tells prospective technicians that if they need a 60-hour paycheck to meet their financial needs, they’ll have to take a job somewhere else.
Thirsty Employees Want More Hours
Sky Swanson, owner of Swanson Services in Albuquerque, New Mexico, takes a different approach. Swanson lets that worker who wants more hours, work more hours. He lets those with other priorities work less.
“We actually find that there are some guys who are thirsty and want to work as much as they can,” Swanson said.
Sometimes he finds himself short-staffed, but that’s rare. What’s important for Swanson is that the employees find the schedule that works best for them. Prior to starting his own plumbing and HVAC firm, he worked as operations manager for a company with 600 employees. The managers there thought they created a good work-life balance for the staff, but it was based solely on their perceptions.
The owners of C&C Heating and Air Conditioning in Roseville, Michigan, take their low turnover as a point of pride. The firm retains 90% of its employees on average, with most of the turnover coming in the first few months. Still, senior management continues to seek new ways to accommodate the staff’s need for time away from work.
In December, C&C management gave their employees an extra day off since Christmas and New Year’s Day fell on Saturdays. Now they are looking at other times in the year when they can afford to schedule an extra day off. The firm also recently changed to a rotating schedule for Saturdays.
Too Little Work Also a Problem
Too few hours also cause employees to leave. This is especially challenging in a field where much of the demand depends on the weather. Chad Hottle, C&C’s operations manager, said some employees enjoy this slower time because it’s a chance to catch up on tasks outside of work. But it does start to become an issue.
That’s when the rest of the staff needs to step up and start reaching out to customers, Hottle said. Sometimes that means charging an air conditioning unit that was installed during the colder months. Other times it means scheduling work at the homes of comfort club members.
Swanson budgets money through the year to make sure he keeps people at a 40-hour week all the time. He takes a percentage of call and moves it to an account designated for this purpose. Technicians will spend time on preventive maintenance or cleaning and organizing tools. If there’s money leftover at the end of the year, he pays out a bonus.
“The majority of the time, I’m able to keep them busy,” Swanson said.
Another financial investment Swanson makes in his employees is providing a percentage of ownership after a certain period of working for the firm. He meets with the employees to talk about what they want their lives to look like in the next 10 years.
Holtkamp, on the other hand, takes an approach of realistic expectations. He tells employees they may need to look elsewhere in a few years for other opportunities. In preparation for that, Holtkamp offers plenty of opportunities for professional development and training.
“People need to feel like they’re always improving,” he said.
Pride in the Workplace
People also want to take pride in their workplaces, Holtkamp said. He helps instill that pride by placing his work at the forefront. For example, if invited to speak to students, he’ll often send a technician to provide a first-hand account of what the job entails.
Employees will stay in an environment in which they feel comfortable and valued. Creating that kind of environment means hiring the right people, Swanson said. He tries to hire people with a “consistency of character” — in other words, people who behave the same regardless of the situation.
“When somebody has congruency like that, most of the time you don’t have drama,” Swanson said. “If your employer isn’t doing the things to make sure they are attracting and retaining the right type of people, then you’re going to lose those good guys that you have.”
Creating a positive atmosphere requires human contact. Many jobs at an HVAC firm tend to be fairly lonely jobs. Hottle said his installation crews roll out by 7:30 in the morning and often don’t return until after everyone else leaves. He checks in with them twice a day to see if they need anything and to make sure they know the management cares about them.
Owner Swanson Services
Staying in Touch when in the Field
Sometimes it may seem like management just wants to make sure a job gets done on time and on budget, Hottle said. He works to assure his staff it’s about them more than the work.
“I’m taking every opportunity to remind them that it’s not budget,” he said. “It’s about them being home with their families. That’s our ultimate goal every day, to get them home at a reasonable hour.”
Holtkamp said technology helps in keeping far-flung employees in touch. When he started, all they had were two-way radios. Now he maintains a group text for everyone to share details about how their days are going.
Checking in becomes especially important during the roughest seasons for technicians, such as the peak of summer. The physical demands are a main reason people leave the HVAC business. Hottle said scheduling helps somewhat. C&C management tries to rotate the toughest jobs among the different crews and schedule works in attics for the cooler months.
Swanson keeps an ice machine at his office. He also conducts giveaways of items that make the jobs more tolerable, such as magnetic sunshades. One of the most important ways Swanson helps his staff is by visiting the different jobsites.
“It’s really just about making sure the guys feel supported,” Swanson said. “If they feel like they’re supported in what they’re doing, they can get through a difficult situation.”
In the end, it comes down to leadership, Holtkamp said. If an HVAC firm experiences high turnover, the contractor needs to look at the way the business is run.
“Everything you do should be focused on those guys out in the field,” Holtkamp said.