FAIRFAX, VA — Committed to its techs as well as to its customers, Cropp-Metcalfe Air Conditioning and Heating was voted one of the winners inThe News’inaugural “Best Contractor to Work For” contest.

To help retain techs and keep their skills finely tuned, Cropp-Metcalfe provides an extensive training program with employees averaging 95 hours of training per year. For factory and in-house training, technicians are paid for their hours. The company also utilizes peer training, with techs working one-on-one or one tech working with a group.

Regarding the number of hours of training, service technician Mike Dean remarked, “I don’t think you can ever say we’ve got too much training. The business changes every day. We’ve got to continually stay on top of it.”

Of the firm’s peer training, service tech Kelly Dean noted that teaching each other can be most effective.

“Sometimes the best teacher is a student,” he said.

Training involves learning customer skills in addition to technical skills.

“Customer service soft skills are very important,” said Mitchell Cropp, president of the firm.

Technicians are also guaranteed 40 hours a week and the company has over 11,000 service contracts to keep them working during the slow periods.

Atta boy

To recognize a tech for a job well done, the contractor has what it calls an “atta boy” program. Formalized about three years ago, management will praise the tech via a broadcast page which goes to all technicians. It will also give the tech a written copy, post it on the bulletin board, bring it up at the next weekly meeting, and put it in the tech’s permanent file.

Mike Dean stated, “It’s positive feedback. That’s important for anybody. It helps keep you going.”

Besides being praised before their peers, “atta boys” also help techs progress in their careers and make more money.

Customer concerns also warrant a formal program.

“We address their concerns and we use the information for advanced training,” said Cropp.

Any customer input is put into the firm’s system and is tracked so management knows exactly how many comments they’re getting, what kind, and where they’re coming from.

Career path

A technician’s pay and advancement are based on the company’s Career Path levels. According to Tim Nettleton, service manager, College Park branch, there are 12 main career levels: four apprentice, four installer, and four service tech.

For each level, the company has specific criteria that a manager looks for, including attendance, education, productivity, product knowledge, driving record, tools, callback ratio, and others.

In order to move up to the next level, said Jim Hollar, partner and vice president of service, the employee “must take a test that demonstrates he has the knowledge to move up.”

In addition to spelling out the requirements for each level, the pay at each step is also indicated. So techs know when they’re hired about advancement opportunities and pay rates.

For his tech career, Mike Dean said, “There has been steady movement up. They let you know up front, this is how you will progress.

“I don’t know of anybody else who has a program like this,” he added. “You walk in any place, you get yourself a job. You walk in here, you get yourself a career.”

And techs are pushed to move to the next level.

“They don’t want you to get stagnant,” said Kelly Dean. “You can’t settle in.”

And Mike Dean noted that techs aren’t pushed to sell. They’re there to service the equipment.

“When a tech sells a piece of equipment, management wants to know why. Why didn’t you offer the repair?”

Benefitting all

The company’s benefits and retirement plans apply to management and employees alike. Medical and life insurance are paid by the company. Disability insurance is also offered.

Mike Dean especially likes the firm’s flex spending and cafeteria plan. Kelly Dean is impressed with the 401K plan, saying its growth has been “phenomenal.”

Technicians also have a number of secondary benefits that help make their lives a little less stressful: free batteries; business cards; cell phones; pagers; 50% co-op on shoes, jackets, and overalls; disposable gloves and booties; first aid kits; a tool allowance; interest-free tool loans; tool repair-replacement for larger hand tools and meters; uniform service; and tuition reimbursement.

And besides their careers, Mike Dean noted that the company gets involved in technicians’ personal lives to help them “in real-life situations.”

Computing on the road

The company has been automated since 1983, said Cropp, and the next step is to put computers in the vehicles. Management has developed a system for hvac needs that includes a portable computer, credit card reader, printer, and modem mounted on a metal clipboard.

This system will reduce dreaded paperwork for the technician and “everything will be legible for the customer,” Cropp said.

A 14-unit pilot program was initiated in late January. If successful, then all the firm’s trucks will be equipped.

“Our technicians are excited about being involved in the computer age,” related Charlene Kane, office manager, College Park branch.

Send more techs

Although the company offers a lot to techs, it still shares the industry problem of a shortage of technicians. Asked if he’s been able to find enough service techs for his business, Cropp simply said, “No,” then added, “In a growing company, you’re always going to struggle to find good techs.

“We’re trying to get people that are just out of school, or have good mechanical aptitude, or are just out of the service, and then train them,” he said. “I think that’s the way of the future: Train from within.”

The contractor has used a variety of ways to hire techs: newspaper ads; job fairs at local trade schools; job listings on the company Web site and on hvacjob.com; flyers about job opportunities with employee paychecks and mailed to their homes; and signs on company vehicles and posted in its offices.

Lately, the company has been working with the Center for Employment Training (CET) in Alexandria, VA.

“These are people who are trying to get off welfare,” said Hollar. “But the people have to fund this class themselves.

“We’ve picked up four or five people from this program. They come in with a good work ethic and a good attitude. As long as we have that much to start with, we can teach all the rest.”

Referrals best

Of all the methods the company uses to find techs, referrals are the best, noted Nettleton.

“Referrals are the biggest source and provide the best quality,” he said.

The schools are doing a good job, continued Nettleton, and the contractor strives to get the best students. But, as Hollar pointed out, students still have a ways to go. When he came out of school, Hollar said he quickly realized, “All it did is get me ready to learn. I had to come out of there with the right attitude.”

Nettleton concurred.

“That’s what we look for: the attitude,” he said.

Sidebar: Just the facts - Cropp-Metcalfe

Winning contractor: Cropp-Metcalfe Air Conditioning and Heating

Owner: Mitchell Cropp

Location: Headquarters — Fairfax, VA (also, offices in Alexandria and Woodbridge, VA, and in College Park, Clinton, Rockville, and Burtonsville, MD.)

Years in business: 20 years

Bulk of market: Residential and light commercial (plus has a heavy commercial division)

Total revenue for 1999: Over $10 million

Total employees: 105

Total service technicians and installers: 80

Average annual hours employee spends in training: 95 hours

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Disability, life insurance, flex spending, dependent care, paid holidays, paid vacations (up to three weeks), employee discounts for services, company picnic, Christmas gifts, and Christmas party.

For technicians: Company vehicle with fuel, insurance, maintenance, and repair provided; annual recognition meeting; awards/recognition during training classes; batteries; business cards; cellular phones; coffee and donuts supplied at meetings; commissions; company-supplied tools; contest incentive programs; co-op of 50% on shoes, jackets, and overalls; disposable gloves and booties; first aid kits; guaranteed 40 hours of work/week; liberal overtime; pagers, portable desk/clipboards; Thursday night dinners; tool allowance; interest-free tool loans; tool repair-replacement; tuition reimbursement; and uniform service.

The News selected this contractor because: The firm has an extensive training program. The long list of benefits for techs, noted above, makes the job a little easier. The company’s Career Path program sets out the levels an employee can achieve along with the requirements and pay, so everyone knows up front what they have to shoot for. As one employee put it, it’s not just a job, but a career here.