ANAHEIM, Calif. - Could a game of laser tag be part of the answer to the age-old problem of finding, hiring, and retaining good, qualified employees? Some contractors think so.

Along with improving their profit picture and staying ahead of the competition, keeping good, qualified workers ranks near the top of many - if not most - business owners' concerns, year after year.

It's one reason why The News introduced its "Best Contractor to Work For" contest several years ago. The aim behind this annual search is still the same: to prove that there are success stories out there. There are contractors who really take an active role in keeping and retaining qualified employees and technicians.

At the 2004 International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR Expo), The News, in collaboration with the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), held a panel discussion titled "Ways To Find and Retain Qualified Technicians, Employees." Six of the seven contractor winners in The News' 2003 "Best Contractor To Work For" contest were on hand to provide a roomful of attentive attendees with their unique suggestions and pointers.

Training, Bonding, And Acknowledging

Mark Schneider, co-owner of Pacific Aire Inc., Ventura, Calif., made some audience members smile when he talked about his company's efforts to schedule fun social events.

"We've had a day where we've gone to play laser tag," said Schneider. "You'd be surprised how even the guys in their 50s or older got into it. It's a great bonding time."

One of Schneider's key points was to let an employee simply know when a job is done well.

"The first thing is acknowledging their accomplishments," he said. "We use ‘all company' text messages, weekly department meetings, and our monthly ‘all company' meeting to achieve that."

Eric Knaak, vice president of service, Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning, Rochester, N.Y., could not have agreed more. He believes in providing recognition and feedback about employee performance.

"Employees need to be recognized for their efforts and their achievements, and they also want to know when they make a mistake," he told the crowd. "The culture of the company will dictate how your employees feel about working for your organization and they will care about their job if you truly care about them."

"There is no great secret," confessed Knaak. "It is all about taking care of the people who are doing the work, and any good leader is going to make sure that they do just that. The health insurance, the 401(k), dental insurance, paid vacations are all very important, but they don't matter if someone is not happy with where they work."

Schneider believes in employee empowerment, too.

"Empower them with the information they need to be successful - daily boards that keep them up-to-date on their goal, where they are, where they should be, and what they need to do today to stay on track," he suggested.

Ron Friedrich, owner of A-Temp Heating and Cooling, Clackamas, Ore., noted that his company's membership in contractor group AirTime 500 is a benefit. By joining, he said he has been able to share ideas with member contractors across the United States on the best ways to retain employees. And, he said, that is always a good thing.

"One important aspect is training," he noted. "Technicians do not like to work on something they have had no training on and end up failing because of that. We pay for our technicians' training and their time. Your company will more than benefit from the investment."

Knaak was in agreement there, too. His company is so serious about finding trustworthy people, it offers technical training for the professionals they find. They refer to the company's mandatory, four-year program as "Isaac University." According to Knaak, for two hours each week, technicians attend in-house training early in the morning before leaving each day to tackle their regular service calls.

"Employees want to learn," said Knaak. "It's good to provide them training. It helps keep them aboard."

In the eyes of Thomas A. Winstel, CEO of Engineering Excellence, Cincinnati, providing training is a win-win situation.

"By providing training, a company secures an excellent resource for growth," said Winstel. "By providing recognition for milestones of growth and successes achieved, a company gains more than loyalty in an employee, but rather a partner."

Ron Friedrich of A-Temp Heating & Cooling, Clackamas, Ore. (far right), answers a question from the crowd. Listening are fellow panel members (from left) Wayne Reynolds of Tiger’s One-Hour A/C & Heating, Largo, Fla.; Eric Knaak of Isaac Heating & A/C, Rochester, N.Y.; Mark Schneider of Pacific Aire, Ventura, Calif.; and Donna Lanier of All Seasons 500 Heating & Air, Hunstville, Ala. (Photo by Jim Johnson.)

Sharing Financials

Wayne Reynolds, president of Tiger's One Hourâ„¢ Air Conditioning & Heating, Largo, Fla., listed his three "secrets."

"Respect all of your employees, share all company financials to make the employees part of the solution, and hire the type of employee that fits the team," he offered.

Donna Lanier, general manager, All Seasons 500 Heating & Air, Huntsville, Ala., noted that the key to retaining employees is "to hire the correct person for the position."

"Look for someone interested in learning, with personality - no need for experience," she said. "We will train them."

All agreed that providing benefits was important, but not a cure-all.

"Offer a variety of benefits," suggested Lanier. "Along with the usual vacation and paid holidays, we offer health club memberships, health insurance coverage, a monthly bonus program, free flu shots, uniforms, service trucks, tool purchase program, and more."

"We also recognize top performance as it occurs," she added. "Each week at the tech meeting, those are shared with the group. We all enjoy knowing when a job is well done. We also have company outings to include our annual family picnic, white-water rafting, bowling, softball games, cookouts, Christmas luncheon, and other activities throughout the year. We spend many hours working together, and it is important to spend some of that time having fun."

Other responses included celebrating employee birthdays, offering cash bonuses, creating a "family atmosphere," providing clean uniforms, purchasing new vehicles, and providing opportunities for advancement.

The Audience Responds

Attendees, including many ACCA members, were encouraged to ask questions and offer comments. One audience member stated that he took all of the required training and passed several North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification tests, yet never was recognized by his employer. In the end, he said, he quit and started his own company.

One person asked the panel if the respective companies shared insurance costs with employees. Knaak said Isaac employees are given the option of contributing to a cafeteria plan, where they could select the amount set aside from their paychecks for medical costs, 401(k), etc. Every panel member mentioned that they shopped for new insurance rates and coverage every year.

Another attendee asked about drug testing. Reynolds replied that this process is mandatory as part of his company's interview process. Knaak said his company believes in giving employees a second chance if they fail a drug test. Isaac employees who fail the first test are monitored throughout the year and are given the opportunity to enter into drug counseling, said Knaak.

Panel members were asked how they managed their staffs and if they knew each employee's name. With over 150 employees, Winstel said his staff is broken down into different groups of no more than 11 people. This allowed employees to assume responsibility and accountability, he said.

Publication date: 02/23/2004