CHICAGO - With the pool of workers ever dwindling, how is it that some HVAC contractors seem to keep their stables of technicians well stocked? Who better to ask than the winners ofThe NEWSannual "Best Contractor to Work for" contest.

These notables from around the contracting community were gathered for a roundtable discussion on "Hiring and Retaining Good Employees" at the 2006 International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR Expo). The session was moderated by NEWS business management editor John Hall.


When it comes to finding and keeping good employees, what kind of advice did these contractors have for a business that was just starting out?

Kandi Crawford, general manager of Air Systems Engineering Inc., Tacoma, Wash., pointed out, "Our company has salespeople and professional engineers." The company uses classified advertising and word-of-mouth recruiting incentives for current employees. Crawford said the contractor has also had a lot of success using personality profile testing, to make sure people are well suited for the position.

The NEWS’ “Best Contractor to Work for” panel (from left): moderator John Hall, Brian Leech of A. Leechman Heating and Cooling, Rich Krider of Howell’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Kandi Crawford of Air Systems Engineering Inc., Roger Grochmal of Atlas Air Climate Care, and Richard Brown of Lyons Service.
"We used to hire mechanics," she continued. "Now we hire customer service people with a mechanical aptitude. We'll train them."

According to Brian Leech, owner of A. Leechman Heating and Cooling, Des Moines, Iowa, every business card the company hands out has information on the back, asking for referrals to potential new employees. It has been very successful, he said.

"We use an in-house apprenticeship program," said Rich Krider, president of Howell's Heating and Air Conditioning, Ashland, Va.

"We have also gone out to tech centers and offered scholarships from Howell's. We also offer recruiting incentives for friends and family." Work-study students from the tech center are rotated through the entire business, Krider said. "They typically will find a place that interests them. We tell guidance counselors that money and opportunity is available in this industry."

The company also offers $300 signing bonuses. "We've had limited to no success with Internet classifieds," Krider said.

"We haven't hired any technical people through online ads," said Roger Grochmal, owner of Atlas Air Climate Care, Mississauga, Ontario. "We've started looking at other kinds of businesses, like Jiffy Lube."

According to Brian Leech, owner of A. Leechman Heating and Cooling, every business card the company hands out has information on the back, asking for referrals to potential new employees. The unconventional recruiting method works.


These contractors all realize the importance of training when it comes to attracting and retaining the kind of techs a company wants to keep on staff. "Lyons has a full-time trainer on staff," said Richard Brown, vice president of Lyons Service, Bowling Green, Ky. The company sends out a confidential technician survey to measure management's performance. "Training is very important to technicians," Brown said.

"Young people are seeing all the rapid change in the market," said Grochmal. "If we're not training them, they won't stay."

Crawford commented, "We partnered with the Associated Builders and Contractors' Wheels of Learning program. We're able to train in our building. Our competitors train there, too. There is a real loyalty for providing that."

Krider explained that his company provides both in-house and outsourced training. Techs can train during the day, for 100 percent reimbursement, if classes are not available outside of business hours. After-hours training is not reimbursed, "but during the day, yes," he said.

"We'll pay for computer courses after hours," said Grochmal.

"It's for their benefit as well as ours," added Crawford, whose company does not reimburse after-hours training.

“We used to hire mechanics,” said Kandi Crawford of Air Systems Engineering Inc. (second from left). “Now we hire customer service people with a mechanical aptitude. We’ll train them.” Seated around her are (from left) Rich Krider, Howell’s Heating and Air Conditioning; Roger Grochmal, Atlas Air Climate Care; and Richard Brown, Lyons Service.


Benefits that are in line with other sectors of the business community are important to technicians, and indeed to all employees.

Krider said Howell's offers an employee stock ownership program (ESOP) that gives employees more of a voice, as well as a vested interest in the company's profitability; plus medical, dental, and life and disability insurance. "We've been an ESOP company since 1989," he told an audience member.

Brown said Lyons' surveys have questioned satisfaction with pay, benefits, and the management team, and provided an area for comments. It's then analyzed by a third party, who summarizes the results. The most recent survey was conducted in December. Brown said techs were most concerned with health care costs. "It's very expensive. We pay 75 percent of employees' coverage."

In addition, "In communication, we thought we were doing a great job," he said. "We were surprised by the results."

"Very few of us have a background in human resources," said Grochmal. "Basically we talk about solutions that they'd like to see."


Preventing tech burnout during the busiest seasons is an areaThe NEWSnomination form singles out, and with good reason. Techs needs must be considered. They also need to be ensured of a steady workload in order to meet their own bills.

"We offer a sliding shift," said Krider. "They can start early-finish early, or start late-finish late."

"We don't have drastic climate" that has the great rushes, said Crawford, "but during delays we do cross training."

"Last year the heat wave started in June, and we didn't slow down until December," said Grochmal. "We kept them a little too busy. We're exploring ways to give them a break.

"They're either going to get sick or injured" working those nonstop hours, he said. "You're going to lose those hours some way or another.

"After reading The NEWS last year, we started holding monthly meetings too, and it made a huge difference," he said. "It builds trust, builds bonds."

Parties help break the tension. Howell's holds parking lot picnics, management brings in lunch for in-house staff, there are monthly meetings, even trips to the ballpark.

Crawford said Air Systems Engineering holds a Christmas party and a monthly meeting off-site. "We are all in the same room at the same time," she said. "We also do a newsletter once a month."

Brown said Lyons holds a company-wide meeting approximately every six months. "We also do a cookout, golf outing, or skeet shooting."


The audience wanted to know what a decent tech makes per year at these companies. "As close to union scale as possible," said Leech. "We are a merit shop."

"The average is $17,000 to $22,000," said Krider. "With spiffs, that's $40,000 to $50,000."

Crawford said Air System's techs average $17,000 to $34,000.

"We have more heavy government involvement," said Grochmal. "I guess it's $26,000 to $32,000; some guys earn up to $60,000."

"About $17,000 to $24,000," said Brown.

Before they are hired, technicians are screened for drug use and their driving records are examined. "We do background and Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) reports," said Krider.

"Those results go to the insurance company. Will they cover him? With drug testing it's pass or fail," he said. "There is nothing in between."

Finally, "Make sure you have the right people to interview," said Crawford. "It's devastating if the wrong person does it."

Sidebar: Profiles in Brief

LOCATION: Ashland, Va.
REPRESENTED BY: President Rich Krider
ABOUT THE COMPANY: The company does a mix of commercial and residential HVAC work. "I'm second generation," Krider said. The company is owned by the employees, who act as stockholders.

LOCATION: Tacoma, Wash.
REPRESENTED BY: Kandi Crawford, general manager
ABOUT THE COMPANY: The company is a commercial-only design-build contractor. "I've been there 26 of 32 years," Crawford said.

LOCATION: Mississauga, Ontario
REPRESENTED BY: Owner Roger Grochmal
ABOUT THE COMPANY: "We're 100-percent service and residential retrofit," he said.

LOCATION: Bowling Green, Ky.
REPRESENTED BY: Richard Brown, vice president
ABOUT THE COMPANY: This 16-year-old company actually was a spin off of another company, Brown said. Its focus is service agreements in commercial, health care, and government buildings.

LOCATION: Des Moines, Iowa
REPRESENTED BY: Owner Brian Leech
ABOUT THE COMPANY: The bulk of this company's work is residential.

Publication date: 02/20/2006