In such a tight labor market, contractors know that they can’t expect to hire technicians with all the virtues — technical skills and character. But when they have to choose, many say that character comes first, as long as the candidate has a mechanical aptitude.

You might think that it would be more important to get someone with strong technical skills no matter what his general attitude, so the technician can hit the ground running, so to speak.

But the contractors we spoke with insisted that the long-term effects of hiring, say, a liar with a history of driving citations, even though his technical skills are honed, can have a worse long-term impact on a contractor than if that labor slot went unfilled for another couple of months.

Big clue: the driving record

Doug Braley, owner of Performance Mechanical, a commercial contractor in Littleton, Colo., said the first thing he checks out on technician applicants is their driving record.

“A DUI [driving under intoxication] or other serious citations on his record indicates his reliability,” said Braley. It also may reveal that he lied on the company’s job application.

Moreover, if the technician applicant has a history of moving violations, it could be a warning sign that he’s prone to road rage and general immaturity. “These guys have to drive a couple-hundred miles a day,” Braley pointed out.

And if the truck they’re driving has the company’s logo on it, well, who needs the negative publicity or the liability of a reckless driver behind the wheel?

Second to this major determining factor of the applicant’s maturity and integrity, according to Braley’s list, is his experience which, in some cases, may take precedence over formal education.

“My senior technician has not got a lot of book knowledge,” Braley pointed out; but he can troubleshoot with skill and accuracy. In other words, the guy not only has the experience, he learned from it. And doesn’t this say something good about his character?

Next on Braley’s hiring list are the technician’s levels of certification, education, and job history. And yes, he checks all references.

When a technician makes the cut, “All new hires ride with me, the owner, for the first week. Then I can find out if they told the truth about how much they know.”

With these high standards, it’s not surprising that Performance Mechanical has been having a tough time finding suitable new hires. This is galling to Braley, because “Denver’s booming something fierce. Twice a day I turn down invitations to bid.”

It’s not that there aren’t people looking for work; but in Braley’s experience, there’s usually a good reason why they aren’t working now.

Mental flexibility

Doug Yost, with Natkin Service, the mega-commercial-industrial contractor in Kansas City, Mo., placed honesty at the top of his list.

Second came flexibility, in a variety of ways:

  • Flexibility in a technical aspect, which can help a tech look at a problem from a variety of angles;

  • The ability to handle multiple jobs in one day; and

  • The flexibility to work with a variety of customers and meet their needs.

Third on his overall list was technical skill.

With all the construction and renovation work going on, “A lot of lower-qualified people are getting hired into contracting companies,” Yost said. In such cases you may do a lot of work, but the callbacks can eat you alive.

“You only pay for quality once,” he stated. “You pay for poor quality over and over.” And that also goes for the quality of the technician a contractor hires.

Prima donnas need not apply

Bob Phillips is the service manager for Climate Masters Co., Longmont, Colo. His list is shorter, but not less to the point.

“The most important thing is that they are a team player,” he insisted. “Compatibility with others is the most important trait.

“If they can work with others in the company, they can work with customers.”

A positive, helpful, team-minded attitude is so important, it outpaces technical skills to some degree. After all, “Training is something we can provide.” Reshaping a person’s attitude toward customers and coworkers is much more difficult, if not impossible, in a typical workplace.

With Phillips, you get the idea he is speaking from experience. He doesn’t want technical hot shots with a bad attitude. And there are plenty of people “who can work well technically, but can create a very bad work environment.”

Scott Harper probably had this in mind when he described his ideal technician. His company, Accu-Aire, Allen, Texas, works mainly with environmental control and computer room applications. A pleasant, professional attitude is mandatory for technicians who work in this type of business environment.

So, although Harper listed skill level as his first criteria for technicians, he quickly and emphatically followed up with character: work ethic, persistency, behavior, and speech, all of which affect how the tech represents himself to customers.

“A lot of people out there act improper and lackadaisical in front of customers,” Harper commented. He calls them “Hell’s Angels in service vehicles.”

He explained that “When we hire, character and the way [applicants] speak take precedence.”

The extra mile

Harper advised that when contractors look to hire new techs from trade schools, it’s important to check out their attendance, which can be indicative of work ethic.

In one instance, “One guy was great” — he had good attendance, pleasant personality, etc. — “except for the hair down below his shoulders.” And the company owners were up-front with this job applicant about their reservations.

“In a few days, the guy came back in,” said Harper. “He’d had his hair cut and was shaved. He got the job.”

Customer confidence is created from a total package, he added. “It’s a combination of the skill level and the way we represent ourselves.”