Kindra K., Marketing Coordinator
Having a hard time finding good technicians? You’re not alone. The country’s unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in half a century, and fewer young people are going into skilled trade work. But don’t lose hope. Quality folks are out there. And, this guide is full of tips to help you find them, hire, train, and manage a successful team.
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First, let’s look at a couple of traditional ways companies find skilled technicians.
Place ads in local newspapers, on job sites, and hanging fliers in supply houses. This used to be the easiest way to get the word out to experienced candidates looking for a job. Nowadays, however, most skilled workers are already employed and not necessarily looking. With fewer skilled technicians on the market, you might need to employ other tactics in addition to the ads to ensure you have the best pick of candidates.
Strengths: Ads — especially online — cast a wide net and can help you find folks that aren’t already in your network.
Weaknesses: The downside of casting a wide net is that you end up with lots of responses from folks who are not a good fit. Either they’re not qualified or they are trained, but there’s a good reason why they’re unemployed.
Tip: Techs might be looking for better rates or benefits, or more hours. Make your ad stand out by clearly stating what you have to offer over other local companies. Examples would be offering a guaranteed forty hours or dental insurance.
With a shortage of skilled workers, companies are relying more heavily on HVAC schools for new hires.
Strengths: Folks fresh out of school are cheaper, moldable, and eager to learn. You can start fresh instead of being forced to break bad habits and perspectives that don’t align with your company.
Weaknesses: It can take months or years of on-the-job training to get a green worker to the same level as an experienced hire.
Tip: Want to find the cream of the crop? Maintain friendships with the instructors and ask for introductions to their best students.
Even newer companies have connections, and it’s probably a wider network than you realize. Ask local contractors, suppliers, and other trade professionals that you work with to spread the word for you. If you’re a member of the local union, contact them, as well.
Don’t forget that your network includes your current employees! In a recent survey, 35% of trade companies hired technicians based off of employee referrals.
Strengths: Other trade professionals are likely to know—and be able to vouch for—good workers.
Weaknesses: This approach is hit-or-miss, especially when few professionals are looking for work.
Tip: Pay it forward by always being ready to connect professionals. When folks have earned work from your connections, they’ll be more prepared to help you out in turn.
Aside from the necessary education and skills to enter the workforce, there are several other factors to consider before deciding whether or not you’re going to hire a prospect. In order to get a good read on your potential worker, ask applicants situational questions to get a sense of their work ethic and character.
Working in uncomfortable situations:
Q: Are you comfortable being around chemicals, working in confined spaces, or standing on a ladder to make necessary repairs?
Since a technician is the person called in to fix any malfunctions, it’s likely the applicant will often work in overly hot or overly cold conditions. Even if temperatures don’t reach an extreme, many HVAC systems require work to be done in cramped and awkward spaces.
Make sure the prospect isn’t claustrophobic or scared of heights because a job may involve climbing into a tight vent or making repairs to a unit on the outside of a tall building.
Also, keep in mind there are a few possible dangers of working with HVAC materials. Harmful refrigerants, electric shocks, and carbon monoxide poisoning are all dangers and risks a technician must be aware of.
Possibility of working odd hours:
Q: Are you willing to go above and beyond to provide service, even if that means being on-call?
Broken HVAC systems have potentially catastrophic effects on both businesses and residential homes, which is why clients typically want to have repairs done as soon as possible. When an emergency strikes late at night or on a weekend, a technician may have to work outside of normal 9 to 5 hours.
Q: Are you capable of lifting 50 pounds, pushing heavy equipment, carrying ladders, and operating large vehicles?
A technician doesn’t need to be an Olympic athlete to work as a qualified HVAC technician. However, the job can be physically demanding at times, so it’s something to keep in mind as you hire.
Good customer service:
Q: Is customer service important to you? How will you respond to picky customers?
To be a great HVAC technician, a technician can’t just be good at fixing air conditioners—talking with clients is a big part of the job as well. A great team member will have patience with difficult customers, listen carefully to their concerns, and always show respect for their home. A technician with good customer skills could help you with word-of-mouth referrals and gain your more clients.
HVAC technician job descriptions vary on a wide scale across many different industries. Keep that in mind as you search for technicians with niche HVAC experience, such as:
Aerospace products and parts manufacturing
Colleges, universities, and other places of higher education
Industrial and commercial machinery or equipment repairs
Wired telecommunications carriers
Natural gas distribution and management
Hardware wholesale merchants
Household goods maintenance and repair
Building equipment contractors
There’s a lot to consider about each candidate, including their work history, credentials and technical know-how, as well as their soft skills and how well they fit into your existing team. Taking the time to make the right hire will save you effort in the long run.
You might not always have time to train someone and need a capable technician ready on day one. This is where a technical test comes in handy.
Technicians can say whatever they want on their resume, but do they really know what they’re talking about? Weed out candidates with a written or on-site skills test. Check out example questions from the NOCTI Job Ready Assessment test.
Asking multiple references about a person’s work performance and character can give you a more honest and complete sense of how they’ll be on the job.
HR expert Bruce Anderson recommends asking for the names and contact information from your candidate’s previous employers instead of simply asking for general references.
Companies often face the dilemma of prioritizing technical skills and experience or soft skills and personality fit. If you are able to do more on-the-job training, consider prioritizing soft skills — like customer service and promptness — over technical knowledge. According to soft skills trainer Steve Coscia, “more 80% of a mechanical worker’s future success will be based on his or her soft skills.”
In the long run, it’s easier to teach a hard worker technical skills than it is to nurture a stronger work ethic. Personality assessment tests can help you discern whether a candidate would be a good fit for your company.
Of course, a general aptitude for skilled trade work is necessary and isn’t for everyone. Candidates should at least be able to pass basic mechanical aptitude tests.
No matter the experience level of your new hire, everyone will require some training, whether it’s understanding your specific company’s culture and expectations or on-the-job technical training.
After you’ve made a hire, set clear expectations about what is expected of your employee in these first few months — and in general — from people that work for you.
ACHR News recommends training new employees in four areas: mechanical skills, time management, customer service, and troubleshooting. For instance, even if they have a good understanding of HVAC systems and how to repair them, how good are they at troubleshooting for basic or advanced problems? These can be two very different skill sets.
HVAC systems aren’t the only technology technicians need to be trained on. Have your new hire practice using your internal systems — such as updating arrival times, setting estimates, and invoicing — before they need to do these with your customers.
Set a 30 to 90 day trial period with clear expectations about what they should be able to do and understand by the end of the trial.
Your new HVAC techs should also understand what will happen if they fail certain parts of their assessment. During this trial period, your new hire will do a mix of training and job shadowing and slowly taking on more of their own responsibilities.
A well-documented trial period eases the process of letting someone go who isn’t do a good job.
Offering incentives for hard work and exemplary service sets a precedent that good work is not just expected, but will be rewarded. Incentives — such as raises, bonuses, or time off — build goodwill and company loyalty and can counterbalance the anxiety of the trial period.
According to Steve Howard, founder of an HVAC training and consultant group, one of the top reasons that HVAC businesses close is the failure of the owner/technician to fully move into a managerial role.
As you grow your business and your team, so do your responsibilities.
So what does it take to manage a successful team?
The goal is to employ a team of technicians that are capable of managing themselves. When you’re confident your team can do their jobs without being micromanaged, you can focus on the big picture.
Hold each team member accountable for their performance through weekly or monthly required reports. When these reports are available to the entire team, individuals can track their performance compared to that of their co-workers. Be honest and transparent about how they are performing individually and collectively.
Incentives aren’t just for new hires. Matt Michel, CEO of Service Roundtable, explains, “Pay wages for time on the job and you will get time on the job. Pay incentives for productivity and that’s what you will get.” He goes on to explain that incentives don’t have to be financial. Recognition can be just as rewarding.
Bruce Breeden, founder of Field Service Resources, LLC, suggests offering incentives for advanced training, such as licenses and credentials.
The right technology can make managing a team simple and efficient. Keep track of your team with a live map. Keep them up-to-date about new service requests and changes to old jobs with a centralized scheduling and dispatch tool. These tools should be easy-to-use for you and your team.
Making the most out of each employee is critical to the success of your business. Throughout the entire process — from hiring to managing employees — honest and clear expectations, and a willingness to train and reward each industrious person will pay off.
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