Despite a nationwide shortage of technicians, a few HVAC companies have found innovative ways to avoid the staffing crunch: They create their own internal pipeline of up-and-coming workers.
Take MSI Mechanical in Salem, NH, which has two different avenues—both school-to-career programs—for obtaining potential technical employees. In one program, the company partners with a vocational high school in Massachusetts. “We get students in their junior year and we train them for a year every other week,” says Brian Hooper, vice president. “ One week they work with us; the next week, they are at school. When they graduate in May or June, we offer them a full-time position.
“We’ve hired seven full-time technicians from that program who are still working for us today,” he continues. “Some of the older ones, who we started training when they were 17, are now 27 years old and own a house, are married, have two kids, and no debt from college. They came right out of high school, went to night school while they worked for us, and got all their education and licenses working at night.”
Hooper also recruits students who complete a two-year degree in HVAC from Manchester Community College. “We work with the teachers and help them find the curriculum and activities that these students should learn,” he says. “That way it is information they can use in real life. We go to the job fair when students are graduating and hire them.”
A second-generation, family-owned business, MSI sticks to commercial and industrial HVAC with a specialty in data centers, call centers, and clean rooms. With 25 employees, the company generates $9 to $10 million annually and operates three divisions: service, maintenance, and construction/installation.
“Because of our divisions, when things get slow, service guys can go into the maintenance divisions and help out with changing filters and belts and cleaning coils,” Hooper says. “If we get really busy in construction, we have guys in the maintenance division who can move over and help out.”
He estimates the average employee tenure is seven to 10 years, although several, including the service manager, have been with the company for 20 years or more.
“Because we hire a lot of young generation people from high school and college, you might think they would use us for the education and after training leave us, but because we treat them very well, even when they know nothing, a lot stay. They love the culture and like training the next generation. Everybody here cares about and takes pride in their work.”
If he places a want ad, he’s found he doesn’t necessarily get that commitment. “The technicians who are available may have traits or habits we don’t want,” he says. “If we get them from a school atmosphere, we can train them the way we want, and they can absorb our culture.”
Hiring Wanna-Be Technicians
Gary Ward, president, Gary’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., Amarillo, TX, takes another approach that seems to be paying off. He hires people with little or no HVAC experience and trains them to his company’s standards.
“About three years ago, we finally realized that Amarillo is just like the rest of the nation,” Ward says. “There are almost zero qualified technicians to be hired, so we decided to start our own training program. We hire guys who want to be service technicians. They may or may not have any education or training. We put them on a two-year career path and run them through in-house training, as well as third-party training for technical and soft skills.”
The trainees typically go through the installation department first, so they know how equipment should be installed, and then move to maintenance, where they work on operating equipment—no repairs. “As they go through maintenance, they will be taught troubleshooting equipment in failure,” he explains. “After an average of three years, they’re ready to go on a repair call without supervision.”
A detailed career ladder reveals where trainees stand in the 22-person company, which will generate $4 million in residential repairs and replacements this year. “The career ladder shows them what they have to accomplish to reach the next step,” Ward says. “As they progress through the steps, they know the range of their pay. ” He adds that actual pay depends on individual attitude and performance.
Ward thinks companies make a big mistake when they are forced into hiring a technician off the street, because they need another body immediately. “It shows an absence of planning,” he says. “When we build our operational budget, we also build our manpower budget.”
He also ensures that there’s money in the budget for time off and education, estimating he has spent $82,000 on education/training in 2016 because “young people desire education. The millennials want not only a good wage, but free time as well. We need to staff in a manner to accommodate the younger people who we’re dependent upon.”
Three HVAC Schools
While there may be a nationwide shortage of technicians, it hasn’t hit Topeka, KS, reports Greg DeBacker, president of DeBacker’s, Inc., which pulls its technicians from three surrounding HVAC technical schools — Washburn Institute of Technology, Wichita Area Technical College, and Bryan Technical.
To ensure the graduates are well trained— and that he recruits the cream of the crop— DeBacker serves on the board of two of the trade schools. “To be accredited, the schools have to have people in the trades review them a couple times a year,” he explains.
The company, established in 1949, generates $2 million in sales annually and employs 18 to 19 employees, three of whom are retiring this year. “Luckily, we’ve had good younger ones coming in to replace them,” DeBacker says. “The employee who recently gave notice has been here 42 years. Another has been here 48 years. We also have six or seven under the age of 25.”
Contrary to public opinion, DeBacker continues to be amazed by the work ethic of the recent technical school graduates. “People talk about the younger generation, but these guys are from the Midwest and grew up in a rural setting. They worked on their own cars and tractors. That’s one of the questions I ask during an interview: ‘Do you change your own oil? Do you like working with your hands?’”
He looks for a variety of characteristics in new hires, including cleanliness, good attitude, and the ability to communicate with peers and customers. “The technical schools teach not only trade skills, but also life skills,” he says. “There’s more than being able to repair something. You have to have people skills too.”
Once hired, new technicians participate in a one-year ride-along before they go in their own van. “A lot of companies hire them out of trade school and two weeks later send them out,” he says. “There is no way. Trade schools teach them a lot, but there’s nothing like on-the-job training.”
After they are trained, DeBacker technicians have a certain degree of job security. “We rarely lay off,” he says. “We find something for them to do. We don’t want to lose them once they’re here. We give monthly bonuses in the summer, when we’re busy. It’s our moneymaking time so they work harder and longer hours.”
His company also offers a profit sharing plan, a disability benefit if they get hurt off the job, and a health plan of which the company pays about a third.
DeBacker’s advice for companies searching for new technicians: “Get on the board or advisory council of nearby trade schools. They are a good farming ground, and they vet the people coming in.”