No matter where they do business throughout the country,HVAC contractors routinely encounter the same personnel challenge: a shortage of qualified service technicians and installers. The arrival of summer’s heat—when more people are needed to meet customers’ emergency needs—simply exacerbates the year-round staffing problem.
Some companies turn to temporary workers, hiring less experienced technicians or college students to help handle the extra work that summer brings. Others, however, don’t consider seasonal employees a viable option. “In our trade, trying to find temporary workers doesn’t work. We’d have to do too much training in a short amount of time,” says Randy Hastings, president of R&R Heating & Air Conditioning in Spokane, WA. The state’s strict rules and regulations, for example, require anybody who touches a thermostat wire to have a low-voltage electrical license—which takes thousands of hours and several tests to earn.
In addition, R&R is committed to providing a drug-free work environment in a state that allows recreational marijuana use. “We do pre-employment, post-accident, and random drug testing, and it’s pretty tough to find the people who can pass drug tests and also have a driver’s license without three violations on it,” Hastings explains. When he finds workers who meet that criteria, he prefers to keep them permanently employed.
With the exception of a summer intern from the local vocational school’s HVAC program, Luxury Heating Company in Elyria, OH, also avoids hiring people just for its mid-May to late August busy season. “We’re very family oriented and, from a moral perspective, don’t want to get in the habit of bringing guys in and letting them go quickly,” says Paul Samek, Luxury’s president. In addition, he notes, staffing up every summer and then laying off people every September can negatively affect a company’s culture.
“The general consensus among our guys is that they’d rather work Saturdays and overtime to keep up with the workflow, instead of us hiring people just for the summer,” Samek reports. “So it becomes a delicate balance of not tasking the guys so much that they become totally beaten down by the extra hours they’re putting in.”
With 42 employees, the majority of whom work in the field, Luxury has some ability to distribute overtime hours among its technicians. That’s not the case for DeLuxe HVAC/R, Inc. The company, based in St. Charles, IL, employs three technicians who are already spread thin before the phones start ringing with summer service emergencies. Tony Passaglia, president of DeLuxe, found much needed back-up for his employees—plus additional work year-round—when he formed a joint venture with another HVAC contractor that has seven technicians on staff.
“We specialize more in diagnostics, repair, engineering, and maintenance, and they concentrate more on selling and installing equipment,” Passaglia explains. “But I couldn’t find installers, they couldn’t find specialized technicians, and neither of us wanted to keep saying no to jobs—so it was a perfect marriage of convenience.” While both companies operate independently, the same receptionist (employed by the partnering company) handles all phone calls, dispatching, and scheduling; a DeLuxe employee deals with all service tickets, receivables, and payables. The companies when work together on projects that require expertise or manpower that neither could supply on its own.
Passaglia admits it can be tricky to find another local company that complements your business rather than competing directly for most of the same customers. In DeLuxe’s case, the results have been worth the effort. “The joint venture has made both of us a lot stronger,” Passaglia says. “In fact, both businesses saw a 15 percent increase over projections almost immediately, and that has held up through every season.”
Still, the joint venture is no match for a raging heat wave that taxes both contractors’ service capabilities. That’s why Passaglia has a written policy prohibiting scheduled time off during the summer. Although DeLuxe’s employees typically figure out how to cover for someone occasionally wanting a long weekend, they know no one goes anywhere when the weather forecast calls for 100-degree days.
Even with nearly 90 employees, R&R remains careful about approving summer vacations, particularly for employees in its residential add-on, replacement, and service areas. Hastings explains, “We need to make hay when we can, so we limit time off from June until the middle of August. That’s not to say we deny it totally—although a vacation request for the week of July 4th probably wouldn’t be approved because it’s our busiest week.”
Luxury Heating used to deny all requests for vacation time in the summer. As president, Samek has continued his father’s more family-friendly approach, which did away with the ironclad policy, but requires one month’s advance notice so the company has time to plan for the employee’s absence. “We make it known that in the summer, when we’re crazy busy, we’d appreciate people not taking a vacation. But a lot of our workers have spouses who are teachers, and summer is the only time they can take their family trips,” Samek says. “Rarely have we said no to a vacation request, although a request for more than one week off would be tough to approve.” He believes the need for flexibility regarding vacations and overtime will only increase as the workforce comprises more members of the millennial generation. “The younger generation has the mindset that they want personal time and family time, so strict policies won’t sit well with them. Work is not their life,” Samek says.
Passaglia agrees, noting that the increased need for emergency service in the summer is often at odds with his employees’ desire to leave work early to coach baseball or football or do other activities with their children. He typically offers a trade-off: leaving early during the day means being available on evenings and weekends to take service calls. “If there isn’t that type of flexibility, then you’re stuck being the ogre,” he notes.
A Show of Appreciation
Another way Passaglia softens the impact of summer overtime is to offer employees a choice of compensation. For any time worked over 40 hours in a week, technicians can choose to either be paid time and a half or regular time plus a comp hour. When enough comp hours are accumulated, they are translated into a family weekend at a local waterpark, plus some spending money. “In that way,” he says, “I’m rewarding them for taking time away from their families during the summer by giving them time together and paying for the getaway.”
R&R brings families together every summer by hosting a group function—such as going bowling, attending a baseball game, or having a picnic. Each year, employees receive a birthday card containing movie tickets and, on their work anniversary, their spouse receives a thank you card with a $25 gift certificate in appreciation for the support provided on the home front. During the summer months the company also shows its appreciation by providing ice and free bottles of water and Gatorade for all their technicians in the field.
Serving as a role model may prove the most effective way to keep everyone cool in the heat of summer overtime, Passaglia believes. He notes, “Management should be following the same policies and meeting the same expectations as employees—for example, they shouldn’t be taking vacation or going fishing while asking everyone else to work overtime. And if you own a business, you’re in management.”