Challenges Of Finding Qualified Technicians
By Dan Hounsell, Editor - December 2011 - Maintenance & Operations
*Daniel Costello, Associate Director for Facilities Maintenance, University of Texas at Austin
*Joseph Clements, Executive Director, Facilities Services, Fulton County Schools, College Park, Ga.
*Steven Plaxco, Director of Maintenance and Facilities, Yuba City (Calif.) Unified School District
Maintenance and engineering managers continue to struggle to recruit and retain qualified workers for their departments. Their challenges include competition from more attractive employers, a low level of interest in trades work, and a shrinking pool of workers with the right skill set and education. In this discussion, managers describe their specific challenges and offer proven strategies for recruiting success.
Q. What are the biggest challenges you face in trying to recruit qualified workers for front-line maintenance positions?
COSTELLO: One (challenge) is competitive salaries. We're a university system, and we've got a very competitive benefits package that includes a pension and insurance, and that's very competitive. But our entry salaries are not. For some of the more technical positions, we find ourselves to be below market.
PLAXCO: One of the biggest challenges is unqualified workers. I find some people who are great carpenters or more along the lines of a specialized tradesman ... But in reality, a good maintenance technician is a plumber and an electrician and a carpenter. It's difficult to find somebody that has all those skill sets at a journeyman level.
CLEMENTS: Sometimes, licensing requirements are not necessarily a good indication. Licensing requirements are frequently related to installation skills, electrical or mechanical. (But) just going in and installing residential or light-commercial equipment does not necessarily mean that someone has a wide variety of skills or is skilled at troubleshooting. We don't do much installation. We do repair work. Troubleshooting is a skill we're looking for. That's the tough part is finding good troubleshooters ... One other impediment sometimes in the whole recruitment procedure is the slowness of action that a lot of times public entities have. We tend to be slow at hiring, and we lose people sometimes because of that.
Q. Where have you looked in an effort to recruit these workers?
CLEMENTS: The best luck we've had is posting in the local trade newspaper that comes out once a month that has pretty wide readership. That and putting colored flyers in parts houses ... We're just starting to (work with trade schools) now. We've had limited success in that area, just because the people who are coming out of there are very green. Frequently, they don't want to take a lower-level job that is more of a training-level position.
COSTELLO: For some of our more technical skills, specifically fire and life-safety technicians, we have broadened our advertising nationwide, trying to target areas where there has been a downturn in the economy. We'll advertise in the local papers, but we're more successful if we can get into a trade magazine. We've seen some good recruits out of California and Florida and some of the northern areas. So we have extended our recruiting base but haven't been successful getting into the tech schools or the military, or anything like that.
PLAXCO: When I reach out to the trade schools, I haven't been real successful. Most often the candidates we do interview — they've got good training, and they're great folks, but they just have no practical experience. I'm not sure what they're learning at the schools, but we've had a couple of occasions where they felt that our wage rate wasn't high enough ... We know a lot of the local contractors and people who work for them. So sometimes when we have an opening, I specifically reach out and recruit specific people and encourage them to apply, people who have been in our schools doing service as part of a contract. We pay attention, and when something opens up, we put a little bug in their ear. That's actually been working best for us overall.
Q. What are the most important qualifications you seek in a front-line technician?
COSTELLO: Our preferred candidate would be highly technical and have a lot of good troubleshooting experience and some other experience. We also really like people who show a history of continuous learning — showing the initiative, going and seeking additional technical skills, whether that's through certification or training programs. We need people who are willing to go out and not only understand the technology but who are looking to keep up with technology as it develops. That's very difficult to assess in a recruiting process, so a lot of times we end relying on credentials and licensures.
PLAXCO: Obviously, technical skills and training and actual work experience matter. But even more important than that — ideally, I'm looking at how much integrity they have, what their work ethic is, how much importance they place on customer service. If I had to choose between somebody that has a high level of skills but maybe displays an attitude or doesn't provide the level of customer service that we deem to be important, I'd rather take somebody with less experience who has all the right ethics and integrity and then provide them a little training. The makeup of the person applying for the job is almost more important than the person's skills. I'll take the someone that has better human relation skills and work habits and get some training for him rather than hire somebody that just doesn't fit or doesn't understand why we're here and the importance of what we're doing.
CLEMENTS: We look for a good work ethic. Somebody that can work with very little direction is probably the most important thing. Somebody that can direct himself during the day and is a continuous learner. Nobody comes to us knowing every piece of equipment that we have, so they've got to be willing to work with a supervisor or co-worker to learn the specifics of different equipment. Then, they must have good troubleshooting skills.
Q. How much training do you generally have to provide to bring new workers up to speed?
CLEMENTS: (The training is) limited to the more specialized areas, like low-voltage, electrical, mechanical. We do have trades helper positions, and those people will get more training. A lot of times, we'll have a trades helper working with a plumber or a locksmith or something like that. We've got a number of people that have gotten to where they work primarily in that trade area, so they'll take some more formal training themselves, and that's training that we will help subsidize.
COSTELLO: For most of our technical skill groups — maintenance workers, plumbers, refrigeration technicians, electricians, that core block of technicians — they do some compliance training, which is pretty typical. Then they get six months of working alongside other technicians. Each of my zones manages 2-3 million square feet, so it's not necessarily to teach a plumber how to be a plumber. It's more to teach a plumber where the systems are and how to get access to them, and how to work with our clients in order to do shutdowns and to schedule preventive maintenance ... As new technologies come out, we send guys to school for that. We kind of develop this niche training to really focus on specific technical building systems to try to develop that expertise in house. That has been very successful, both in providing better service to our clients and also in reducing our reliance on certain service contracts, which helps hold down costs.
PLAXCO: The most common training I have to provide is to make someone a journeyman maintenance technician, just a general all-around facilities repair guy. Traditionally, the weakest areas are electrical and plumbing. I can't really say why. A lot of people think they know electrical, but they really don't.
Q. What specific efforts does your department make to retain workers once they are on board?
PLAXCO: In a government agency, I'm limited. Now in a private company, they might give somebody a bonus, but that's just not going to happen here. What has worked best for me is that I treat everybody fairly. We recognize and reward successes publicly in our shop meetings. These are all macho, traditional, big burly men, and they make fun of it, but if I get a thank-you letter from a school principal for some exceptional work that one of my staff people did, we read that publicly in our shop meeting, and then we actually put them on the refrigerator with magnets, just like when our kids used to bring home a good paper.
CLEMENTS: We try to create a good work culture. A lot of people get in here and realize it's a low-conflict environment that we try to foster. We try to operate like we're a family. We provide support for people if something comes up personally. People try to chip in and help. If somebody's house is damaged by a storm, they're very likely to see people come out to help with whatever it is. We also have a monthly breakfast to talk about issues and recognize people for things they've contributed over the month.
COSTELLO: In return for going out and getting training and being more successful at (the job) and being more valuable to us, we do a pay adjustment for the additional responsibilities ... We'll never keep up with the market. A plumber will always make more on the outside doing new construction than he's going to make with us. But we offer the job stability, the 40-hour week. There's a good overtime program for us, and then there's potential for additional compensation if you go out and get these other certifications.
Q. What lessons have you learned in recruiting and retaining qualified front-line technicians?
CLEMENTS: Get the right people on the bus. If we get people that have a reasonable level of skills, a good work ethic, and a willingness to learn, those three things are the keys to success. They may not know everything, but they're open to being trained and are trusted workers. That's one of the things we frequently find with guys who have had military discipline. They show up for work on time, and they're thorough.
PLAXCO: The number one lesson I've learned — and I get invited to participate in quite a few interview processes at other school districts — take advantage of the probationary period, and trust your instincts. If you hire somebody and for some reason during that probationary period, it's just not working, it's not quite the right fit, trust your gut instinct. I've learned some difficult lessons. Sometimes, it's just not going to work. Let that person go. Don't let them become a permanent employee because typically, it's just going to get worse ... We're all in leadership positions, and it's OK to trust your instincts. It's the best for everybody, including the person involved. If it's not fitting for whatever reason, divorce from the situation, and let that person get on with what they need to do with their career. Find somebody who is going to be a more positive fit for your team.