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Start a conversation on any topic with a maintenance or engineering manager these days, and one topic inevitably comes up: staffing. It does not matter if the topic is regulatory compliance, deferred maintenance or planning capital projects. Managers simply do not have enough front-line technicians to perform their departments’ daily tasks.
“It is tough right now,” says David Trask, national director of facilities solutions with ARC Facilities, which provides consulting services and software to institutional and commercial buildings. “I'm hearing on average departments are 20-40 percent down in headcount at any given facility.”
The solutions to the challenges of finding, interviewing, hiring and retaining employees have been slow to come, but two things seem clear: To succeed, managers will have to rethink their traditional staffing practices, and they will have to spend more time refining the process.
The challenges facing managers looking for front-line staff certainly are related in part to common mistakes they make along the way, but exterior forces have made the process more difficult.
“The pandemic caused significant problems for managers since many had to let techs go, and when the opportunity came around to bring them back, they had moved on,” says Andrew Gager, CEO of AMG International Consulting. “Some chose to retire, and many others changed industries. The younger resource availability just isn’t there. Maintenance is still looked upon as something that people get into because they couldn’t go to college. The fact is, the trades is a career whereas many graduates get a job.”
One mistake that too many managers make relates to the role of their organizations’ human resources (HR) departments.
"One that I hear often is relying 100 percent on HR to weed through the applicants,” Trask says. “Frankly, HR doesn't know the first thing about skilled trades, nor should they necessarily. What happens is many potential candidates that could be good hires are eliminated before they even are in the interview process.”
If managers and HR departments are not able to focus and coordinate their efforts, one result is that managers hire unqualified labor.
“I keep hearing that managers hired a person they believed were qualified since they had an impressive resume or CV, but it turned out they were woefully incompetent,” Gager says. “Many fall into the trap of using money as an attractive enticement. More money doesn’t necessarily translate into better talent.”
Another staffing mistake involves overlooking prospective in-house hires who could move from different areas within the organization with the help of internal training to get them up to speed.
“I often hear this where custodial staff is interested in looking into skilled trades or even into general maintenance positions,” Trask says. “They're overlooked because they don't have any real experience. But what's crazy is those people probably know the building as well as many of the general maintenance people that are on staff.”
One relatively recent development – the rise of social media – holds promise for managers who can use it effectively in the staffing process. Success often focuses on actively participating on social media platforms instead of just monitoring them.
"Every time I see a job posting in LinkedIn, I repost it or I share it or read it or like it or something so my people can also see that,” Trask says. “By doing so, I get people to reach out to me all the time, and I'll reach back to that person.
“The reason I do that is because we're all trying to help everybody. General networking is like the old school practice where you would ask your buddy if he knew somebody, or you'd ask your family member if they knew somebody. Social media allows you to send it out to people, especially if you have a following.”
“Someone can look like a superstar on paper, or in this case, electronically, and turn out to be a turnip,” Gager says. “On the other hand, social media opened the world to potential qualified techs looking to make a move. There are dozens and dozens of websites to search for potential employees or employers. An interesting phenomenon with social media, though, is that people can post reviews so even employers can get a bad rap on social media.”
Increasingly, staffing searches now include updated hiring criteria and interview questions. These updates reflect the reality that the entire process, as well as the pool of potential candidates, has changed.
"I see more people looking for more well-rounded workers than just one particular discipline,” Trask says. “Many people are starting to look more for generalists and people who have multiple trade experience instead of somebody who's just an electrician or a plumber. They're looking for somebody who also has a little bit of experience. Maybe they've got some pipe fitting experience.
“Ask them about other ways they can also contribute to your organization. Maybe they were cross-trained at another position with another organization, and they picked up skills here and there. It's not necessarily something that they're certified in, but they've done it. That's a huge value add when you're talking to somebody who may have a unique need for an electrician.”
Gager says the interview process also can go beyond conversation.
“One of my former colleagues would ask standard questions during the interview and screening process, but then he would have them actually conduct a skill,” he says. “For example; if the candidate was applying for HVAC position, show them how to balance the flow, troubleshoot and issue with a (rooftop unit) or diagnose an electrical issue. He found that almost 60 percent of candidates couldn’t execute the most basic skills they were applying for.”
As the turbulence in maintenance and engineering departments has continued, it has become even more important for managers to retain qualified new hires. Like every other part of the process, though, they would be wise to revisit their approach given the new considerations for staffing.
"The most successful people that I've heard or successful (organizations) that I have heard to retain people is they have clearly defined career growth ladders,” Trask says. “They're completely spelled out, including salary increases. You're giving your employees a career path to grow within your organization that is completely spelled out. It's not a pie in the sky. They know they can get this additional certification and get a 10 percent or 15 percent pay increase, as well."
Gager advises managers to carefully consider the use of money in the staffing process.
“Understand that money is not a motivator, money is a stimulator,” Gager says. “Once the euphoria of more money wears off, then the short-term motivation goes with it.
“The old adage, 'People don’t quit the company, they quit their managers' holds true. Trust in your manager is the number one motivating factor for employees. Managers are best served when they understand the motivating factors for each of their team members. Trust, encouragement, responsibility, contribution, challenge, listening and visibility are all means to find and keep qualified skilled talent.”
Despite the range of changes and challenges facing managers looking for qualified technicians, there are reasons for managers to stay hopeful.
“The situation is slowly getting better, but it will take some time,” Gager says. “Many organizations are now tapping into alternative resources to find competent labor – technical schools, community colleges, establishing some type of apprenticeships. I’m learning that many employers are now presenting at high schools to garner interest, working with technical and community colleges helping build curriculums.”
Dan Hounsell is senior editor of the facilities market. He has more than 30 years of experience writing about facilities maintenance, engineering and management.