By John MacKenna
Keeping a service team staffed with skilled technicians is a daunting challenge for some Oilheat companies. Many top technicians are nearing retirement age, and the ambitious, young technical minds that could replace them often gravitate to other industries. Companies are forced either to invest heavily to develop their own technicians or to hire away talent from rival service departments.
At Walter A. Dwyer Inc., in Ambler, PA, Sales Manager Kurt Massa sees a number of factors in play that make it difficult to build and maintain a skilled HVAC service team. “Technical schools are not devoting a lot of time to Oilheat instruction, and many new prospects are not aware of the demanding hours, in our seasons, that may be expected of them,” he said. “It has been a struggle for a very long time to come up with right combinations of hours and keeping morale at a high level.
“I remember reading a survey where technicians were asked to make a choice of considerable earnings for overtime or having the time off with family or their social life. The majority picked the latter. When I first started as a technician, I would be required to be on call every other night and every other weekend. It was not unusual to be working all day past midnight and then be in early the next morning to start the new day. We as managers need to figure out this one aspect of our business to make it more attractive to the newer generations.”
With fresh talent in short supply, some companies try to raid the service teams of their competitors by offering significant signing bonuses to technicians who are willing to make the switch.
Another option is to hire apprentices, but their skills are often under-developed, and companies wind up carrying and training them for a few years before they are ready to work alone. Employing technicians while they are learning the job does not always make a positive impact on the profitability of the service department, which should be every service manager’s goal. “You have to carry people, and that’s expensive. Your goal is to address and remedy the customers’ concerns the first time, and be profitable,” Massa said.
The need for new talent is urgent at many companies, according to Mike Hodge, who is Service Manager at Griffith Energy Services, in Frederick, MD, and an active member of the Oil & Energy Service Professionals’ (OESP’s) Mid-Atlantic Chapter. He told Oil & Energy that retirements are creating job openings, but few young workers are choosing trades where they might have to get their hands dirty or weeks nights and weekends. “More and more positions are available, and we are not filling them,” Hodge said. “I ran an ad for a journeyman four months in a row and did not get a single response.”
Companies that hire young technicians usually wind up carrying them while they train, with limited return. “That costs money,” Hodge said. “The company budget is not built that way.”
Ironically, the Oilheat industry is harmed by a lack of opportunities despite all the retirements, according to Angel Gonzalez, a former service manager who now works as a Territory Manager at Carlin Combustion Technology, Inc. “We’re going through an attrition phase, and technicians that are retiring are not always being replaced,” he said. “There are exceptions, but the trend is that companies are downsizing.” Union rules can also work against new hires, and this presents a discouraging picture for young workers when they are exposed to Oilheat.
Hire and Groom
One company that has found a way to bring new technicians on board and train them is Parker Fuel, in Ellicott City, MD. Service Manager Ralph Adams contacted the state more than 15 years ago and determined that the company could operate an apprenticeship program that enabled them to carry apprentices as part-time employees while they went for college-level training.
“They sign a contract for five years, and during the first four years I send them to school, and we pay for their education,” he explained. “They work for us during the day and go to school at night. We make an investment in each other. If one of these young men wants to leave, they can, but they have to pay us back for the education. If at the end of four years they bring us a diploma, they get a journeyman’s license, and then they work for us for another year. They usually stay on after that, because we have made an investment in each other.”
The apprentices earn less than they might in another job, but they get regular pay raises on a schedule that is set out in the contract, so they always know exactly what they will be making if they stay the course. Parker Fuel earns tax credits from the state for running a formalized apprenticeship program.
The company runs the risk of losing its trainees to other companies, but Adams says that mutual loyalty generally keeps them in the fold. A rival company approached one Parker Fuel trainee and offered more money, but the trainee just reported the attempt to Adams, who called the company and gave them a piece of his mind. “Loyalty is real,” Adams told Oil & Energy. “They did not think the tech would come talk to me. They thought the money would do it. It’s not about the money a lot of the time. It’s about how you treat people. Treat them with respect, and they will take care of you.”
“It makes sense to grow your own technicians and stop stealing them from the competition for a quarter an hour so someone can steal them from you for another quarter an hour,” Adams added. “It’s expensive, no doubt, but the investment you make in training them can come back to you in the loyalty factor, where someone else can’t just come in and steal them away.”
Some companies look to technical schools for young talent. Pete Gonzalez, an HVAC instructor at the Bronx Design and Construction Academy in New York City, told Oil & Energy, “A lot of managers and owners reach out to me, expressing interest in new kids and new blood.” He believes internships are great for steering students toward a company, and he is working with the New York Oil Heating Association to bring students and companies together.
In New York City, Oilheat companies face strong competition in the recruiting game from technical colleges and the construction trades. Several colleges visit the Bronx Design and Construction Academy and recruit aggressively. Some unions in the construction trades are also active in the trade schools, recruiting talented students who might otherwise work in Oilheat or HVAC.
OESP helps out by sending speakers to the school, sponsoring an interscholastic skills competition and selecting students for college tuition assistance under the Dave Nelson Scholarship program. Gonzalez recommends that labor unions in the Oilheat industry also get involved. “The competition for these kids is very real,” he said. “The Oilheat industry can help influence these kids by coming in, talking to these kids and offering internships.”
Carlin’s Angel Gonzalez said OESP strives to be proactive on behalf of the industry by building relationships between its chapters and the technical schools and colleges in their regions. “We interact with students, bring speakers to the schools and run competitions,” he said.
Angel Gonzalez says some companies are wary of hiring students fresh out of high school due to maturity issues. “What I saw as a service manager was that you have to decide where the talent was and how to attract it, and you had to convince management that it make sense to take someone on while they continue to train. Sometimes management does not want to pay someone who doesn’t already know the job.”
“Some companies are looking to technical colleges and certificate programs where the individuals are older and even family men or women with responsibility,” he added. The financial issues can be challenging, however, if the employee expects to be paid at a mid-career level while the company is viewing them as a trainee.
At White Mountain Oil & Propane, in North Conway, NH, Service Manager Curtis Reynolds says he prefers to hire experienced technicians. “I know it is asking a lot, but that way we can put them right into the workforce,” he said.
College Adds Value
At the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA, the Construction and Design School is graduating hundreds of students a year into the workforce with associate or bachelor’s degrees. Richard Taylor, a certified NORA Gold Instructor and a member of the Susquehanna Valley Chapter of OESP, said the students gain a solid foundation in Oilheat as part of the HVAC education program. The bachelor’s degree students tend to find jobs as system designers and project managers, while the associate’s degree students are well prepared for technician positions. “Compared to a student from a high school, our graduates are on a much faster track to be valuable sooner,” he said.
“I think the 21st century technician is not doing just Oilheat. Now we are more broad in our thinking,” Taylor said. Students are going to work for companies that serve and install all kinds of appliances, including Oilheat, gas heat, air conditioning and heat pumps, and that is reflected in the college curriculum and even in the agenda at OESP. The association is strongly rooted in heating oil, but it has changed its name to reflect the new reality, and the Susquehanna Valley Chapter is no longer focused just on Oilheat. “When we changed to Oil and Energy Service Professionals, that was really appropriate, because that is what you are seeing,” he said.
OESP has supported many Pennsylvania College of Technology students with Dave Nelson Scholarships, and Oilheat retains strong market share in the communities around Williamsport, where there is no natural gas infrastructure. Nonetheless, a recent OESP chapter meeting featured a guest speaker from Fujitsu, who discussed heat pumps. “Customers need heating, cooling and plumbing with different fuel types, and contracting companies want to meet all those needs,” Taylor said.
The mechanical fields offer lots of opportunity, and jobs are safer than those in the construction field, which is subject to busts and booms, according to Taylor. Nonetheless, many technically minded students aren’t looking to become technicians. “Fewer people want to work in basements and on roofs. They would rather be working on laptops,” he said.
One way that companies can help themselves is by hiring appropriately skilled managers and providing constant managerial training to run the service department rather than taking their best technician off the street and putting them in charge, according to Dwyer’s Massa. “By promoting the top technician, companies can hurt themselves in two ways: They take an essential, revenue-generating, skilled worker out of the field, and they put management responsibilities in the hands of someone who might not have a manager’s aptitude. You don’t have to be a good technician to be a good service manager,” he said. “A good, innovative manager, I believe, can keep the technicians satisfied with their work and eager to learn, and when the word spreads, can recruit all levels of technicians.”