A New Generation: Finding and Keeping Younger Workers
Every year, for the next 15 years, the U.S. economy will lose 3.5 million employees as baby boomers retire, reports Robert LaBombard, chief executive officer of GradStaff , a Minneapolis-based staffing company. The members of Generation Y—those born between 1980 and 2000—who will step into the boomers’ jobs are not only fewer in number, adds LaBombard, but also “vastly unprepared” in terms of knowing about business practices and operations. That all adds up to a looming shortage of skilled workers—a challenge the HVAC industry has already been grappling with for more than a decade.
“The younger generation doesn’t want to get into our field to turn wrenches and have dirty hands,” says Louis Hobaica, president of Hobaica Services Inc., Phoenix, AZ. “We now hire on personality, not technical ability. If you hire, train, and educate someone who already has great customer service skills—like good eye contact and the ability to communicate—you can teach the mechanical skills.”
Hobaica typically advertises for an entry level, customer-service position in HVAC, with no experience necessary. He starts the person as a Level 1 technician doing basic, residential maintenance calls that don’t require any special diagnostic skills. His service department comprises three more levels of expertise, each carrying additional education requirements: A Level 2 technician does basic repairs, and a Level 3 moves into commercial work and more complicated types of systems. A Level 4 technician typically handles industrial calls, servicing refrigeration units, boilers, and chillers.
While Hobaica oft en hires young people who have worked in retail settings, Diane Yarus looks for those who have good manual dexterity or some mechanical interest. The co-owner of Airworks, Inc., in Kalispell, MT, Yarus emphasizes the complexity of today’s HVAC technology when recruiting. “To attract a younger, tech-savvy workforce, we have to let them know about the tech elements in this trade,” she believes. “We work in energy management, and that’s a strong selling point.”
Yarus has found several younger employees simply through networking and talking with others in her community. Her firm also offers a summer “job shadow” program for participants in the local community college’s HVAC program. “The class is all online, so our program shows them this really is a hands-on job,” says Yarus. Still, she has hired only one employee as a result of the shadowing program. “After completing a two-year program, most people want to start making $25 an hour right away,” she notes. “They don’t realize that it takes some time to gain proficiency in this trade.”
Similarly, Frank Cerbone, president of All State Air Control in Mt. Vernon, NY, rarely hires trade school graduates even though he is one himself. Instead of recruiting from the trade schools, where he finds most students have unrealistic expectations about compensation and the job itself, he concentrates on local high schools that still offer shop classes.
“We partner with the schools that recognize not all kids are college material,” says Cerbone. “We talk with guidance counselors, do presentations at career days, offer internships, and hire for summer jobs.” or $8 per hour, the student summer workers ride along on service calls, fill out paperwork, handle data entry tasks, wash condensers, and clean out trucks.
“Our hidden agenda—which isn’t hidden at all—is to bring in people who will eventually turn into mechanics,” he explains. “We have to plant the seeds with the 14-year-olds, so they know they can become an entrepreneur as well as a tradesman in the HVAC industry.”
Keeping Them Around
After 15 years of building and nurturing a “farm system” for All State Air Control, Cerbone now has high schools calling him about promising candidates for summer and full-time jobs. He acknowledges, however, that a youth recruitment program takes a lot of work, energy, and patience. “Sometimes the farm system works, and the people come to work for us, and sometimes it doesn’t—but the students all learn something by working here,” says Cerbone.
He sees distinct differences between employees under the age of 35— sometimes referred to as Millennials—and their older counterparts. For instance, says Cerbone, “One trend we see with the younger people is that they really like their ‘me’ time.”
In addition to seeking balance in their private and work lives, members of Generation Y prefer to move up on their own terms, want instant feedback, and are not afraid to change jobs and organizations frequently, according to Bruce Katcher, president of Discovery Surveys, Inc., Sharon, MA. “If you continue to use the methods of the past for attracting, motivating, and retaining young employees, your organization will become a revolving door,” cautions Katcher.
Here are some strategies to ensure that doesn’t happen:
Be more mentor than boss. Feed Generation Y’s desire to keep learning by sharing your knowledge and providing opportunities for personal and professional growth.
“The younger generation likes to look up to someone,” says Cerbone, noting the popularity of shows such as American Idol. “But you don’t want older people talking down to the younger ones, who like the energy of being a team.”
Offer competitive benefits. Airworks pays its four technicians— three of whom are under the age of 35—the same wages they would earn in more populous areas and offers healthcare coverage. The firm covers all training costs and awards a raise aft er the completion of a post-training period.
“Paid holidays are important, as are 401(k) plans with a company match,” adds Hobaica. Some years ago, his firm scrapped its annual bonus in favor of a year-round incentive program through which employees can earn “Hobaica Bucks” for garnering positive customer feedback and online reviews. Employees convert the Hobaica Bucks into gift cards, choosing from more than 200 retailers, so they can buy whatever they’d like. They can also earn monetary bonuses by selling products and services.
“The younger generation likes to move at their own pace and be in control—of their income, their lifestyle, their future,” says Hobaica, who budgets $100,000 annually for the incentive program. “I have one maintenance technician who, in his first year, made $60,000, because he’s a natural-born salesperson and we don’t put a ceiling on what he’s able to make.”
Demonstrate flexibility. “Young people, in particular, are looking for a better lifestyle,” says Yarus. One Airworks employee, for instance, often needs to leave work by 3 p.m., to pick up his young daughter; another prefers to work on Saturdays during the winter so he can spend Wednesdays on Montana’s ski slopes. “Rather than giving them a hard time, we just schedule around what’s really important to them,” she adds.
Of Hobaica Services’ field technicians, 80 percent are 35 or younger. When the company realized its younger workers disliked being on call, which interfered with their private lives, it replaced its Monday- through-Friday, 9-to-5 schedule with staggered shift s. Now, some technicians start work at 7 a.m., others at 10 a.m.. They may work Tuesday through Saturday or even Wednesday through Sunday. The field technicians also have the flexibility of keeping their trucks with them, going from job to job and then home, rather than reporting to the office each day.
“The younger people, especially if they’re not married or don’t have kids, don’t seem to have trouble working on a weekend day if that expectation is communicated up front,” observes Hobaica. “What they don’t like are surprises, which interfere with their fun life. They want to have the fun first and fi t everything else in around it.”
Lighten up. Speaking of fun, Hobaica strives to inject a lot into every company meeting. Held on the first and third Tuesdays of every month, the mandatory, yet informal, meetings bring together all 40 office and field staff for an hour.
“We start every meeting with our company cheer, which may sound silly, but it loosens everyone up,” says Hobaica. “Then we sing our jingle, recite the mission statement, give marketing updates, and hand out bonuses. The meeting is participative and fun, not about processes and procedures.”
If the entire HVAC industry expressed a similar enthusiasm, Frank Cerbone thinks Generation Y may start paying more attention to it. “This is a great field! But we need to share the energy and excitement of what we do every day,” he says. “If you don’t feel good about what you do, then forget about trying to recruit anyone else.”
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