Implement On-the-Job Training
Originally published: 08.01.18 by Mike Moore
Becoming a proficient HVACR professional requires training and education — lots of it.
Obviously, you don’t need to be told that HVACR technicians and installers need training to be good at their jobs. The trick, as you probably know all too well, is to recruit and retain enough trained staff to meet increasing demand for service.
According to 2015 estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’re looking at a 21 percent increase in HVACR jobs in the next four years. At the same time, a large portion of U.S. workers are nearing retirement. We could be looking at a labor gap of 115,000 or more workers by 2022.
You’d think, with all the opportunity in the field, that job seekers would be jumping at the chance to join the industry. If only. In 2015, the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation commissioned a survey of HVACR instructors.
What they found is that technical training programs are often under-attended,
and many students who do enroll are weak in necessary science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and reading skills.
Yes, you read that correctly. Literacy is another major issue facing the next generation of U.S. workers. That aside, even if you could recruit all your new staff straight from technical schools (and you should be partnering with your local vo-tech schools, if possible), they will still need additional and ongoing training.
Very few technicians you hire will be technically competent in all the types of equipment and troubleshooting skills in your market. That may also be true for some of the technicians you already have.
What to Do
Make sure you have a solid program for on-the-job training. Not only will this help you to make sure the staff you hire are good to go, offering continuing professional development is an effective tool for recruitment and retention. Odds are, you already do some form of training in your business.
To build a world-class service department, it helps to go a step beyond weekly service (and sales) meetings and implement a more formalized approach to on-the-job training. Consider this:
Training is about learning, growth and personal development. Training programs lead to an increase in job satisfaction and employee motivation. They also improve efficiency, and consequently, company profit.
Most technicians have an analytical personality style. Often, analytical people struggle with interpersonal communication. Integrating customer relations training into your service department can lead to higher customer satisfaction.
Technology continues to evolve. Change is constant, and so is the need to keep up with new technology. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you have to buy all-new diagnostic tools every week. What it does mean is that learning should be a core value in your organization, and you can harness evolving technologies to do it more efficiently and accurately.
Just as you would budget for any other operating costs, it’s a good idea to build employee development into your budget. Some companies allocate 2 to 3 percent of sales for training.
When making those calculations, include the anticipated costs for recruitment, testing and relocations (if you’re recruiting from beyond your local area). This adds to your overhead but allows you to plan for it and still attain your company’s net profit goal.
Naturally, you’ll want your best employees to help you train those who are up and coming in your business. This holds true for the whole team, including sales personnel, not just your technical crews. Mentoring a co-worker takes quite a bit of time, effort and patience, and may temporarily detract from the mentor’s perceived productivity.
When done well, it’s worth it, because you’ll have two excellent employees, rather than one who is good and one who is floundering. Offer your designated mentor(s) an incentive. Bonuses, raises, and higher job titles are all ways you might consider rewarding a mentor for a job well done. Paid days off go a long way toward boosting morale, too.
To balance that, hold both mentor and mentee accountable for job performance goals.
Don’t Go It Alone
Mentorship is just part of the picture, but not every business can afford to establish a training space within their shop. Dedicating physical space, equipment, tools and man-hours to an in-house training program might be rather daunting for your operation.
That’s all right. One great way to ensure your staff receive reliable, quality training and get hands-on experience, is to partner with a third-party training provider whose philosophy aligns with your company’s core values.
At the same time, use your in-house mentors to guide and observe your learners as they progress through training programs.
It’s now possible to access a surprising amount of HVACR training online. You can now put new technicians or installers through an online (virtual) training program, where they learn the theory and principles of HVACR, and how to perform installations or maintenance.
While they’re going through an online training course, you can have students working with your mentor(s), practicing what they’ve learned, in the shop and on-the-job.
That way, you can be sure they’re getting standardized training, and racking up hands-on experience in your market.
NATE is Your Friend
Going back to the study that the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation did in 2015, another challenge is that regional standards for certification, licensing and apprenticeship vary widely between U.S. states and Canadian provinces. That makes it difficult to standardize curricula across the industry
North American Technician Excellence (NATE), however, provides testing and certification for many levels and specializations in the HVACR industry. Earning NATE certifications is a recognizable way to show that a technician has the working knowledge and competency to perform well on the job. For those consumers who care about certifications (an increasing number of consumers are educating themselves on such things before dialing your number), NATE badges offer a way to show that your staff are well-trained professionals.
NATE tests are not the alternative to formal HVACR training. On the contrary, partnering with a training provider who will help your technicians to prepare for NATE examinations is a more efficient route to successful certification. Handing someone a study guide and expecting them to prep for a complex and technically challenging test is not as likely to be successful.
Where to Begin
You might be saying, “Okay, that’s all great, but where do we start?” If you’re looking at on-the-job training for a new hire, or you’re not sure where your existing staff might have skill or knowledge gaps, you can use a technical competency test. If you’ve identified a third-party training partner, they should have such an assessment you can use to ascertain your techs’ training needs and skill levels. From there, you can tailor training for each employee.
Another way to identify gaps is to keep a log of all service call backs. If you’re hearing the same problems come up, there may be training issues you need to address. Also, consider employees’ requests for specific training, manufacturer-specific troubleshooting tips, and NATE and EPA requirements for certifications.
Good managers are a must. One of the top things you’re going to need for on-the-job training to succeed is a service manager who is very knowledgeable and can guide staff in proper procedures. The last thing you want is someone passing on bad habits or outdated methods to less experienced employees.
On-the-job training is a commitment, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Continuing to develop your staff as HVACR professionals will help your business to provide top-notch service to your customers, and it will help your company to be somewhere people want to work. That’s always a good thing, and when the industry is facing a labor shortage, retention is vital.
Online curricula for skills and product training can be an excellent resource, allowing employees to study new material without having to travel. You can then have them practice and demonstrate what they’ve learned, in-house and on-the-job.
Remember, it’s your employees that drive results. Not processes. Not technology. Not marketing. People are the most valuable component of your business.