Every contractor, large or small, is starving for a well-trained service tech. Well, how are you going to get one?

Great question. The whole industry could work together to create a service curriculum. It makes sense to pool resources to create training programs, but you know what? It’s not going to happen.

This is an incredibly fragmented industry. A whopping 80 percent of Plumbing & Mechanical subscribers have three or fewer trucks. There is no large player dominating the industry. Which is precisely why we are seeing so much consolidation lately. A few big players will emerge in the years (months?) to come. Service Experts, ARS, GMA, Contractors 2000, utility conglomerates. Those groups will develop training programs for their companies. It’s in their best interests. But, you and your small company may be left behind.

What can you do to develop a capable field staff? You have options. First, ask yourself whether you are a small contractor because you want to be small. Do you like the flexibility and the family-feel of your small operation? Fine. Or, are you small because you don’t know how to grow your company? You can’t find the techs you need to expand your service department. You want to grow, but you are stuck. Depending on what your goals for your company are, the resources available for recruiting and training good technicians are different.

If you would like to “go big,” it would be easier to develop your company and your staff if you affiliate in some manner with a like-minded organization of contractors. The success of these franchises or other affiliations is dependent on a steady supply of trained service techs. It takes a large organization to handle that. You win by jumping on their bandwagon.

But, if you’d rather maintain your independence, then what? For the sake of discussion, let’s assume you are getting older and less interested in carting water heaters around. You want to hire and train someone to replace you in the field. Get ready to meet the Service Technician Trainer at your company. You can find him in the closest mirror. You’re the man.

Before you start training, you need to have someone who wants to work with you. So ...

Step 1: Create A Job Worth Having: Personally, I believe in the basic goodness of mankind. I don’t think people are intrinsically lazy, untrustworthy, stupid or significantly different than people who were around in the good ol’ days when you were starting out. If you find yourself saying, “Kids today just don’t want to put in a hard day’s work” — stop.

There are incredible things happening in the world today as a result of the genius and determination of people of all ages. Good work deserves reward. Our industry is not attractive to bright, hard–working people because of low pay, rotten hours, and smelly work. There is not a line of applicants outside your door because there is not enough inside your doors to attract them.

Revamp your compensation package. Incorporate some kind of incentive pay structure tied to sales and productivity. Reward continuing education efforts. Pay lots more than any of your competitors.

Organize all aspects of your small shop. No one likes working in bedlam. Refine the operations so that you can get work done efficiently. Use your small size to appeal to folks who don’t want to get lost dealing with a large company. Create a comfortable work environment.

By offering a career, not just a job, you will attract people who are willing to learn the trade.

Let’s assume that you find a suitable candidate. You are pleased to welcome a young man named Danny to your company. Already you are in a panic! What if I train him and he leaves?

The more frightening question is: “What if I don’t train him and he stays?”

Step 2: Pony Up: Training is a serious, ongoing expense. The need for training never goes away or even slows down. Budget it in as a line item in the expense section of your Income Statement.

How much money and time should you budget for training? Let’s address Danny. He knows how to use hand tools and has a lot of experience as a new construction plumber. He has his journeyman’s license. He is excited to learn more service skills and realizes he will make more money as his technical skills and sales techniques improve. Avoid the temptation to let him fly solo in your service truck on day two. It would be reasonable to have him work side-by-side with you for at least the first three months. Ouch! How can you afford that?

What are your choices? Three months down the road you will be that much older, regardless of whether you choose to pay attention to Danny. Time spent with Danny now will be time saved later. Get to know him. Let him learn from you. The investment will come back in spades.

By planning your budget, you can determine that the first three months of his pay will be overhead expense. Other training costs include:

  • Create a list of all the technical training programs available through wholesalers, manufacturers and trade groups. Add up the registration fees.
  • Add all seminars offered by Dan Holohan to the list. Add registration fees and the price of all his books.
  • Research your sales training options. Seminars, videos, books. Add it up.
  • After you let him go on calls on his own, plan on a minimum of two hours a week that Danny will spend training. Deduct it from his billable hours. Add up the non-billable labor cost for his two hours.
  • After the first few months, count on spending at least three hours a week checking Danny’s progress. Ride along with Danny on service calls. Make note of changes in your billable hours.

Tally up all the costs of resources needed. Add any travel expenses necessary. Plug these dollars into your pro forma budget for the year and you’ll understand the impact of training on your costs. And, of course, overhead dollars contribute to profits like every other expense — as long as you properly construct your selling prices. Take a deep breath and raise your prices.

Step 3: Take Full Responsibility: It is critical that you oversee, evaluate and refine the training program at your shop. Make use of all the fine technical and sales programs that are out there.

Though they are not all offered by the same institution, you can piece together a fairly comprehensive curriculum. Map out a schedule of the available programs and work Danny’s job around these programs.

Don’t expect Danny to go to all these seminars and read all the books and become Supertech all by himself. You must spend time head-to-head with Danny to learn if he is learning. Ask him questions and have him demonstrate his newly learned skills. Focus on process and basic principles. A great “safe” place to practice technical skills is on the equipment in your shop or home. You and Danny can upgrade each other’s mechanical systems on slow days.

As the owner of the company you need to communicate your vision. How do you want Danny to present your company to your customers? Be specific and behavioral. As you go through your own workday, write down all the things that you do on a service call.

Danny can’t read your mind. On his own, he will not naturally duplicate the things you do. Create checklists for sales methods as well as trouble-shooting and installation procedures. These lists don’t have to be fancy but they do have to be written. Put them together whenever you are working in the field.

Step 4: Evaluate, Measure, Refine: Is the training working? Establish yardsticks to see if Danny is getting better at sales, more proficient technically. Track sales and callbacks. Make note of what pieces of equipment he can safely handle.

Your training program should get simpler as you develop it, not more complicated. Cut to the chase — what absolutely has to happen in a process? Be sure to communicate the basics.

You are learning, too. Don’t expect to do everything right. Remember your sense of humor. You are adding the “trainer” pin to your industry Boy Scout sash.

Remember what you love about the trade. Is one of the reasons you went into this trade the camaraderie you felt working side-by-side with another technician? Your dad, or a buddy, someone who taught you the ropes, teased you when you made a mistake, and bought you dinner after a job well done.

Recall those times and lighten up a bit. It can be fun to fix things. Appeals to the kid in you, doesn’t it? Tap into that now and then. Danny is going to work out just fine. So will you.