Recruiting and keeping good employees, especially service techs, is the most difficult thing I know of in the PHC service business. I’m sure that Blau Sudden Services has a better track record than most firms in the industry, simply because we offer one of the best compensation and benefits packages to be found anywhere. Our service technicians have been here an average of seven years, with two at the 23–year mark in tenure. Office personnel average five years of service, with a couple in the 10–year range.

But our track record of employee retention is hardly ideal. Several months ago we lost a service tech who had been with us for close to 20 years. This was an eye-opener to me.

Let me admit that I do not regard myself as the epitome of enlightened management. Regrettably, I’ve done my share of ranting and raving at employees over the years. Most people tell me that I’ve mellowed considerably since I removed myself from day-to-day management. Still, it disturbs me when our good people move on, and I’ve made it a point to try to find out why.

In the case of the long-term service tech who left us to work for another company, his main motive had to do with the desire to work straight 40-hour weeks. We require our people to put in quite a bit of overtime tending to customer needs. They are well compensated for this with premium pay, but there are certain people who value their time more than money, especially when they get to middle age and beyond. It is hard to resolve such desires with the need to operate a profitable service-oriented business.

I recently sat down for a heart-to-heart chat with Mickey Goldner, a top service technician who has been with Blau for 23 years, asking him what makes him stay and if he’s ever felt like leaving. The answer was yes, plenty of times—usually after an argument with me or my son Jimmy, who runs the service department. But Mickey has always in the end decided to stick around.

Keep in mind that we are a union company. Union journeymen like Mickey have access to plenty of other jobs through the hiring hall, as well as direct offers from competitors. Here are some of the notable things he had to say:

  • “I feel pretty secure here. I have a lot of seniority, I know what’s expected of me, and I know the profit we can turn. Part of job security is knowing you won’t be closing the doors tomorrow.”
  • “Whatever I need in the way of tools or equipment, I seem to be able to get very quickly. I’ve heard of other companies where you can’t rent a tool if you need it, or have to chase all over for it. In this company, I just call and it gets delivered to me.”
  • “Repair work seems to be frowned on in the union, but I like repair work. I can walk into a job and know pretty much what needs to be done rather than going in blindly. I enjoy being my own boss on the road with nobody to answer to until the end of the day. Also, dealing with different people all the time is for the most part satisfying.”
  • “The respect and appreciation I get from management makes me feel comfortable.”

Pay Isn’t Everything: As I’ve noted, we are proud to offer one of the industry’s best compensation and profit-sharing plans. Mickey’s annual pay is at a level that most PHC contractors — much less their employees — don’t even dream of. Between the nest egg he’s building from Blau profit-sharing and his additional union pension, Mickey can look forward to a comfortable retirement not too many more years down the road.

Yet one of the things that struck me about our conversation was how low these things rank in Mickey’s order of priorities. He told me that money is “probably the fourth or fifth reason I stay” with the company. The first thing he mentioned was job security, along with respect and appreciation from management.

When I asked Mickey what are some of the things our company could do to make working here more enjoyable, he brought up the idea of little rewards for employees to mark their 5– and 10–year employment anniversaries.

Mickey’s analysis coincides with studies done by human resources experts on employee motivation. The chart you see with this article shows some pretty big discrepancies between how employees view their jobs and how managers think they do. According to this study, employees rank “interesting work” as their No. 1 priority. Yet most managers think interesting work ranks in the middle of employee motivators. Conversely, managers think compensation ranks highest, while employees put it in the middle. Mickey’s comment about compensation ranking as the “fourth or fifth” reason why he stays with us is right in line with this thinking.

Note also the huge discrepancies between items No. 2 (“Appreciated by management”) and No. 3 (“Being well-informed”). Managers rank these items way down on their assessment of employee priorities, while employees rank them high.

Frankly, I was as fooled as anyone else by these findings, as well as by my conversation with Mickey. I kept bringing up the subject of compensation, and he kept talking about other things. Clearly, it is more than money that motivates people, and this is something that all of us need to keep in mind.

Interpret With Caution: I’m still not entirely convinced that money is as unimportant as employees make it out to be. Most people are uncomfortable talking about how much they make. It seems more noble to talk about being motivated by interesting work than by money.

It’s also easy to focus on things other than money when you make a decent income. I’d like to see the results of a survey taken of all the poorly paid plumbers in our industry struggling to make ends meet on less than 30 grand a year, which is the average nonunion level of compensation. My guess is that these low-paid workers would rank compensation much higher in importance than those who are well paid.

Also, as people get older, retirement and health plans take on more importance. It’s hard to get a 30-year-old excited about a retirement program or health coverage that is seldom invoked. But as time passes and the body falters, that same person is likely to thank his or her lucky stars for benefits taken for granted as a youth.

Nonetheless, this study and my heart-to-heart with Mickey have provided me with plenty of food for thought. It might be a good idea for all of you to try to find out what is going on in the minds of your key associates.