Apprentices make a very strong commitment to their training at Heritage Plumbing and Heating.

In an economy crying for qualified technicians, one Nexstar member company found a source for technical help that keeps pace with its demand for service - it is growing its own.

Heritage Plumbing and Heating's unique apprentice program includes a contractual commitment, similar to a military enlistment. After 90 days of hire, the apprentice must make a commitment to complete the training program or compensate the company for its training costs. This home-grown training and recruitment has evolved into a program that steadily produces skilled talent, an excellent company culture with an excellent retention factor.

Heritage is a 19-year-old company that has grown to near $8 million in sales a year and has enjoyed a growth rate of over 22 percent in the last three years. The company is owned and operated by three brothers: Craig and Steve Chartier head the installation department; Jeff Chartier leads the service department together with his service manager, Jeff Ricker.

This company has had to overcome many natural barriers to growth. Heritage is on the outskirts of Manchester, N.H. The company's market area is mostly small towns dispersed across the mountainous southeastern corner of the state. Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire, barely has a population of 100,000. Finding skilled talent in this mostly rural part of the country had been a struggle.

The development of the in-house training program has become the answer to its labor needs, but it only works when you find the right people.

Who To Look For

After years of trial and error, the Chartiers know the profile of the candidates they're attracting to their training program. Heritage targets young people in their mid-20s. These select few are high school graduates who have been in the work force long enough to have established a good work history.

They're also looking for the under-employed. Heritage defines this group as people who know they can do better financially and are looking to make a career change to get there. Typically, they want to buy their first house and start a family.

The apprentice program is adjustable by the amount of trade experience a person has. However, it is the least important criteria.

Heritage has built a company culture that fosters solution-based customer service. The whole company works together to find the right answers for every customer they come in contact with. To even be considered a candidate in Heritage's training program, applicants must demonstrate an outgoing personality, be comfortable with customers, be eager to learn and share what they know.

Having a positive attitude and a willingness to learn and grow is more important. The most successful technicians completing this training are young adults who have no previous technical training.

Where To Look

Applicants come from referrals from Heritage's employees but most come from newspaper ads. On average, the Chartiers claim each ad will generate about 40 responses.

The first step in the process is a telephone interview.

“If a candidate looks good, I'll be on the phone with them for maybe 10 or 15 minutes,” explains Ricker. “I'll go over our drug testing procedure, then we will do a criminal background check and review their motor vehicle record.”

About five or six will be asked to come in for a face-to-face interview. If the reports check out and there's still interest on both sides, about three will progress to the next stage of the hiring process - full-day ride-alongs.

The ride-alongs are with the company's trainers. The trainer is given information gathered from the interviews, but nothing that would sway the trainer's evaluation of the candidate positively or negatively.

“We want the trainer to make his own evaluation independently,” says Jeff Chartier. “It's an opportunity for the candidate to evaluate us, how we interact with each other and with our customers. After the ride-alongs, the service manager meets with the trainer to discuss the candidate and compare their evaluations. It's the trainer who makes the decision to bring the candidate back or not.”

Most often, a candidate will go out with different trainers two or three times. This process will usually boil down to two candidates being hired. Within 90 days, there will typically be only one remaining from the original field of 40. New hires sign an 18-point employment agreement that spells out the responsibilities of the employee and the company. They also know that in 90 days, they must commit to an apprentice agreement that is a legally binding contract to complete the training program or compensate Heritage for its training investment lost if they quit early.

Starting the first day on the job, a new hire is immediately assigned responsibilities.

“We are looking for thoroughness, drive, customer service, sales ability and technical aptitude,” Ricker says. “During the first 90 days of their apprenticeship, we gauge their drive by asking them to volunteer for a Saturday that they were not scheduled for. We'll purposely put them in situations that they'll encounter when they're running their own truck early on to see how they'll respond.

“By the end of the second week, apprentices present all of the options and pricing to their customer under the watchful eye of the trainer.”

Heritage now has three trainers. It had always had field technicians involved with some level of training for new hires and apprentices. One technician expressed interest in making the training a bigger aspect of his role.

“They know how to relate their role as trainer to new hires,” Ricker says. “They're always interested in learning and staying on top of their trade.”

Trainers are paid more per hour than the company's technicians. Apprentices are hands-on through the course of the training. The trainers direct apprentices wherever possible. Therefore, performance requirements for trainers to achieve bonuses are lower and their workload is less demanding.

Legally Binding Contract

At the 90-day mark, the apprentice must make the decision to enter into a legally binding contract where the company commits to the apprentice a regimented training program through its in-house training program and the employee commits to the company to stay in the program to completion.

The length of commitment is dependent on the employee's level of experience. If an apprentice can demonstrate three years of experience in the trade, the apprentice agreement is only two years. If he has no experience, the commitment is five and a half years.

To train an apprentice coming into the program without any experience, Heritage has calculated it will cost $50,115 to train each apprentice. The agreement includes a chart that shows by quarter of each year the base wage, quarterly income and benefits, plus a declining loss income.

The apprentice sees precisely what it will cost him when and if he leaves the program. What is attractive to stay in the program is the quarterly increases in base wage the apprentice receives as he goes through the training period. Apprentices also see the decline of indebtedness to Heritage as the years pass by. An apprentice with no training will see his base wage rate double from when he entered the training to graduation.

Heritage also has a sister training program for its dedicated sales staff, which achieves $1.1 to $1.3 million in sales per salesperson.

This article originally appeared in Nexstar Network's "At Your Service" newsletter, Winter 2005.