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Strategies for Recruitment

Originally published: 02.01.20 by Pete Grasso

Strategies for Recruitment

Top contractors weigh in on the most successful ways to attract and retain new talent.


For the past several years, the number one challenge in this industry has been finding and keeping quality talent. It doesn’t matter if the company is large or small, residential or commercial, recruitment is always a topic of conversation when we speak with contractors.

While no one in this industry seems immune, there are a many contractors who have implemented strategies that work for them and are growing as a result of solid recruitment and retention practices. I’ve combed through the conversations I’ve had with dozens of contractors the past couple of years and have compiled their best practices in this special report on recruitment.

This contractor panel includes: Larry Gemma, owner of GEM Plumbing & Heating in Lincoln, R.I.; Mark Geschke, owner of Bauer & Son One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning in Medina, Ohio; Benson Green, president of Benson’s Heating and Air Conditioning in Tallahassee, Fla.; Jason Hanson, president of Sierra Pacific Home & Comfort in Rancho Cordova, Calif.; Eric Knaak, vice president of operations for Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, N.Y.; Jeff

Nusz, president of Reitmeier in Tualatin, Ore.; Rory Richardson, co-owner of Cardinal Heating & Air in Kirkland, Wash.; Darryl Robinson, owner of Robinson Air in Lawton, Okla.; Michael Rosenberg, president of Rosenberg Indoor Comfort in San Antonio; and Brian Stack, president of Stack Heating, Cooling & Electric in Avon, Ohio.

Here’s what they had to say.

Larry Gemma

“Within the last two years, we’ve put a benefits package together that I think is second to none. And it’s gotten much better as far as recruitment goes. Right now, we probably have close to maybe 450 employees. And through acquisitions, we’re probably going to double that number.

“We hired a recruiting manager to make sure that we stay up on top of the benefits packages, and the pay, making sure our employees are well-compensated for everything they do, and that we have the best benefits in the marketplace. That certainly makes recruitment and retention easier.

“The biggest challenge in recruiting today is the ages of the real talent for the employees. Most employees are 50 or older in the Northeast that have the licenses to do what they need to do, or that we need to get done.

“With the younger generation, we want to make sure to focus on education and training. We have our own trainers and we’re partnered with all the local colleges and universities and trade schools to try and get the best talent out there. We’re bringing a lot more young talent in. I go to all the engineering schools and I tell the students one of the best things that they can do is to get involved in the industry at a lower level for four or five years and get a license, because nothing beats learning it from the bottom up.

“We do have a lot of kids that did go to engineering school here and they do very well when they start from the bottom up. They end up doing very well in their careers.”

Mark Geschke

“Recruitment is one of the toughest things we deal with on a daily basis. We’re fortunate enough to have an actual recruiter on staff in our office. He has been doing recruiting for a number of years. He’s also one of our dispatchers, but he’s recruiting for us and for a few locations throughout the country as well.

“It can be difficult to find people because the good workers usually tend to stay where they are, and if they’re not, maybe there might be an issue that we don’t want them.

“We are involved with Fortis College over in Cuyahoga Falls and the Joint Vocational School in Medina County — both have HVAC classes for adults and students. We go over there for their open houses, we take lunches over, go over and talk to the folks every once in a while. We’re looking, too, to recruit people out of these locations and train them to do things the way we do them. It’s a longer process that way, but that’s what we have to do.”

Benson Green

“We focus on trying to find young people that have good character. Then we train for skill. We do most of our in-house training and then after they grasp that, especially on the maintenance side and they are able to move up after they’ve associated themselves with customers and equipment, we’ll send them to a technical school for a couple of weeks to learn diagnostics. Then they’ll work with an existing technician to learn what they can. We’ve been very successful with that probably over the last four to five years.”

Jason Hanson

“Recruitment seems to be number one on the list in so many conversations that we have internally, as well as with other businesses that I know. Finding qualified technicians who you can trust to do a good job with your clients is just difficult. And really, what we’ve resorted to is focusing on building our own.

“We use training resources from manufacturers or other trade schools, like Ultimate Technical Academy and things like HVAC Learning Solutions at Lennox and build them up and then send them through additional ongoing training and just build our own technicians to do things the way we want them done.

“We start with our entry level positions and train them in the basics and things that they can do with that entry level training, and progress them through as they demonstrate the skill set and additional training courses and so forth to get them to more advanced positions.”

Eric Knaak

“Isaac University, which is our training program, now has two full time instructors. We have a classroom and a 2,000-square-foot lab space. We had 119 employees signed up for training classes in the fall. And that’s a variety of classes offered, and it’s all for our employees. We’re big believers in training development on the technical side, as well as the professional and personal development side.

“We have a bootcamp program we started back in 2015 where we actually bring people in with no experience and we put them through a 12-week paid training program with the promise that at the end of the program they’re guaranteed a full-time position with Isaac. Since we first started it, we’ve got about 85 team members that have come on board through that program.

“It definitely has helped us with recruitment. We still have openings, but like I said, we’ve got 85 people right now that wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the boot camp program. For those that enter the program, we’re about a 69 percent graduation rate, and we’re a 75 percent retention rate of those that have graduated.

“We’ve got so many young people now who are looking to try different things that they come and they go. And that’s one of the factors. And because we’re the only one in this region, as far as I know, that has a formalized training program, we end up with some technicians that are pretty darn good.

“But you know what it comes down to? Are you better off to keep them and train them, or to lose them and not train them? We decided long ago that we need to train people to recruit people.”

Jeff Nusz

“My next three- to five-year vision is how to get more minorities and women into our trade. We dig down on it. We break it down. Okay, let’s go to the Women in Trades Fair and let’s see if we set up a booth and see if we can get them interested.

“Where are minorities and where can we find them to get them into this trade? Because these guys, when they get licensed, they are making 85, 90 grand a year without overtime. It’s a viable trade and I’m paying for basically their college education and they have no college debt. That is what I’m selling for recruitment and that’s what I’m looking forward to.

“Retention is a tough thing, but it’s something we have figured out. We do a lot of fun things for our employees, such as an annual fishing trip. We also do a lot for their spouses and families.

“We do four events a year. I’ve got to capture the spouses and the kids and then that helps with retention of the rank and file as they go through their ups and downs every day.

“We’ve worked really hard on this and we continue to work on it through education, through all kinds of things. I bring in financial planners, bank guys, 401K guys, to give them the other side because we’re blue collar. We’re educated, but we’re not highly educated or over educated.

“I try to bring in people monthly who can add to their personal lives, that have nothing to do with HVACR because it’s not all about HVACR. That’s just part of it. It’s important to me that our employees succeed. “

Rory Richardson

“Right now, there’s a program in Seattle which is a non-union apprenticeship program, so we’ve got two or three guys in each year. We’ve been, essentially, training our crew. Finding people outside ... good guys usually aren’t looking for jobs. Our niche is a little more challenging than most on the new construction side because we do a lot of geothermal, a lot of radiant. It’s not a typical heating company, so getting guys that are well-rounded, we’re finding is difficult. We’ve got to train them in-house, bring them up green.

“The way we were brought up is you get out of your truck and you start working. What we’ve learned is this generation has a different type of work ethic. When they’re working, they’re great, but they tend to take breaks and look on their phone a lot. So, we’re trying to figure out how to manage that. But for the most part, if they’ve got good leadership they work hard. That’s been our focus … learning to lead this generation and giving them the training and opportunity for a great career path.”

Darryl Robinson

“We try to hire people with good attitudes. We used to hire anybody that had a license. “You have a license? Great. Come on in. Get to work for us and we’ll just work it out.” But we’ve had so many issues with attitudes and with work ethic, so we switched gears.

“Now, I’m trying to hire when they get out of high school. Really, I’ve done this the last couple of hires that we’ve done, they spend their junior and senior year in high school at vo-tech, so they’re 18, sometimes even 17 years old.

“We go to the schools and talk to the instructors. Who’s got the best attitude? Who do they think is capable of continuing that education, who really wants to work, who shows up on time? And we’re trying to get them at that point.

“We bring them in, we teach them our philosophy, our values and then, obviously, we get them more training. We send them off for a week to Build-A-Tech or another program like that, and that’s where we’re going to do our best work. But it’s going to take a while.

“They have to be on with us for two or three years before they can get a journeyman’s license, before we can send them out by themselves, but I’m trying to build our team with younger guys.

“But not necessarily just younger guys. We’ve got a military base here. It turns out military members, a lot of them have the right work ethic, the right attitude. But if we can get them before they’ve been in the business for a while, before they’ve been working for other contractors and maybe picked up some bad habits, we can get them young, we get them in, teach them our philosophy.

“I’m not really concerned about somebody knowing a lot about HVACR. I just want somebody that’s mechanically inclined, that likes people, that can get along not only with customers but also with their coworkers.”

Michael Rosenberg

“We build relationships with trade schools and participate in their advisory boards, and they send us potential graduates. We interview them and put them through our Build-a-Tech program, which is a six- to 12-month training program. In that program, they’re doing a lot of ride-alongs with our senior guys and they’re working in our training lab.

“We have a lab here where they’re working with our senior technicians like our vice president and, really, that’s how we’ve been able to gain traction on the technical side. Our installers and technicians are being built from within.

“It’s really challenging to bring in experienced service technicians and installers because there seems to be a shortage of it in our industry. A lot of these people that you bring in who do have experience, there’s a reason they’re looking for work and a lot of times it’s because they may have issues and it’s hard to keep those types of guys. I think we’ve had a difficult time holding onto some of these experienced guys that we hire and then they don’t work out.

“But the ones who we bring in from trade schools and we build from within, those people have had really good success. I’d say probably 10 to 12 of our existing staff in the field, they’re all guys who we brought in and trained them and built them up. That’s been our recruiting philosophy — get them from the trade schools and build them up in the company.

“Everyone has this bad taste in their mouth about millennials that they’re not hard workers and they’re high maintenance and such, and I think if you just know how to work with them and know what their motivations are, they can be really good workers.

“They simply have different types of motivation than what we’re used to. They think differently than people in the other generations and you just have to know how to lead and manage them.”

Brian Stack

“We get a lot of resumes but they’re not qualified people that would be good in this field I don’t think. We kind of go through a two-interview process. We don’t do any testing right away, but they go out and ride with the guys in the field as part of the interview process. They’ll take a day and ride with them and test them out on some mechanical skills that way.

“It’s been difficult for us, just like everybody else, because there’s not a lot of people out there from which to pick and choose.

“Our goal with the apprenticeship this year is to be able to get three or four guys into it and put them through a class for free … they’ll take those classes during the day in the morning, go out in the field in the afternoon, rotate through the departments too so they get a taste of all the departments including the office. And then, hopefully, we can keep at least 75 percent of the students who come through there. Our goal is to double the size of the business in the next four to five years, so the training is going to be key to that.

“Our training has helped with recruitment because our employees talk to other people and tell them what we have, tell them that we do offer training. You’re not just coming here and getting thrown out on the job to learn on the job all the time, but you actually have a structured program where you can learn and develop your skills faster.

“Even though we say there aren’t enough people out there to hire, we’ve still been able to grow, and other companies have been able to grow as well. There are people out there, I just don’t think that they’re given enough time to try and learn and grow the company.

“When we were a smaller company it was hard to bring on one or two people that didn’t know what they were doing and put that time and money into that person to get them where they need to be. As we’ve grown it’s become easier because I can hire two or three apprentices and train them and put them with different guys and run them through the company and try and get them where they need to be without it really hurting the bottom line.

“When you talk with other guys out there that own companies and it’s hard for them to find people, it’s usually the smaller companies that are struggling with that because they need someone that’s experienced and they can’t afford to put the money into that training as easily.

“With our apprenticeship program, if a couple of guys don’t make it here, hopefully they’re trained good enough to work with somebody else. I don’t have a problem with that at all. I have never looked at any of our competitors or our competition out there as a problem. There’s so much work out there.

“I mean we’ve been able to grow over the last 10 years without a problem. We’re friends with all the guys who run all of the other companies around here. There’s plenty of work to go around and we help each other out when we need it. It’s more about the betterment of the industry. And that’s just going to help us all. The better companies will stick around. And there’s always going to be work. Everyone always needs heating and cooling and all of the trades. I don’t worry about anybody else that way.”


About Pete Grasso

Pete is the editor of HVACR Business magazine. He has spent his career working in and with trade media, both as a public relations practitioner and as an editor. He gained a great deal of expertise in the B2B arena, within large and medium sized advertising agencies. Be sure to follow Pete on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn!


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