Today’s maintenance technician requires a lot more than an ability to turn a wrench — like an electrical-engineering degree, for starters, and the willingness to sell and streamline. Problem is, there aren’t a lot of those people running around, says Mike Costello, the vice president of Kappa Search, Inc., a hiring firm in Chicago specializing in technician and engineer recruiting.

“Field service is always hot,” Costello says. “But it’s hard — those people are the hardest to recruit. We’ve got a lot of customers looking for the same kind of person, so it’s really tight.”

Costello says that many of his clients direct his company to lure “direct matches” from other companies. “They want a specific talent, but they can’t do it — they don’t want to create a [staffing] war. So they assign us to do that work. And I’m telling you, these people are hard to find.”

What about the companies that can’t afford to hire recruitment agencies and get in bidding wars for top employees? They need to find novel ways to hire — and retain — their best techs. Costello says they also need to develop their own talent.

“A lot of companies haven’t shown a lot of willingness to train a person who comes in with [only] a bachelor’s,” Costello says. “They’re so busy, and so short because of cutting staff in the last few years, that they just don’t want to bring someone up who has talent, but not much experience.”

Wanted: The New Tech-Savvy Technician

Part of the change in hiring practices, he says, relates to the way the job has changed. Where once field techs were primarily mechanics, opening up machines and turning bolts, today’s technician must have an intimate knowledge of electrical circuits, technology and diagnostics. “It’s a lot more technical now than it used to be,” Costello says.

That level of technical acumen is hard to develop without significant on-the-job experience. Even candidates coming out of electrical engineering programs are hard-pressed to get past a job interview if they can’t point to a lengthy job history.

Invest in Employees

But companies willing to take a chance on training a young recruit as a sort of apprentice are in a position to reap big rewards down the road.

“You can find these guys at the trade schools, if you’re willing to train them,” Costello says. “And if you get a good one, you’ll want to keep these field service guys. Make them as happy as you can.”

Costello pointed out a few qualities to look for in a candidate, beyond the essential technical acumen. One is a willingness to travel (and the energy it requires). The other crucial characteristic is the ability to interact well with customers. The days of the hermetic tech are over, he says.

“It’s more of a customer-facing job than it used to be. So instead of just fixing the machines and getting out of there, if you can be selling preventative maintenance plans, that’s the optimum. The job is still 80 percent troubleshooting, but having that client relationship — there’s no doubt [companies] are calling for that.”

Remember, the more you invest in employees, the likelier they are to stay, instead of quickly jump ship.

More: Three Tips for Retaining Top Technicians.

Click here to download a free whitepaper, “Five Steps to Make Field Service Profitable.”

ABOUT Ian Stewart

Avatar photoIan is a veteran journalist who has covered sports for various news outlets. Previously, he was managing editor for an electronic-book publishing company and a public relations writer.