Saddled with talent shortages and a retiring workforce, field service organizations are feeling the pinch in hiring. While the shortfall of qualified technicians isn’t new, the situation has now become a barrier to growth, fueled by a reticence among millennials to enter the trades.

San Diego-based Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air is proactively addressing this workforce shortage by training and hiring technicians through a newly launched initiative, the Anderson Career Builders Institute. Opened in April, the 18-month training program will allow recruits to earn an income and gain workplace experience while enrolled in the program. Students start at a basic skill level and expand their knowledge through classes and hands-on experience.

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Not Your Father’s Field Service Industry

“During World War II, 80 percent of the population entered the trades,” says Mary Jean Anderson, president of Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air. This included electrical, roofing, masonry and HVAC. “Now only 6 percent of the population enters the field. The labor shortage is the number one problem of our industry.”

Anderson believes the shortage is due to an outdated perception of the trades. People see field service as dirty and mundane, she says.

“But it’s not the industry it was years ago. There is much more technology. There are cameras that can diagnose drain issues, and online product manuals to troubleshoot problems while in the field. It’s a great industry with great pay.”

Inventing a Field Service Syllabus

Anderson founded the institute with a class of 12 students, four of whom were women. (Women make up just 1.4 percent of the HVAC workforce in the U.S.) The training is free to recruits and consists of eight hours of technical skills and two hours of communication skills per week, followed by field work alongside an experienced technician.

Anderson’s husband, Bryan Rominger, a 30-year veteran of the plumbing industry, designed the curriculum, which emphasizes residential repairs. Once recruits complete the program, they will have achieved a level of expertise necessary for an entry-level position — a head start considering it can take four years to become a journeyman HVAC tech.

The typical path of a recruit will be to start at a maintenance-level position, Anderson says, where duties might include flushing radiators or running gas lines, before graduating to more complex tasks.

While students learn technical applications, the program also stresses interpersonal skills. Developing a relationship with the customer is critical to creating loyalty, Anderson says.

She markets the program through social media and also pitches job seekers at career fairs, women’s centers and veterans organizations.

“Twenty percent of vets are unemployed, and ex-military fits our industry,” she says. “They’re hard workers, they have discipline and they don’t mind wearing a uniform.”

She has two veterans in the program. Each candidate must complete a personality profile and mechanical aptitude test before they are accepted.

Playing the Long Game

The school is privately funded, and Anderson acknowledges that training technicians can be costly. However, not having new trained technicians can be even more costly.

“We’ve had to push off growth because we couldn’t find people. We give our recruits paid training and work experience. In return, we ask that they give us a five-year commitment to the industry, and hopefully to Anderson Plumbing,” she says. Graduates won’t be contractually required to work for Anderson, but she hopes they will bond with other technicians and stay.

Though Anderson founded the school to help with her own labor shortage, other HVAC professionals have visited the institute in hopes of starting their own school or possibly collaborating with Anderson and the institute. Expansion depends on receiving accreditation, Anderson says. But she is optimistic that the school will be a success.

“Five of the students are already in the truck as maintenance staff, and three are running [basic] repairs.”

Images courtesy of Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning

ABOUT Kris Carber

Avatar photoKris Carber has been writing about field service management and location technology for nearly a decade.