Next-gen mobile apps and a bespoke training program helps this southern U.S. service firm attract — and retain — skilled technicians.

At Lee Company, a Nashville-based commercial and home services business, executives are painfully aware that service technicians are in short supply.

“Nothing is changing with the skilled labor gap in this country,” says Steve Scott, senior vice president of facilities solutions. “So we need to make the jobs different than they were before, so that they’re more attractive to more people.”

Part of making field service jobs more attractive, Scott says, is changing the perceptions of how service techs work: Today, fixing HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems can be more about smartphones and software, and less about hard hats and tool bags. Lee Company, which operates in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, relies on modern field service technology that appeals to younger workers and also helps retain experienced workers. The company has also added in-house training that ramps up the skills for people with promise who don’t have service-tech experience. And there’s an added bonus: Improving service techs’ skills and equipment also results in happier customers and fewer jobs lost to competitors, Scott says.

iPhone Apps Connect Onsite Techs with Experienced Supervisors

When technology is user-friendly for new service workers as well as more effective in the field, it’s a win-win. Lee Company service techs are now using the XOi Vision app to show video of equipment that needs repair or service to experienced supervisors in the home office’s virtual support center.

A few years ago, the company experimented with smart glasses as a way to help field technicians improve their diagnostic skills, retain older technicians who wanted to transition out of field service, and improve customer service. After finding that the glasses didn’t deliver clear enough video or stand up to the rigors of the service environment, Lee Company switched to the XOi app, which service techs use with large-screen iPhones. Technicians can zoom in or draw on the screen to show problem areas on equipment, and capture video of repairs to attach to service tickets.

SEE ALSO: Lee Company Fights Brain Drain With Massive Smart Glasses Rollout

“We’re actually hearing new technicians talk about the app,” Scott says. “The younger ones are all about using techy tools — it’s an easy transition to use apps to do their jobs, since everyone is accustomed to apps.”

The videos also encourage customers to approve service work more quickly than in the past. “When customers see video, they tend to believe it — it creates a sense of urgency about addressing the problem,” Scott says. Customers can see that both on-site and support center techs are consulting on the issue, which builds trust in Lee Company’s technicians, new and experienced.

App videos help sell maintenance work as well as repairs, generating more revenue for the business. “We can show what we’re recommending to prevent down time, which is more meaningful than a list,” Scott says. “That’s a big differentiator in our industry.”

Lee Company is working on another use for the app’s video capabilities: a YouTube-style channel where technicians can access training videos on the spot when faced with trickey repair of service issues. The channel could be yet another tool, Scott says, that will appeal to younger techs who tap into videos for learning as well as entertainment.

Hiring for Teachability

If modern technology helps attract new technicians to the service field, a rethink of training can help keep them there long term. Instead of trying to hire from a shrinking pool of skilled techs, Lee Company is looking to hire for potential, and train people as they work.

“Company culture is a huge thing for us,” says Scott of the family-owned business, which turns 75 next year. Given the tight market for service talent, hiring managers would rather bring in less-experienced people with the right attitude and a willingness to learn, then teach them what they need to know.

That’s where Lee Company University comes in: It’s a free technical training school, which offers a four-year program. Graduates receive a journeyman’s trade license. Lee Company employees teach classes in trades such as heating, air conditioning and plumbing, pipe fitting and electrical work. Students who complete the program aren’t required to stay at Lee Company, but the hope is that with more training, people will find a home at the business. Classes take place in the evening to accommodate instructors’ full-time jobs at Lee Company.

“We can take on someone that has zero experience but wants a great job,” Scott says. “We have maintenance groups within our service department, where the only job requirement is that you’re teachable.”

The approach is working: In some cases, employees refer friends in low-skill, minimum-wage jobs who join Lee Company in maintenance jobs; with the free training, they become skilled, highly paid tradespeople. At a customer’s chemical plant where Lee Company keeps staff on site, an administrative assistant completed the Lee Company University HVAC program. She’s now a site supervisor.

With training and technology, Scott is hopeful that prospective employees will see the skilled trades as a desirable career path. “We’re trying to do all we can internally to support our tradespeople,” he says. “We’re hoping what we’re doing with technology helps people see these jobs in a new way.”

Images courtesy of XOi on behalf of Lee Company

About Christine Kent

Christine KentChristine Kent brings more than 20 years of writing and journalism expertise to her work for technology, consumer and corporate organizations.

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