How to Fix the HVAC Employment Problem in 2015

Posted on January 05, 2015

Despite advances in technology and new ways of doing business, it is often true that a company's most pressing challenge remains finding the right employees. That's what Charles Brand discovered when he was forced to give up his legal practice and take control of the family business as a result of his father’s death. Hart & Iliff, which is located in Sussex County, NJ, was founded in 1889. The company originally sold feed, grain, lumber, coal and heating oil. Over the years, it branched out into heating, ventilating air-conditioning (HVAC) and plumbing.

Finding good employees is a challenge in any business and even more so in the $61 billion HVAC field, where top technicians tend to stay put and companies often employ second-rate technicians because good ones are just not available.

When Brand came onboard at Hart & Iliff, several experienced HVAC technicians were nearing retirement age. His father had replaced one retiree, before his death, in the usual HVAC industry fashion, by hiring an experienced technician who had worked for a number of other companies in the industry. "As more people began to retire from Hart & Iliff, the problem only grew," Brand said. "I quickly discovered how difficult it was to find good HVAC technicians."

He tried running newspaper ads and visiting technical schools, always looking for technicians with experience. He repeatedly struck out, as he was unable to find experienced technicians (included the one hired by his father) who were also good employees. Either the technician wasn't as skilled technically as he should have been, wasn't good with people or had a bad attitude and work ethic.

Most HVAC companies consistently look for and hire experienced people, even if they have a poor attitude, because they don't want to take the time or trouble to train new hires. Brand found that if a good technician was experienced, he was already employed. If a technician was unemployed, it would not take long before the reasons why would become obvious.

Hart & Iliff often hired and tolerated technicians whose knowledge, behavior or work ethic wasn't what it should have been. The company developed a reputation as a place where a technician could do almost anything and get away with it.

Eventually Brand came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way. He began to analyze and experiment with the process for finding, hiring and training people to become HVAC technicians. The first step was to identify the traits of a great HVAC technician. Good technicians need these three essential qualities:

  1. Strong mechanical ability. HVAC is a highly technical field and becoming more so all the time. A technician must have innate spatial mechanical ability. In other words, they must be able to look at something and figure out how it works.
  2. Reasonably good people skills. HVAC work involves customer interaction, and a technician must be personable in addition to being skilled.
  3. A good attitude and work ethic.

With these three qualities in mind, little by little, over a period of 14 years, Brand developed and refined the details of what has today become the eight-step HireBetterNow (HBN) Hiring System. The system attracts a high volume of applicants through the use of unique employment ads that describe the person rather than the job. In general, the larger the quantity of applicants, the higher the quality of the ultimate hire. All applicants are screened for mechanical aptitude, people skills and attitude. In addition, the system uses a proven method of obtaining references from prior employers.

Brand has applied these practices at his own company which is routinely voted the best HVAC company in its service area. One of the big benefits of the program is what Brand calls “addition by subtraction.” As the rudiments of the HBN Hiring System began to take shape, Brand developed the confidence to let go the first technician with a bad attitude. Removing this technician’s bad attitude from the company was, by itself, a big plus. It also made a huge difference in the attitude of the other employees, who now realized that if they didn’t shape up, the same thing might happen to them. Even more important, was the fact that each time Hart & Iliff let go an under-performing employee, the company was able to replace them with someone appreciably better.

The HBN Hiring System is now available to any company in the HVAC industry. At this point, more than 40 companies of varying sizes and in different geographic areas have used it successfully. The HBN team performs the entire hiring process and presents the employer with a number of highly qualified candidates. Once hired, candidates are trained on an accelerated basis. The program also includes a method to insure that the employer gets a return on their training dollars.

The HBN Hiring System was originally developed to deal with an acute technician hiring problem. However, experience has shown that the concepts of the program can be applied to almost any job in almost any industry. In addition to technicians, the program has been successfully used by HVAC companies to hire drivers, office/support staff, sales people and even management personnel.