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Skilled Labor Shortage Solved – WITHOUT Hiring More Workers

Your phone’s ringing off the hook, job tickets are piling up, and crews are running at max capacity. While you’d rather not dole out overtime pay again, that seems as if it’s really the only option you have.

You need help. But, so does your competitor, and so does his competitor.

The lack of qualified blue collar workers is approaching epidemic proportions. While 66.7 percent of 2017 high school graduates ages 16-24 were enrolled in colleges or universities in October 2017, only 20 percent were interested in skilled trades careers.

This trend is especially problematic in the HVACR industry, which, according to the BLS, is growing at a 15 percent clip yet losing 12,000 workers annually.

Seeing that hiring workers is not an ample fix, one solution lies in working smarter. What if you could add one or two installs per month simply by better utilizing the tools and personnel you currently have? We approached three contractors who are excelling at doing more with less and asked them to share their tips and tricks. Here’s what they had to say.

Task & Time Management — The first and likely the easiest way to optimize field installation labor is to reduce the amount of work performed on items and equipment that aren’t currently being utilized on the job site.

“Installers can waste a lot of time pulling and staging materials for their jobs,” said Bryan Orr, co-owner of Kalos Services Inc., Clermont, Florida. “These prep and administrative tasks should be completed before or after an install by staff specifically trained for those tasks. Having warehouse staff pre-stage and tag every job down to the smallest materials can really help speed up the process.”

Albert Meza, service manager, Total Comfort Inc., Corona, California, deemed proper job management a science.

“You must make sure the only materials going out are the ones the sales team and install coordinator have on the project,” he said. “The final initial or signature on the job sheet should be the lead installer’s confirming everything’s correct.”

Bryan Metz, owner, Metz Air Control, Chino, California, said shortening installation time starts with being well prepared.

“Our guys must make sure the job layout is done properly to ensure all grilles are measured, 24-V wire is checked, breakers are correct, the gate is measured for the condenser, and the thermostats are checked,” he said. “We take pictures of our layout to provide lead technicians with a visual of what/where he will be installing. We also speak with homeowners about removing any obstacles that could slow down a crew. Finally, if possible, we tear down equipment the day before the installation.”

Use a Runner — Having someone designated to drop off parts and equipment can be a big time saver.

“When installers and techs go to a supply house, it’s not only a waste of valuable time driving there, but there’s also an opportunity for them to bump into an old friend and waste 30 minutes shooting the breeze on the company dime,” Orr said. “Training events, counter presentations, and the occasional social event at supply houses are great, but you want to keep the counter visits under control to keep installers focused on the task at hand.”

Meza said he prefers to send his installers directly to the job.

“This gives installers time to start demo until the parts runner arrives with materials,” he said.

Metz utilizes staging areas, where each job is palletized and shrink-wrapped to avoid any missing components.

“Each job is assigned a lead tech, installer, and helper,” he said. “When the crew comes in, each technician has specific responsibilities. Lead techs are responsible for making sure their trucks are fully stocked, while installers and helpers are responsible for loading equipment and materials for that day’s installation.”

Send the Specialists — The best and most productive mechanical installers aren’t always the best at selling the fine details of system operation or even diagnosing the occasional issue. Therefore, make sure you’re best utilizing each individual’s talents.

“We’ve designated a specially trained commissioning and start-up tech within our install department to help make sure the details get covered during commissioning,” Orr said. “This individual also is equipped with the knowledge to solve issues when readings look a bit off or there is some confusion in the wiring. This keeps productive installers focused on what they do best without needing to ‘come back tomorrow’ or, worse, leave an issue that results in a callback.”

At the end of a job, they call in a “closer.”

“We call this a quality audit specialist,” Meza said. “This technician assures the system is functioning properly and explains to homeowners what they’ve invested in, making sure they have peace of mind and ensuring they feel comfortable and safe. This individual also tends to ask for referrals and reviews as well.”

Organize the Vans — Having a consistent layout in all of your install vans will make it much easier for installers to work out of spare materials, help other installers on a big job, and manage inventory control.

“Some companies have gone to a consistent ‘bin’ system, where each bin is marked and may be removed for easy access,” Orr said.

Metz said his team pays close attention to its trucks every morning.

“We double check to make sure our trucks are stocked with all essentials for installation whether it is a straight change out, duct change, or a full cut-in,” he said. “We have transitions built and ready. No transitions are built on the job site, and everyone knows where to find the tools on our trucks.”

Train Your Team for Success — The question isn’t “What if we train our guys and they leave,” it’s “What if we don’t train our guys and they stay?”

“Your company is only as strong as its weakest link,” said Meza. “Training and coaching help us stay on our toes and keep the company running like a well-oiled machine.”

Orr advises contractors to create a single-page checklist that defines all of the broad-stroke steps necessary for a proper install.

“We often harp on job quality, but one thing that can get missed is having a consistent install approach and process,” he said. “When you train or ride along with crews, coach them on how to work the process in sequence and eliminate wasted steps and trips to the truck. A lot of time on the job is often spent just walking around because tools and materials aren’t laid out properly and consistently. Train them to overcome this challenge.”

In HVACR contracting, time is money. Following these five steps may help you shave a few hours from your weekly schedule, perhaps allowing you to install one or two additional systems per month. So, until more qualified HVAC technicians are available, contractors such as yourself must continue to explore ways to effectively use the technicians they have without ever compromising quality.