Tips for staffing your maintenance team

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With a booming real estate market and many senior engineers nearing retirement, there’s high demand for building engineers but fewer qualified individual to fill these positions.

Property managers are struggling to keep property engineers and facility maintenance teams staffed with qualified, enthusiastic employees.

“It is definitely hard to find building engineers,” said Kim Lewis, the Building Operators Association of Colorado state chair and executive vice president with Hot/Shot Infrared Inspections. “It has been difficult for, at least, the last five years and seems to be increasingly more difficult because there’s been a lot of growth in Denver and a lot of retirement – so there’s a lot of positions – and not as many young people to take the jobs.”

With increasing job position availability, there seems to be an apparent lack of interest in the trades as well as a lack of general awareness in the line of work.

“I think it’s a big problem because a lot of the kids are not focused on the vocations or introduced to the vocations,” said Jackie Herbst, a Denver Engineers and Facilities Conversation member and an account manager with Team K Services.

Bryan Wilske has seen the problem firsthand – spending the past two years significantly understaffed with technical people – as a director of property operations with Doubletree Hilton. Finally fully staffed, Wilske stresses the importance of investing in the staff you have. If you find a good individual and you’ve captured his attention, invest time and effort into his education in order to make him an even more valuable asset to the company, he said.

It’s imperative that the engineer staff and the management staff work together. Property managers understand the value in maintaining their buildings to avoid costly, last-minute repairs when something goes wrong. The same approach should be taken with staffing.

If there isn’t someone within the staff who can be trained and promoted, there are limited options. Lewis believes relocations are on the rise, thanks to the state’s desirability. Aside from that, it requires some creativity.

“You have to do a little of this and a little of that,” she said. “You have to put your hands into a lot of pots until you find the person you’re looking for.”

Reaching out to your vendors can be a powerful tool. Vendors tend to know if somebody is unhappy with his job or if somebody is moving, making them a great source for finding engineers who are looking for positions, Lewis said.

She regularly receives emails from property managers who are looking to fill engineer positions. She also has a standing list of managers who ask her to send along résumés anytime she receives them, which she does.

As part of their job, vendors are expected to know all the engineers in town and talk to them and property management teams regularly, making them an easy resource, she said.

These are options for finding individuals already in the field, but it still leaves the bigger problem of recruiting new employees to this line of work.

As an industry, building engineer wages have not kept up with many of the wages tradesmen can get elsewhere, leading to a continuing problem of finding qualified help, Wilske said. This means that entry-level positions are the most common, which require greater time and energy spent on training these new employees – making it doubly frustrating if they quit. And entry-level positions typically include the things nobody else wants to do, making it not the most desirable – or highest-paying – of jobs. However, the field offers ample opportunity for growth.

“It seems like nowadays, kids out of high school want the money right off the bat and they don’t want to work for it,” Wilske said. “And that’s a continuing struggle we have – trying to find those people who actually want to be here and want to work.”

Growing an employee from entry-level to a senior position presents its own challenges. To be qualified for the positions taking care of the meat of the building, an individual must have an extensive understanding of the technical work as well as strong leadership and management skills. It’s not uncommon for some technicians to enjoy what they do without having a desire to move up the ladder, said Wilske.

While the reliance on a trade background among new employees seems to be dwindling, property managers who have good contacts at the trade and vocational schools still may have a head start accessing new employees. These program can help identify students who are interested in working with their hands in this type of work.

Trade schools are establishing creative way to encourage student interest. For example, Emily Griffith Technical College partnered with Proapartments.com and the Apartment Association of Metro Denver to create a maintenance apprenticeship program.

The six-week program, MAP, is designed to train future maintenance professionals with the skills needed for a career in the apartment industry. The program consists of an in-class and on-site paid training apprenticeship, according to the program’s website.

At Red Rocks Community College, a Ready2Work program was established, which follows a boot-camp model to introduce students to the building maintenance and energy-efficiency industries. Ed Hegwood, an HVAC instructor at the college, founded the program in partnership with industry employers to offer students an intense, two-week introduction into the industry.

As buildings become more dependent on technology, the prerequisites for certain building maintenance positions may change. But for now, trade schools are still the best bet for the computer-savvy employees as well. However, these skilled employees can present a challenge in maintaining the bottom line, said Wilske.

Wage increases could be on the horizon for most experienced engineer staff members, in order to align with wages they could make in another line of work using the same skillset.

“I honestly think wages are going to go higher,” said Lewis. “It’s supply and demand – if there’s not enough people in it and there’s a huge demand, then people will start to pay more for it.”

It’s Lewis’ personal philosophy that the wages of all trades will increase as the industries adjust to attract a younger workforce. This wage enticement is necessary to shift the millennial and Generation Z perception that a desirable income is mainly achieved through white-collar positions.

Industry associations are recognizing the severity of this staffing challenge as well. For example, BOAC offers a résumé file in which member engineers can submit their résumé and any property manager can search the database.

An informal group, Denver Engineers and Facilities Conversation, was established to help engineers learn from one another. Through educational lectures and free-flowing conversations, these engineers try to pass knowledge down to the newest generation. Without assistance from each other, first-time engineers can be thrown into scary situations and fail miserably, said Wilske, who heads the group.

Both associations see the benefit of internship and mentoring programs. However, operating on smaller budgets, neither program has come to fruition. Larger organizations, such as BOMA or individual property management firms, may have more financial wherewithal to help put this type of program together, Lewis said.

“I think internships would be a great idea – get them into the building, let them get their hands dirty, and let them see if this is something they want to do,” Lewis said. “Hopefully you’ll weed some of them out and you’ll grab some kids who maybe didn’t know this is what they wanted to do.”

 

Featured in the July issue of Property Management Quarterly.

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