How to hire quality maintenance technicians and keep them in the fold.
Debra Cash doesn’t hesitate when asked about the importance of maintenance teams to apartment communities.
“In my opinion, they're the critical element," said the Senior Vice President of Operations at Klingbeil Capital Management, which owns and operates apartment communities throughout the West, East Coast and Southeast.
“After residents move into a property, with all of the technology we have — online work orders, online rental payments — the only people they really interact with from that point forward are the maintenance teams,” Cash said. “Their good relationships with our renters are what builds resident retention and renewals. No doubt about it.”
Cash’s comments hint at the range of skills needed by maintenance technicians in today’s apartment industry. Not only do they need to be adept at plumbing and HVAC repair, but they must have top-notch people skills as well. Finding and keeping maintenance technicians with the desired combination of hard and soft skills can be a challenge in today’s environment. However, apartment executives say the challenge can be met with the right hiring practices and by building a company culture that truly respects and empowers maintenance teams.
Finding Maintenance Rock Stars
Apartment operators looking to build high-performing maintenance teams are likely to find that doing so is far from a slam-dunk.
In today’s market, “We’re impacted by the historically low unemployment rates, so it’s a challenging economic environment for hiring anybody for any position,” says Tony Hogrebe, a Regional Service Manager for Mill Creek Residential’s West Region. Mill Creek develops, owns and operates communities across the country.
The apartment industry is facing particularly stiff competition from the construction industry for maintenance technicians, according to Hogrebe. “The construction trades are heavily ramped up, and they're hiring people whose skill sets really overlap with what we’re looking for in our service technicians and managers,” he says.
Would-be maintenance technicians are instead finding work on construction projects of all kinds both as general laborers and installers of various building systems, according to Hogrebe.
In the end, there’s no silver bullet for hiring the right maintenance technician, Hogrebe adds. Instead, he says, a multi-pronged approach is in order.
Mill Creek posts maintenance job openings on common sites such as Glassdoor, Indeed, CareerBuilder and Monster. It uses social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to attract candidates, and the company also has an in-house recruiter to oversee and manage the efforts.
Finally, executives shouldn't underestimate the value of referrals from existing team members, Hogrebe says.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of success with referrals. It’s been a big piece of how we have grown our maintenance teams,” he said. “We offer a referral bonus to our associates, but I don’t think that really explains why people make referrals. I think it’s because they want to work with high-quality associates with whom they have had a good work experience and believe would contribute to a positive work atmosphere.”
In its search for strong maintenance team members, Klingbeil Capital Management has recently turned to the nonprofit Shelters to Shutters (S2S) to make two new hires. S2S partners with apartment management companies to place ready-to-work homeless individuals in onsite, entry-level jobs and provide them with discounted housing at the same communities at which they work. The organization offers a largely untapped source of maintenance employees that many in the apartment industry aren’t yet aware of.
S2S works with other homeless-focused nonprofits to identify individuals experiencing homelessness who have the skills needed to be part of the leasing or maintenance teams. These individuals often have extensive experience working as electricians, landscapers, general handymen, etc. Those potential employees are then vetted by S2S through screenings, in-depth interviews and background checks before being interviewed by operators for specific openings.
“We’ve had real success with this program and have found, among other things, that it has really helped the interviewing process,” Cash says. “S2S takes care of that initial interview to confirm the required skill set is actually there. A lot of times you can read somebody’s resume and it’s wonderful, but does that really translate to skill sets?”
Keeping the Band Together
Evaluating an interviewee for a maintenance job is about so much more than determining the extent of their repair and mechanical skills, Hogrebe and Cash say. It’s also about examining a candidate’s personality and his or her commitment to customer service.
“Team-oriented personalities tend to be much more successful than people who are introverted and loners,” Cash says. “Maintenance personnel work in a team environment, and so personality is a big component of the hiring decision in addition to all of the available skill sets.”
According to Hogrebe, Mill Creek asks interviewees for maintenance jobs to cite some examples of experiences with unhappy customers and to explain how they resolved the situations. “Hiring someone with customer service in their DNA is our top priority,” Hogrebe says.
To the extent that it can, Mill Creek also seeks to determine how open to change a maintenance job candidate is. “We want a person who is open-minded to learning new things and to change,” Hogrebe says. “Our industry is continually renewing itself and upgrading how we do things to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of our residents.”
Hogrebe and Cash agree that retaining high-performing maintenance technicians requires a combination of strategies. Salary and benefits should be competitive. Additionally, operators need to provide maintenance technicians with training and opportunities to expand their skills and grow professionally.
Beyond that, according to Hogrebe, regular rewards and recognition programs can go a long way towards making maintenance personnel feel appreciated. Also critical is a company culture that gives maintenance team members a voice and empowers them to make important decisions, he adds.
“We don’t want our maintenance teams to be in the background,” Hogrebe says. “If they have an idea about how we can improve, we want them to speak up. At Mill Creek, we have a Customer-First Guarantee, which empowers our teams with the tools and the leeway to do the right thing to deliver great service. Our maintenance associates don’t have to ask permission to do something to make it right for a resident. They just do it. Our maintenance teams are always there for our residents.”
Similarly, Klingbeil Capital Management charges its maintenance teams “to be entrepreneurs for their properties,” Cash says. “If they have something that is broken, they have a resource to come say, ‘This is my opinion of what we need to do here.’ All we ask is that they try to stay within the parameters of their budgets.”
In the final analysis, developing and maintaining the right maintenance team is a multi-faceted process. But it’s one that pays off handsomely with high levels of resident satisfaction and retention.