Facing tempting construction jobs and an ever-changing software scene, maintenance techs are the multifamily workers to invest in — before it’s too late. HappyCo shares the best strategies to hire, retain, and empower the minds behind multifamily repairs.
“How much time are you dedicating to celebrating the unsung heroes who keep your business thriving and growing in the background?” Forbes Real Estate Council member Ryan Chan poses a powerful question at the top of his August 2019 Forbes piece on maintenance workers.
To be sure, these important multifamily team members rarely make the spotlight. However, NAA offers a reason why they should: “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,” according to Regional Service Manager Tony Hogrebe of Mill Creek Residential.
Complicating matters, NAA contributor Joe Bousquin stresses just how much maintenance tech responsibilities have changed over the years: “the mushrooming number of devices at today’s properties has meant maintenance techs need to know more about a multiplying number of physical components than ever before.”
With a tight labor market and increasing technical expectations in mind, HappyCo shares just how multifamily operators should be rethinking the maintenance tech role — from hiring and retention to development and leadership.
From referrals to truck-mud runs: novel ways to hire techs.
“There is not another position in our world that’s more difficult to fill than a maintenance technician.” Bob Gleason, Village Green VP of Operations Support and Business Analytics, doesn’t shy away from drama when he frames the stakes of hiring maintenance techs. Thus, it should be clear from the start: finding a talented tech might take some creative thinking.
While an in-depth piece by NAA recommends starting with the typical recruitment routes — Glassdoor, Indeed, and CareerBuilder — as avenues to find these critical maintenance workers, the article also points to the power of referrals. The author turns to Tony Hogrebe of Mill Creek Residential, who says he believes the success of his company’s referral program is about more than the bonus entailed. Hogrebe tells NAA: “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.”
Indeed, a recent article in Equipment World builds on the importance of showcasing a healthy work culture as operators seek to recruit new techs. The author chronicles a diesel engine company’s success in having techs publish “regular short [social] posts of their jobs, milestones and success stories.” Noting that a technician who’s completed a big engine project can simply snap a selfie and include a few comments “on what a challenge it was,” the writer describes how: “ten of his friends see it and put the post on their sites, where 10 of their friends see it and post it. Before long, this one post has racked up hundreds of views — all positive about the company.”
Beyond employee referrals and social media, multifamily operators have a worthwhile recruitment opportunity on their hands in the form of recreational events. It starts with a simple question: “where do my techs hang out on the weekends?” An Equipment World staff article notes how: “General Equipment gave a pop-up tent to an employee who regularly competes in truck mud-runs.” The plan was perfectly straightforward: put a sign on the tent that read “looking for diesel techs” alongside the company’s name and phone number.
The Equipment World staff goes on to recommend a range of local motorsports events — from sports car races and NHRA to motorcycle and moto-cross events — where attendees are likely to “have a mechanical interest.” While the piece looks through the lens of diesel techs, it’s likely this recruiting tactic would translate very well in the maintenance tech arena.
Additionally, NAA recommends an unexpected but highly relevant hiring source: Shelters to Shutters, a non-profit that “works with other homeless-focused non-profits to identify individuals experiencing homelessness who have the skills needed to be part of the leasing or maintenance teams.” As NAA notes, these candidates typically have years of experience as electricians, landscapers, or general repairman.
Importantly, Shelters to Shutters is able to vet candidates via screenings, thorough interviews, and background checks. The organization also provides below-market-rate housing in the communities where these candidates secure positions. In a tight labor market where construction companies are also angling for technicians, S2S represents “a largely untapped source of maintenance employees that many in the apartment industry aren’t yet aware of,” according to NAA.
Finally, Equipment World recommends reaching out to members of the local Reserves and National Guard. On the convenience front, staff at Equipment World argue these military personnel already “work and serve in your community — a phone call away.” Critically, a Chief People Officer quoted by Equipment World argues: “there are a lot of great technicians coming out of the military, and so we spend a lot of time at the recruiting and career fairs at military bases in our area.”
Having considered a range of outside-the-norm recruitment possibilities, the next thing to assess is: beyond technical aptitude, what key traits should you look for in a maintenance technician?
Friendly, adaptable, tech-savvy: what to look for in techs.
“Technical skills can be taught…What we hire for is work ethic and character.” Gleason of Village Green also cuts to the quick when he tells NAA his strategy for hiring maintenance technicians. Gleason puts it plainly: “plumbing leaks haven’t changed much in 30 years. But the expectation of our clients to ensure that they have a wonderful experience with the main person that’s in their home, has.”
Multifamily elaborates on the importance of customer service skills in techs, arguing operators should seek “a person who has the personality to connect and engage with residents while being professional.” Author Wanda Stewart stresses that, as more leasing tasks become automated, maintenance techs will increasingly wield significant “lease renewal influence,” despite being “the most likely to be left out of the customer training you offer [staff].”
In addition to these necessary people skills, NAA suggests it’s important for maintenance technicians to have a fundamentally flexible approach to technology itself. As Hogrebe of Mill Creek argues, “we want a person who is open-minded to learning new things and to change…Our industry is continually renewing itself and upgrading how we do things to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of our residents.”
Thus, multifamily operators should be searching for techs who don’t just tolerate change, but truly thrive under it. NAA paints the picture, describing how: “as today’s apartment buildings have become more complex, encompassing sophisticated HVAC systems, smart thermostats, door locks and lighting…maintenance staff are leveraging what they can, on their phones, to keep pace.” However, some operators suggest there’s been a heartening sea change in just this realm; Bell Partners COO Cindy Clare makes clear: “it used to be, we were pushing it on them. Now, they’re asking us for it.”
However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, operators should be wary of a new crop of technicians that may hope for a cozy desk job. Clare maintains that these days: “many applicants think they’re going to be behind a desk,” but in fact they should be warned: “It’s still a hands-on type of job. You’re still outside, repairing equipment and dealing with clogged sinks.”
With this “delicate balance” of technical requirements in mind, it’s helpful for multifamily operators to understand how they can steer clear of turnover altogether — by training, supporting, and empowering their maintenance technicians.
Hands-on training, encouraging approach: retaining techs.
Given the growing importance of customer service skills for maintenance techs, multifamily operators would be wise to offer their maintenance techs training on this topic right from the start. In Multifamily Insiders, Wanda Stewart urges operators to train “new maintenance hires on the core values of your company.”
From there, Stewart recommends a comprehensive training approach wherein you teach maintenance techs about “staff service etiquette, how to interact with residents, and other areas of concern.” With an effort like this, Stewart argues operators can truly: “help prepare your maintenance team to build more meaningful relationships with your residents.”
Hands-on, communal trainings during onboarding are another important strategy to help technicians develop a strong technical foundation — in addition to valuable relationships with co-workers. NAA describes how, at Village Green communities, that process entails “hands-on workshops in the field with vendors and suppliers to touch local equipment specific to the area.”
Village Green VP Bob Gleason argues there are significant benefits to this interactive approach. First, techs have the chance to “hang out together as a cohesive group in their direct submarket and get to know each other while working on something like air-conditioning repair.” Referring to this communal training style as “highly sought after by our people,” Gleason suggests the approach is a powerful start to further professional development.
Indeed, NAA writer Joe Bousquin suggests training shouldn’t stop at orientation week. He notes: “apartment pros say empowering maintenance technicians today with the ability to leverage technology to do their jobs, while giving them training and opportunity for career advancement, are the keys to filling and retaining employees.”
In addition to technical training opportunities, NAA stresses the value in praising techs for their proactive efforts — not simply successful repairs. NAA turns to Mill Creek’s Tony Hogrebe, who suggests “regular rewards and recognition programs can go a long way towards making maintenance personnel feel appreciated.” In this vein, a recent Forbes piece recommends: “instead of only tracking downtime metrics, such as response time to breakdowns, companies should also track how much uptime a facility is experiencing relative to the previous month or year.”
Still, Hogrebe goes a step further, stressing: “also critical is a company culture that gives maintenance team members a voice and empowers them to make important decisions.” As Hogrebe sees it, “we don’t want our maintenance teams to be in the background. If they have an idea about how we can improve, we want them to speak up.” So long as techs stay within their budgets, Hogrebe argues the healthiest work environment is one wherein maintenance workers can: “‘come say, ‘This is my opinion of what we need to do here’” when they see something is broken.
Multihousing News argues an even more effective way to secure maintenance techs’ company loyalty is to make them feel included in an appropriate level of strategic planning. Pamela Sullens of Golden Mountain Real Estate argues: “it’s important for maintenance techs to participate in your property plans…include them in the goals that you have on behalf of the owner; they shouldn’t be left in the dark.”
Finally, should maintenance techs rise through the ranks and become maintenance managers, a recent NAA piece offers a wealth of advice on the healthiest ways to lead. Author Les Shaver quotes Ed Shaffer, Director of Maintenance Operations at HHHunt, who argues: “it’s important for maintenance leaders to understand that everyone has their own way of communicating.” Thus, maintenance managers should avoid telling staff “how to get there [solve problems]” and instead “help them find their way.”
In the maintenance world, as Andy Meador of McDowell Properties stresses, it’s especially important to “allow people to make mistakes and encourage them to be open about it.” This kind of transparency paves the way for maintenance teams to improve operations by providing skill-based training where necessary.
In the spirit of open dialogue, Meador even suggests that healthy debate among maintenance team members is an asset — not a liability. In Meador’s view, “conflict is healthy. It’s a matter of how you handle it.” After all, author Les Shaver argues that in addition to a strong teaching ability and people management aptitude, the top skill maintenance leaders need isn’t repair-based at all — it’s the power to “communicate.”
While maintenance technicians have long been stuck on the sidelines of multifamily, it’s time to invest in their technical skills and sense of fulfillment — before rival industries prove too tempting to ignore. From out-of-the-box hiring strategies to professional development programs, there are a range of ways multifamily operators can recruit and empower talented maintenance techs.
Glennis is a writer/producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, she worked at CBS San Francisco as a program coordinator, public affairs producer, and ultimately full-time news writer for the KPIX 5 Morning News. She’s excited to enter the bustling startup world and tell HappyCo’s stories across channels.