As I often hear these days, we live in interesting times. The times prove interesting for many reasons, but none less so than the fact that by the year 2030 our demographics will change markedly. By 2030, the baby boomer generation, consisting of those born between 1944 and 1964, will all have reached 65 years old or older. This means that one out of every five U.S. citizens will have arrived at retirement age.
If you own a contracting firm, these facts should concern you. These facts should also help determine how you will build your company for the future. In other words, how will you preserve the institutional knowledge of your retiring journeymen and retiring master technicians, while ensuring that your new hires understand current technology?
In these difficult times, I have found that many owners feel they should furlough or retire their older employees because these individuals cost the company more in wages due to their length of service with the company. These same owners feel confident that, when the economy turns around, they will simply hire more young people at less cost and train them to do the work once performed by the elder statesmen they forced into retirement.
How do you ensure your technicians stay technically competent today? Hopefully, you invest in each of your employees by providing the training to allow them to grow into their current position, while giving them opportunities to move further up the ladder within the company. You need leaders in your company who have achieved technical competency and can effectively interface with your customers.
Your customers often see technicians first when they need the work done at their facilities. They are effectively the face of your company. If your technicians present themselves professionally and show their technical competence to the customer, you may have a customer for life. Customers will rarely tell you this fact, but they trust someone who appears to have more experience in the field—because they seem older—rather than have some new hire who may not exude the confidence the customers expect from a competent technician.
So, while the accountant in your firm may encourage you to lay off the more expensive talent, these people will continue to serve your customers as their go-to person in your company. This fact reinforces the value of your long-term employees.
The more experienced person is also the hardest person to replace. Such employees have the institutional knowledge that proves so valuable to you and your customers. You have seen this play out many times when you watch a master technician troubleshoot a problem compared to when you watch a newer technician troubleshoot the same problem.
The new technician jumps right in and too often will jump to conclusions, trying several possible solutions based on limited or incomplete information. On the other hand, the master technician will gather as much information about the problem and view it from different angles before attempting a fix. A couple examples of this come to mind.
Recently, someone came to me and asked if they should approve the installation of a substitute underground cable connecting a fire alarm system network installed in a duct between two buildings. The contractor claimed the duct was full of water, so he could not install the specified cable. He felt the request was reasonable until I asked a few probing questions. The duct length was approximately 200 feet long and ran between the building basements. I asked if any water emanated from the duct in either basement location. The answer was no, and I asked how the contractor knew the duct was full of water. He said that when he pulled the underground cable, the outside jacket seemed moist.
Do you think the duct was full of water? It turns out the contractor did not have the specified cable for the project and used what he had in the truck, hoping the engineer and the AHJ would buy his story. A more experienced technician would not have tried this.
The second example involves another fire alarm system that had experienced several false alarms. Upon arrival, the owner and the fire marshal met the master technician and both of them seemed very upset. The system had false alarmed four times in the previous two days. No obvious cause seemed apparent. The owner wanted the technician to replace all the equipment in the system, even though for over a year the newly installed system had performed reliably and without incident until this recent issue.
A normal first instinct in these situations involves quickly running around and replacing as many smoke detectors as possible until everyone “feels better” about the system. But a true professional technician will not do that. The master technician quietly started asking the owner questions and also asked to speak to the building maintenance man. The technician asked the maintenance man a myriad of questions. His questions intended to determine if anything had changed at the facility in the recent weeks.
It turned out that a large fireplace in the gathering area required constant wood stoking to provide a roaring fire for the guests’ enjoyment at this five-star hotel. The person in charge of stoking the fire had been out sick, and the person tasked with the duty had other work and didn’t keep up with the task. Once the fire died down, the smoke did not draft up the chimney; it drifted out into the hall where smoke detectors operated and produced a false alarm.
The answer was to replace the photoelectric-type smoke detectors with multicriteria type. This cured the problem for all time, regardless of the fire condition in the fireplace. This master technician cemented the relationship of the contracting company with the customer and so impressed the fire marshal that he recommended the company on two other projects.
I’m telling you this story to highlight the importance of retaining your elder statesmen. More importantly, ensure that your senior technicians transfer their knowledge to those younger technicians. You know, the ones who think they only need to know the new technology and computers to get by.