Overcoming the Field Service Technician Shortage: How to Attract and Retain Top Talent

Companies in many industries, especially those engaged in field service, are experiencing a shrinking pool of the skills they need. Skill shortages are likely to grow, so companies that have not yet experienced the problem are likely to see it emerge.  

The need for workers with trade skills is increasing faster than the growth of employment overall. According to Generation T, a national movement initiated by Lowe’s to promote the trade industries, there will be 3 million unfilled jobs in the skilled trades by 2028—including 409,000 HVAC technicians, 648,000 electricians, and 919,000 plumbers.  

Astute observations from two business research firms—one serving all industries and one focused on field service businesses—highlight what is happening: 

  • “Everything about the global workforce is changing. Employees have become mobile more than ever before, employment is high, and the number of open jobs is skyrocketing. Combined, these factors have made it difficult for businesses to retain the best talent. As a result, more and more companies are hatching innovative hiring and retention strategies.” (FinancesOnline) 
  • “The widening skills gap is one of the most pressing issues facing field service companies today. … One of the biggest questions field service leaders now face is how they are to drive the same levels of growth from a shrinking pool of workers.” (WBResearch)

This article examines the causes of skill shortages and suggests ways to mitigate them. 

The Causes of Skill Shortages

Skill shortages are occurring across many industries, trades, and professions. They are caused by a host of economic, cultural, and demographic factors.  

At the top of the list is the aging workforce. Every day, 10,000 Baby Boomers reach age 65, yet there are not enough skilled craftsmen to move into the positions retiring workers vacate. 

The COVID-19 crisis has aggravated matters. Even before the pandemic, older workers with trade skills were retiring much faster than they could be replaced. Many Baby Boomers retired earlier than they initially planned because of the pandemic, even though demand for field service jobs has continued to increase. When older workers leave any skilled position, a great deal of knowledge walks out the door with them. 

The pandemic also exacerbated another trend that has been years in the making: declining birth rates. The U.S. birth rate has been dropping since 2013. According to Forbes, “Birth rates are at a record low; demographic projections show little or no growth in Americans in the key 18-22 age group any time soon.” 

Other factors experts cite for trade skill shortages are: 

  • The dearth of trade skill training in secondary schools. Before 1980, most high schools offered shop classes. Not so today! Woodworking, shop, and trade skill courses have disappeared from high school curriculums. Instead, educators and politicians are putting pressure on school systems to do more testing and offer more STEM courses to better prepare college-bound students. 
  • Skimpy employer budgets for training. Employers typically rely heavily on getting the skills they need through recruiting alone and do not invest enough in developing the skills of existing employees. The bulk of spending on education and training occurs in the first 25 years of life. According to the Council of Economic Advisers, most spending on education is exhausted by age 17, and more than 90 percent of spending is complete by age of 25. 
  • The “go to college” bias. College is not for everyone, but parents, peers, and school counselors often push children in that direction. Meanwhile, high-paying jobs requiring shorter training, at far less expense, are going unfilled.  
  • The stigma of skilled labor. Younger generations are less receptive than their parents to “blue collar” jobs. Many who do not go to college prefer working as freelancers in the so-called “gig economy.” The Refrigeration School, Inc. quoted a frustrated business owner: “Somewhere along the line a decision was made that everybody needs to go to college, and it was something less worthy working with your hands and doing these skilled jobs.” 

7 Ways Your Business Can Mitigate the Impact of Skill Shortages  

The remedies suggested below all require top management’s enthusiastic support. Many of the ideas mentioned can be implemented through good leadership. For others, software tools and services can streamline implementation and generate better results.  

1. Embrace employee engagement strategies.  

“Employee engagement is the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward the work they do, their teams, and their organization,” states a Quantum Workforce article.  “Employees who feel connected to their organization work harder, stay longer, and motivate others to do the same.” 

Why do top executives need to put a strong focus on employee engagement? Check these facts:  

  • 78% of Gen Z employees and 43% of Millennials plan to leave their job within the next two years. (daVinci Payments) 
  • 70% of Gen Z and Millennial employees would stay at their job for another year if given rewards amounting to only $150. (daVinci Payments) 
  • Half of employees said they would sacrifice their salary — as much as 29% of it — to work a job they enjoy. (Kforce) 
  • The top three factors respondents said they value are trust, passion, and mentorship. (Kforce) 
  • Only 19% of employees consider themselves very engaged and plan to stay at their companies for a long time. (Achievers) 
  • 70% of workers say that motivation and morale would improve if managers simply said thank you more and noticed excellent work. (Reward Gateway) 
  • 75% of employees who voluntarily left their jobs did so because of their manager, not the job itself. (LinkedIn)

Take a few hours to read about employee engagement, and you will uncover many ideas on appealing to a multi-generational workforce. You will learn about the positive impacts achievable from employee surveys, regular reviews, frequent praise and recognition, flexible hours, more advancement opportunities, provision of a true work-life balance, and open communications.

2. Improve onboarding processes. 

At your company, do new employees go through a structured onboarding program? If they do, they will be 58% more likely to stay more than three years, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. 

A Brandon Hall Group survey found that giving new employees a great onboarding experience can improve their retention by 82% and their productivity by over 70%.   

Field Service News recommends pairing each new employee with a senior employee who can explain the company’s culture, instill a sense of belonging, transfer knowledge, and provide ongoing guidance and support.  

3. Encourage collaboration.  

When employees work collaboratively—in person or remotely—they work more effectively. Collaboration builds the confidence of individuals, opens employees’ minds to other perspectives, and mitigates the negative effects of working in a “siloed” environment. 

Social Agility, a firm specializing in interpersonal skills and communications training, emphasizes that collaboration is a key driver of innovation. “Collaboration skills will help your business pull people together, harness diversity, build consensus, enhance motivation and lay fertile ground for new ideas,” the firm stated on its website 

4. Provide easy access to senior remote experts. 

What do you do now when a field technician encounters a situation that is beyond his or her experience and skill level? You probably dispatch a more experienced tech to the location. That approach does not help your skill shortage. 

Many experts recommend using a senior technician, preferably supported by live video capabilities, to remotely help the on-site technician complete the repair. This approach has multiple benefits:  

  • It increases the first-time fix rate (FTFR) and improves time-to-resolution (MTTR).  
  • It helps transfer knowledge from your seasoned techs to younger, less experienced technicians.  
  • It gives your older technicians another step on the promotion ladder, encouraging them to stop searching for a better job or even postpone retirement. 
  • If you are using subcontractors to alleviate a shortage of technicians, your employed senior expert can work with them remotely, too, and be the focal point for instilling your company’s high standards into their performance.

5. Invest in offering a variety of training techniques and programs.  

To appeal to younger, less skilled workers, use a variety of training approaches.  

Some to consider include team learning exercises, team-building events, and courses offered by vocational schools and trade associations.  

Look into new training approaches, too. You will find some intriguing options, including:  

Sandbox labs are ideal for team collaboration, onboarding new employees, and experimenting with new capabilities prior to deployment (see below).  

Microlearning enhances knowledge retention. Researchers have found that learning in short stretches of 3 to 7 minutes is best suited for a human’s attention span. Putting skills training into small “bite-sized” amounts of content has become increasingly popular for all types of learners, including tradespeople.  

Air Conditioning Contractors of America’s website has an eye-opening article about microlearning for the trades. One of many interesting passages reads, “The trades is the perfect setting for microlearning – both in terms of process training and equipment education. Microlearning is geared towards skills training, and breaking down the procedures that a technician should follow while on the job into short, easily digestible chunks of content can help them level up their skills more quickly.” 

Let your employees play in a digital sandbox!

Virtual training labs (a.k.a. “sandbox” labs) are “the easiest means to establish a culture of learning by doing among learners,” states an article by Techademy. “It facilitates a practice-based learning environment suited for higher knowledge retention compared to traditional passive training modes.”

NextService field mobility tools can tap into the powerful sandbox system that can be set up in the NetSuite development platform. The NetSuite sandbox is a test environment that enables users to explore functionality and experiment with “what if” scenarios to learn how they will play out in a “live” environment 

In the NetSuite sandbox, users can run, observe, and analyze different scenarios, and then decide on the best ways to use NextService before  actually deploying anything. 

Sandboxes are invaluable for training a team and onboarding new employeesExperienced employees and managers benefit too, by working with real-time data and making informed decisions about improving efficiency. They can quickly see what processes or ideas are “keepers” and dump those that do not pan out 

Best of all, your team can “play” within an exact replica of your production setting in the sandbox with no risk of corrupting or losing your real data.  

Consider two sandbox scenarios: 

  1. Imagine that you are testing a new email template for invoicing. In the sandbox, the emails will not actually go anywhere, but users will be able to see what would have happened had they been working in a ‘live’ environment. 
  2. You are training your team to build if-then-else workflows. Rather than risk an accidental corruption or purging of mountains of transactions, you will be able to sleep at night due to the bullet-proofing that the sandbox feature provides. 

It is easy to set up a sandbox for your field mobility teams. Let the learning—and the fun —begin! 

6. Make soft skills a key part of upskilling. 

With major shifts taking place in society, education, technology, and the workplace, businesses are beginning to recognize the need for better training.  Increasingly, they are making training and upskilling of employees a top priority. 

Traditionally, businesses focused on field service have put most of their training dollars into core skills that tradespeople need to keep up with new equipment and new technology. With field service technicians serving as the primary touchpoint with customers, this is changing. Many businesses now recognize their field techs are brand ambassadors, so they are devoting more training to “soft skills,” also called people skills. These include written and verbal communications, leadership, interpersonal skills, and customer relations—all of which are skills that can enhance employees’ career development and bring value to any business. 

Reporting on a survey it conducted, Field Service News wrote, “An incredible 98% of respondents stated that people skills were now a higher priority for them than they had been before.” 

7. Get behind the gig economy.  

Gartner and many other analysts are noting that the gig economy is here to stay.  

By leveraging a blended field workforce of employees and field service contractors, you are better positioned to meet increases in demand and expand your geographic service range.  

Using independent contractors to augment employed technicians does have some challenges. In particular, you will need to ensure the freelance team represents you well, fully embraces your standards, and follows your best practices meticulously. 

Turn Scarcity into an Advantage 

When a business problem such as skill shortages becomes pervasive, there is an inherent opportunity:  while many companies in a given market struggle to find and retain people, a few of their competitors have solved the problem.  

These businesses stand out from the crowd of companies trying to hire new employees. In close-knit circles of tradespeople, they become known as a good company to work for. Technicians from other companies seek out companies with management teams who are aggressively connecting with their employees and providing excellent training to advance their career path. 

If your company embraces some of the seven recommendations we have made here, we think you will see dramatic results over time. Retention will improve. Skilled people employed elsewhere will view your business as one of the “stars” in your market, and they will come to you seeking employment.

How NextService Can Help

There is no doubt about it: younger generations—Generation Z and Millennials—are technically adept and expect their employers to give them the best available tools to perform exceptionally well. For field technicians, that means a mobility platform that lets them focus on doing their job and satisfying customers instead of entering data. 

NextService is a field service management platform designed to drive business efficiency and growth. Technicians using NextService give it exceedingly high marks.  

For example, STH, headquartered in Frederick, Maryland, needed a modern field mobility platform to cope with an industry-wide shortage of technicians specializing in commercial pumps.  

“Our technicians are very excited about NextService,” said the company’s CFO, JD Slough. “It lets them do what they do best:  working on machines, not filling out forms. Now we’re actually giving time back to them, and that’s a big win with technicians.”   

Provide your technicians and office staff the tools they need to be productive, expand their skills, have a positive employee experience. Give us a call. 

References 

  • Generation T website homepage. Generation T  
  • FinancesOnline. 12 Workplace Trends for 2021/2022: New Predictions & What Lies Beyond?  FinancesOnline 
  • WBResearch. The Workforce of the Future: Filling the Field Service Talent Gap. WBResearch. 
  • Forbes (July 2020). The Decline of the American University, by Richard VedderForbes 
  • Council of Economic Advisers (July 2018). Cited in Closing the Skills Gap Through Last-Mile Training at Age of Agility. 
  • Refrigeration Schools Inc. (July 2019)  Skilled Trades Trends: The Role of Vocational Training in the Labor Shortage, by Zander Buel.  RSI 
  • Quantum Workforce (March 2021).  What is Employee Engagement? What, Why, and How to Improve It, by Kristin Ryba.  Quantum Workforce 
  • daVinci Payments.  Cited in Survey: Small acts of recognition help younger workers feel fulfilled at work, by Lisa Burden (September 2019) at HRDive. 
  • Kforce. Cited in Most employees would grade their jobs a B-, by Valerie Bolden-Barrett (April 2019). Kforce 
  • Achievers. 2020 Engagement & Retention Report: Failure to EngageAchievers 
  • Reward Gateway (May 2017).  Implementing Continuous and Social Recognition.  Reward Gateway 
  • LinkedIn (December 2017).  Employees Don’t Leave Companies, They Leave Managers, by Brigette Hyacinth. LinkedIn 
  • ScreenCloud (August 2020). Employee Engagement Statistics & Trends for 2020   ScreenCloud 
  • Society for Human Resource Management (August 2017).  Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Good Onboarding, by Arlene S. Hirsch. SHRM 
  • Brandon Hall Group (August 2016). Research Brief: The True Cost of a Bad Hire, by Madeline Laurano. Accessed at Glassdoor.com  
  • Field Service News (January 2018). The Changing Face Of The Field Service Engineer (part 2)Field Service News 
  • Social Agility website. Collaboration Skills Training page.  Social Agility 
  • Air Conditioning Contractors of America (April 2021). Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew.   Air Conditioning Contractors of America