If you've had enough of trying to run a business while running around as a technician, you're not alone. Many managers and owners at small- to mid-size electrical contracting firms find themselves in the same situation — stuck doing all the work themselves, despite their best intentions of delegating. You know you need to put systems in place to ensure that new hires, apprentices, and existing techs are performing this work consistently and reliably time after time — no matter whom you send to the jobsite. But how do you let go? The first step is realizing you don't get to be the boss until you make new worker bees.
Creating a training culture. You need to create new techs to take your place, or there'll be no one to manage operations and grow the business. So get motivated. Begin thinking about every task you do as a tech, and write it all down. Installing ceiling fans, adding lighting fixtures, and installing new branch circuits are good examples of the type of work you can easily delegate to properly trained employees. These notes will form the basis of what becomes the “Apprentice to Tech” In-House Training Program at your company.
Like most electrical contractors, Lowry Electric in Hatfield, Pa., was a successful shop that had a few challenges to overcome. Because many of its techs didn't know the exact process for each task, everything had to go through the Service Manager Joe Haney. Imagine 16 techs all trying to get in touch with Joe at the same time, including the dispatcher! After implementing a new training program, the company has an effective structure in place.
According to Haney, once his team sat down and wrote out the tasks together, then had the techs demonstrate they could perform each one successfully, all bad habits were corrected. “We created the curriculum so my Nextel would stop ringing every 15 minutes,” he says. “I was finally able to work on the big projects that have continued our company on a fast-track growth path.”
Prior to implementing the In-House Training Program, says Haney, the techs didn't know all of the steps in the process. Therefore, it was easy to skip some. “Once we were able to discover the holes in their knowledge, we were able to take them into the training center and fill in those gaps — gaps that we all have in our training — before they went into the field,” he says.
Technicians are now clear on the process for tasks such as opening and closing a call as well as what information to get from and give to the dispatcher, making operations much more efficient. “No longer do we have to scramble around trying to figure out what training to give them and when,” says Steve Lowry, owner, of Lowry Electric. “Today, we know what DVD to show, what role playing to do, and when,” he says. “It's systematic!”
Simply put, when you know how to do a task correctly, in the right sequence, your efficiency improves. The company's next step was to take the electrical operations manual and turn it into a training outline for each task. Any good class outline should be based on the many different types of service calls and tasks that are typical to your business and industry, including fan speed controllers, dimmers, and appliance wiring, to name just a few. Then, find the training books, industry videos, and overhead slides to use in class. “We're no longer hostages to our staff, and everyone is moving ahead,” Haney boasts.
Putting theory into practice. Building an actual training center with a classroom is another step in the right direction because it gives you the power to simulate training in a safe learning environment (Photo). The room should have a whiteboard, television, video equipment, and working systems created to simulate what they'll find in the field, such as a loose neutral, a burned up phase conductor, or an overloaded circuit. To effectively teach and learn the electrical trade, you need to use multiple learning experiences — seeing the material in videos, reading it in books, and, most importantly, learning hands-on information in your in-house training center.
While it is vital to improve the skills of your techs, building a training center and having an electrical training program with a well-written curriculum has an additional benefit. There's a distinct marketing advantage when your message to the customer is one of training and certification — not one of someone coming to your home or business to learn on the job.
The last ingredient to the whole training experience is a motivated instructor — and you're it! Videotape each class you teach so you can watch it later. Although this exercise may be painful at first, watching the video will improve your teaching skills. Getting professional help is another great move. Attend a Dale Carnegie class, an American Management Association class, or buy Dan Holohan's “How to Teach Technicians [without putting them to sleep].” You'll be a better trainer because of it.
Hiring and training the right people. With the training center complete and the training program assembled, you can now bring to life each example of the tasks you do as defined in your electrical operations manual. The training curriculum is the conversion of each task in the manual into teaching blocks.
The last piece is creating the “Apprentice to Tech” program to focus on finding the right students. Change your existing newspaper ad to one that will appeal to candidates who want the opportunity to train for a career as a technician with you. The sample ad (Box at right) for apprentices was created based on years of hiring in the electrical industry. This is not a concept ad — it really works.
Stop looking for skills and hire the right attitude. To help identify the best candidates, use an extensive job application and detailed checklist, which should include things like job description, salary and benefits, special skills, physical requirements, advancement opportunities, required licenses, training class schedules, and work hours. While giving the tour of your training facility, don't forget to ask a lot of questions to help you better understand a candidate's background and goals.
When making the final hiring selection, the apprentice needs to have a clean driver's license as well as pass a drug test, criminal background check, and physical. This should be made clear during the hiring process so there are no surprises. Take a lot of time to explain that they'll be working under your direct supervision.
Don't be afraid to hire and train more than one apprentice at a time. It takes as much work to train one as it does to train two or more. If they all work out, you'll find work for them. And by having more than one, you'll be less vulnerable when they realize that you haven't invested all this training in them alone. Plus, training more than one person allows the trainees to work together to help one another improve.
Provide all the training materials and food at each class. Employees need to volunteer their time to attend and do the “ride-alongs” with you or your experienced techs. To be accepted as a student in the class, they should work as an apprentice a minimum of six months. This period allows you to evaluate their ability to show up on time day after day, their ability to learn new tasks, and their work ethic.
All this is necessary because you'll be investing a lot of time away from your family and the company's money in their training. You want to make sure you're training the right people.
Lowry's techs are now interested and willing to cooperate because they have all of the necessary skills. Management can verify technical skills before they send anyone into the field. “Today, bringing in new people couldn't be easier, so our sales continue to grow,” adds Lowry.
Levi is the president of Appleseed Business, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Sidebar: One Step at a Time
Whether it's wiring up a 200A service or running a GFCI circuit, technicians performing specific electrical tasks require specific electrical training. Here is a good example of how to establish a training curriculum for a particular task. When designing these procedures, make sure you set guidelines for all common tasks your company typically performs. The key is to cover the theory first, then run through the procedure. It's also a good idea to have a video on hand to back up your instruction.
Installation of a Dedicated Dryer Receptacle:
Go to the electrical panel, and remove the cover.
Check for available space to accommodate two breakers. Note: If the electrical panel is less than 100A and does not feature circuit breakers, a panel upgrade must be sold to proceed.
Run a dedicated 30A circuit using a No. 10 gauge 4-wire cable, up to a maximum of 100 feet.
Install a 30A, 4-wire single receptacle and cover plate.
Install a new UL-approved 30A 2-pole circuit breaker in the panel. Whenever possible, avoid shutting off the power to the home. If power must be interrupted, notify the customer first.
Mark the circuit breaker panel schedule with a label maker.
Turn the breaker on and check for a minimum of 220V at the receptacle.
Put the cover back on the panel.