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The Blurring of Maintenance and Tech

Maintenance Tech

By Joe Bousquin

Today’s maintenance teams need more tech, on top of mechanical skills 

Joanna Zabriskie thinks she’s finally cracked the code for getting her maintenance teams to willingly use technology in their jobs: Give them more of it. 

As President of Des Moines, Iowa-based BH Management, Zabriskie recently rolled out a mobile-based maintenance management system across the firm’s 90,000 units and 305 properties. 

Now, with all her maintenance techs plugged into the system via their smartphones, they’re automatically notified via geo-location when a work order comes in, can see which tools and supplies they need before they go to the apartment, and get instant feedback from residents via the app’s social media rating system when the job’s done.

“What’s really been interesting to see was the whole-hearted adoption of this platform by our maintenance teams,” Zabriskie says. “I’ll go out to a site and they’ll show me their phone and say, ‘Look at the stars I got from this resident for doing their work order.’ They love it.”

That’s a far cry from the experience many property firms experienced with their maintenance teams when applications first started making their way into the rental housing technology stack a decade or more ago. At that time, maintenance staff, who typically don’t sit in front of a computer all day, were often seen as the most resistant to adopting technology in their jobs. But Zabriskie and others say that’s noticeably changing today. 

“It used to be, we were pushing it on them. Now, they’re asking us for it,” says Cindy Clare, Chief Operating Officer at Greensboro, N.C.-based Bell Partners, which has 55,000 units under management. “We do have some very experienced maintenance staff who still sometimes struggle with it, but more and more they’re recognizing the benefits of it.”

More Tech for Techs

Zabriskie’s and Clare’s experiences with maintenance staff embracing more technology reflects the evolving nature of those positions – and apartment buildings in general -- today. Namely, while erstwhile technology laggards within the apartment industry, today’s maintenance technicians have embraced technology to help them service all the burgeoning gadgets that are showing up on their properties.

As today’s apartment buildings have become more complex, encompassing sophisticated HVAC systems, smart thermostats, door locks and lighting, as well as IoT-connected appliances, maintenance staff are leveraging what they can, on their phones, to keep pace. 

For example, 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. 

“They not only need to have experience with all the new technologies like smart locks, lighting systems and thermostats, but also with all the other devices that use control boards and networks to operate and communicate,” says Paul DeFruscio, Vice President, Assets, at the AVE division of Philadelphia-based Korman Communities, which operates 4,700 units in five U.S. markets, as well as London. “It’s just becoming the new normal. The maintenance team is increasingly partnering with the IT team.” 

But given the proliferation of training and how-to assets available via mobile platforms today, it’s also made specific knowledge more easily attainable. “Fixing a refrigerator today is a more in-depth process than it was five or 10 years ago,” DeFruscio says. “But on the other hand, these guys can look at their phones immediately and get an answer for something they may not know off the top of their heads.”

Hardest Position to Fill

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 the most challenging staffing area in the apartment industry today. 

“There is not another position in our world that’s more difficult to fill than a maintenance technician,” says Bob Gleason, Vice President, Operations Support and Business Analytics at Detroit-based Village Green, which operates 40,000 units across the U.S. “It’s extremely difficult to find and keep good talent in this area. So, when you do find someone who is good, it’s really important to focus on training and employee retention.”

At Village Green, that not only means an extensive onboarding experience complete with a Village Green branded backpack, tool belt with tools and personal protective equipment, it also includes training via Skype for its teams in various markets, as well as hands-on workshops in the field with vendors and suppliers to touch local equipment specific to their area.

“They 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,” Gleason says. “That hands-on training has been highly sought after by our people, rather than sitting in a classroom. They want more of it.”

More Tech, Fewer Techs

The flip side of using more technology for both maintenance and operations at properties is that fewer staff are needed to fulfill the same roles today. “A property we built 10 years ago needs four or five techs,” says DeFruscio. “But something we built in the last five years might need just two.”

The reason why is because automation is starting to do what it’s been promising for so long. For example, whereas in the past a maintenance tech would manually have to adjust thermostats in each common area of a property, today she can do so simply by hitting a button on her smartphone. “Everything’s automated,” DeFruscio says.

Not Just a Straight Computer Job

And yet, while using and leveraging technology is a bigger part of maintenance staffs’ jobs today, operators say emphasizing the use of technology in the position to attract younger workers to the role – a persistent challenge in any of the skilled trades – takes a delicate balance.

“When you say they’ll be using computers in their job, many applicants will see that and think they’re going to be sitting behind the desk, or they’re going to be in their own home on their couch with their computer, doing work,” Clare says. “But that’s clearly not what we do in the apartment industry, particularly in that maintenance position. It’s still a hands-on type of job. You’re still outside, repairing equipment and dealing with clogged sinks. So, yes, you need those computer skills. But you have to have those other mechanical skills, too.”

Character and Work Ethic Trump Tech Skills

With all that being the case, apartment pros who are leveraging technology to attract, retain and make their maintenance staff jobs’ easier say that the fundamentals of good customer service and attitude are the most important aspects to focus on when hiring for this position today. 

“Technical skills can be taught,” Gleason says. “What we hire for is work ethic and character. 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. So that’s the person we’re looking for.”

Sounds like the kind of maintenance tech who beams at the five-star rating he just received on his smartphone.