Finding Solutions to the Maintenance Quandary
Property management firms are turning to training, among other solutions, to help fill the gap.
At this point, we all know what happened to residential construction jobs in 2007 and 2008.
From April 2006 to January 2011 the construction industry lost 2.3 million employees—200,000 more people than live in Houston.
When the construction market tanked, some of those workers entered the apartment industry to work in maintenance, according to Chris Pilato, Vice President of Construction and Development for CAPREIT. Others moved to other industries, retired or left the United States altogether.
Now, that development is booming, some of these maintenance technicians are moving back to higher-paying construction jobs. For apartment developers, that is a good thing. But for property managers, it presents a challenge.
On the West Coast, Vanessa Siebern, a Vice President at FPI Management, an apartment management firm in California talks with construction companies and she says contractors are turning down work because they do not have enough labor. “You can swing a hammer and make $20 to $30 an hour,” Siebern says. “Our entry-level salary is definitely lower than that.”
At Fogelman Management Group, Chief Administrative Officer Melissa Smith, also faces outside competition for maintenance personnel. “The HVAC companies are killing us,” Smith says. “They are hiring anyone they can and getting them certified. With so much development going on, anyone that can find a skilled worker is hiring them and paying them a lot more money.”
While construction and HVAC companies are often able to offer maintenance technicians more money, they are not in the only threat. In areas where a lot of apartments are being delivered, management companies are poaching talent from their competitors.
“There have been a bunch of units delivered in most of the markets we are active in,” says Dominic Rechichi, a Principal at Pensam Development. “As these properties are built, there is a demand for quality maintenance supervisors and maintenance technicians. The field is spread thin.”
The tactics for retaining and finding maintenance talent are about as lengthy as the number of threats faced. For starters, keeping technicians engaged through education is one way to fend off of competitors.
Hiring new maintenance technicians can be a challenge because there are not as many applicants as there are for onsite positions, according to Kevin Smith, Director of Recruiting for Camden.
“The issue with maintenance is that we receive about one-third of the applicants that we do for office jobs,” Kevin Smith says. “I think it is because a lot of these guys do not have a social media presence. They are not well versed using on the Internet.”
One solution is finding maintenance technicians within your organization. “We would rather train than hire because hiring is difficult,” Pilato says. “For us, it has been easier finding someone we can train to do the job we need.”
The problem with training, of course, is that you could be improving an employee’s resume and they eventually leave you. “That is something we are cognizant of when we are training for air-conditioning certification and project managers,” Pilato says. “If you train someone to be HVAC-certified, what is to stop him or her from going to a company that pays a couple of dollars more?”
CAPREIT understands that its wages need to be competitive while providing a great work environment to retain these employees. For other firms, outside-the-box solutions offer promise. Cortland Partners is using construction teams to help supplement its maintenance staff.
“For properties under construction or in renovation, our teams would take over the make-ready process for immediate move-ins, which allows the facilities team to focus on residents’ needs,” says Clay Landers, EVP of Construction at Cortland.
When all else fails, sometimes it is best to outsource hiring.
The most difficult position for Western National to hire is the Porter position. As such, Western National has begun an initiative with a third-party service to replace its open porter and housekeeper positions at some communities. “Recently, because of the lack of candidates that we have seen, it has benefited us,” says Scott Wickman, Regional Vice President at Western National.