High-Tech Buildings Pose Service Challenges
It is already hard to find quality service techs, but the high-tech systems in new buildings are making the problem even more difficult.
New, modern Class-A apartments being delivered in metros areas across the country come equipped with high-tech HVAC, security systems and even amenities.
“These developments are becoming much more sophisticated and require more qualified and highly trained service associates,” Gables Residential CEO Sue Ansel says.
High-tech security systems and even the more technologically advanced parking garages require different expertise. This has changed the game for some maintenance technicians.
“The education and experience levels of our maintenance technician that we required 10 years ago for a suburban, stick-frame, surface-parking property are very different than what we need for these complex podium, wrap, mid-rise and high-rise developments,” says Greg Mutz, CEO and Founder of AMLI Residential. “These are complicated buildings and the systems are much more demanding and technology based”
At a typical garden community, a technician can make a change to a HVAC system and it only affects one apartment, according to Paul Rhodes, National Maintenance and Safety Instructor at NAA. But in newer buildings, where all of the systems rely on each other for information, efficiency standards and status, having one apartment system fail or change can affect other systems. The result is a shorter life span for the equipment, decreased efficiencies and increased operational, repair and maintenance costs.
Some of the complication is simply a result of high-construction. Mutz says 100 percent of AMLI developments have elevators, which was not the case in the past.
“Elevators need a of special expertise to keep running,” Mutz says. “They are critically important to moving people vertically in a structure and to generating high review satisfaction scores.”
Simple maintenance is even more complicated. Wood Partners recently opened a brand-new building on Chicago’s South Loop. Its Executive Vice President of Operations Steve Hallsey counted at least 55 different surfaces and materials in the structure that needed to be cleaned. Amazing, but this is not the most difficult aspect of operations.
“Today’s chiller systems are so sophisticated that they are using heat pumps to facilitate the efficiency of the chiller system,” Hallsey says. “It is becoming a much more complicated business.”
But in an already-tight labor market, this added complication only makes finding qualified maintenance techs more difficult.
“The maintenance worker is the most difficult position I have to fill,” Hallsey says. “There are so many other opportunities for good maintenance people. It has become exceptionally more difficult to find good quality individuals who will work for what we can pay them.”
The construction industry remains attractive for maintenance technicians who want to earn a couple more dollars an hour. Commercial buildings also are a lure.
The qualifications needed to maintain sophisticated properties are the same needed by office buildings and retail buildings, making the ability to attract and retain maintenance staff a true “pain point,” says Ansel.
The talent pool is, quite simply, thinner, for technicians in these new communities.
The necessary know-how as well as the additional training and classroom learning that is required further decreases the number of people in the technician work force who can perform in-house upkeep of the systems, Rhodes says.
“You have to go and source education that is not necessarily on-the-job-training in some instances,” Ansel says.
Hallsey says a technological maintenance position is more attractive to some who find that “more advanced and a more viable career than slinging on maintenance belt,” he says.
The problem is that there is not a “cookie cutter” training process to educate technicians about these systems, according to Rhodes. Instead, training can come from a hodge-podge of manufacturer seminars, trade/technical or community school or even college degree programs.
Without enough qualified workers, individual apartment owners should plan on increasing their budgets to attract and retain the service technicians they need.
Rhodes says he sees the pay rate beginning to creep up slowly for maintenance workers all over the country, but the increase is slightly faster at communities with these sophisticated functions.
“Unfortunately, in a lot of markets, the pay scale for this type of worker is still below jobs in other industries requiring similar knowledge,” Rhodes says.