Article | December 6, 2019

How To Hire Technicians Who Won't Be Displaced By Automation

Field Service Technicians

Tech-savvy techs sounds more like a tongue twister than a business trend but it’s definitely something you should consider if you want to future-proof your field service business.

The truth is that automation is already here and, as an example, it’s affecting manufacturing and retail industries in much the same way as the industrial revolution affected agriculture. This means that owners and shareholders should be in close contact with their operations managers, office managers, recruiters, etc., and devise a strategy that will protect every area of the business from any potential threats.

Recruitment and retainment in the field service industry has had its ups and downs, with the latter being the most recent trend. According to The Service Council, almost 70% of surveyed organizations are apprehensive about their field service workforce aging and the fact that not enough young people are going into the trades to replace them. Coupled with the effect of automation, it makes for a good incentive for companies to rethink the way they approach recruitment and focus more on retainment to maximise the efficiency of their existing employees.

A holistic approach is the best solution to hiring technicians that won’t be displaced by emerging technologies. To instill a healthy company culture and make sure the best employees stay rather than go to the competition (and everyone is competition in this scenario), office managers and operations managers need to acknowledge that employees are customers too. For them to buy into the culture, managers need to ensure that it’s a culture worth buying into. But this starts with the recruitment process itself, so the first step should be:

1.Recruit for soft skills.

The traditional approach some operations managers take is to take in the most experienced applicants, but sometimes that doesn’t translate into a successful hire and they’re left wondering why. The answer is that:

Skills can be taught. Personality can’t.

What this means is that the ideal candidate isn’t simply someone who’s been in the field service business for 15 years, but someone with a natural understanding of great customer service, patience, the ability to explain complex matters in simple terms, and (most of all) someone who has a desire to learn and improve continuously.

One simple way to illustrate the value of soft skills is to imagine a scenario where a company’s best plumber went to a customer’s home, did a simple job of changing some pipes, then headed home while the office manager had to deal with a 2-star review. The reason for it? Despite a quick mention of great technical skills, most of the disgruntlement was about how the plumber didn’t bother to say hello, acted like the simple job wasn’t worth their time, then left without cleaning up. If years of experience has taught them nothing but technical skills, they’ll continue to get 2-star reviews which will put the company’s brand behind that of more personable, albeit less experienced competitors.

These soft skills are also what will keep technicians from being replaced with automated solutions. When it comes to mundane, repetitive tasks, no one can compete with software, but as soon as empathy and personality come into play, AI simply isn’t there yet. At the same time, employees that manage to remain curious and eager to learn throughout their professional lives will be certain to adapt to new tools and use automated solutions to their own advantage. For example, the right plumbing tech will look into VR courses to learn new welding techniques, rather than let a welding robot replace them.

2.Know how to interview field service technicians.

The reason why some operations managers go the way of the previous example is because technical skills are easily quantifiable. You can compare levels of experience or professional qualifications but you can’t measure and compare friendliness or curiosity - both skills  are equally valuable.

This is where targeted field service technician interview questions come in. In addition to the classic “Where do you see yourself in 5 years”, a good operations manager should also ask character questions to gauge how the candidate would react in various situations.

An easy one is asking about an instance where they had to deal with an angry customer and how they proceeded to appease them. Additionally, the candidate should be able to talk about failures and what they’ve learned from their mistakes just as much as about their successes. According to a Glassdoor list of the oddest interviews, some recruiters also pose a seemingly nonsensical question meant to assess a candidate’s thinking process.

Now, it’s not recommended to ask a technician in which direction a hot dog splits when it expands, like SpaceX does, but challenging them to convince the recruiter of something hard to believe (“Convince me Elvis Presley is still alive” was featured in a G2 article on recruiting technicians) can be a good way to see if they’re able to stay calm while explaining something that’s difficult to accept. This ability will certainly come in handy when customers dispute the cost of parts or service.

Following up on the previous point, soon enough field service tech interviews will include questions on how the candidate would deal with new software being introduced at work, or how they feel about learning new skills outside their area of expertise (e.g. an HVAC technicians getting training on selling techniques so they can better upsell customers).

Having the right interview questions will be a guiding beacon for operations managers who understand the power of hiring the right personality.

3.Understand the opportunity in training.

A 2018 LinkedIn study found that 98% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their training and development. The reason why automation is seen as an ominous trend for employment is because of the fear that it will take jobs away. However, the current consensus is that automation will change jobs more than make them redundant. Similar to how the automobile changed a carriage driver into a car driver, the jobs of the future will require employees to adapt to new environments.

This means that the soft skills mentioned before will come in handy, especially curiosity and desire to learn. At the same time, operations managers will benefit from the fact that learning opportunities grant employees the possibility to have an upward career journey while staying in the same position. For the field service industry, where technician positions don’t come with a clear corporate structure, it means that growth can be associated with learning new skills rather than going up a proverbial rung.

Training also makes effective use of existing employees, boosting both skills and morale. For example, during yearly reviews, managers can sit down with employees and focus on assessing the work done but also exploring their wishes and goals for the next year.

Asking field service technicians if there’s anything they’d like to learn more about - even if it has nothing to do with plumbing or fire and security - can lead to surprising results and reveal abilities that were being squandered. A great example is an HVAC company looking to improve their social media strategy only to discover that one of their techs is very much at ease in front of the camera and can help develop their YouTube channel.

4.Keep employees in the loop.

One major reason why automation is misunderstood as a negative trend is that employers are not transparent about their plans and leave employees to draw their own conclusions.

Encouraged by fear mongering news coverage, they are naturally alarmed by any mention of digitization, let alone automation (they’re not the same thing!). This, in turn, breeds a culture of fear in the workplace that isn’t conducive to providing high quality service and a positive customer experience.

The best way to avoid this is simply to communicate with employees, improve transparency, and ensure that they feel consulted when it comes to management decisions that will significantly affect their work lives. When recruiting, managers can inform prospects that they will be expected to keep up with industry changes and be willing to experiment with new tools, be it a drill or a software. For this to happen, every stakeholder needs to acknowledge that automation will not make them redundant. On the contrary, harnessing its power will lead to increased productivity and fewer minute, repetitive tasks.

Good communication is always a challenge and finding a balance between steering the ship as an effective manager and allowing employees to voice their opinions. However, hiring the right people in the first place definitely helps.

To reiterate a point, you can teach skills but you can’t teach personality, so hiring with an eye for flexible and adaptable candidates can work out far better than simply judging on experience alone.

The Takeaway

All in all, the field service industry stands to gain a lot from automation, as long as managers and owners keep an open mind and are ready to take chances.

The old adage “nothing worth doing is ever easy,” applies here, so understanding the state of the workforce and how competition can be empowered by one’s inaction is not something anyone can do. This being said, investing in new tools, both physical and digital, hiring the right people, and approaching the field service industry like the fast-paced entity it is, will only lead to sustained business growth.