From The Editor | February 27, 2018

Q&A: Diversifying Your Field Service Workforce

A conversation with Steve Dreifuerst, U.S. field service manager for AF solutions at healthcare solutions company Medtronic.

Field Service Workforce

Steve Dreifuerst is the U.S. field service manager for AF solutions at healthcare solutions company Medtronic. Dreifuerst has a team of ten field service engineers (FSE) that travel across the country to service more than 800 large, capital equipment units. In talking with Dreifuerst, one of the things that stood out to me is the effort he’s put into building a diverse field workforce.

While the field service role has evolved in recent years, Dreifuerst and I discussed the fact that there is still a major perception issue – field service isn’t necessarily at the top of the list of many younger workers’ “dream jobs.” It takes effort to overcome some of the misconceptions that exist about the job, and Dreifuerst is working to do just that. Here he shares his insights on how a diverse field service workforce is valuable, and his success in building and managing a diverse team.

Nicastro: Explain your quest to build a diverse field service workforce, and why you think doing so is valuable for a field service organization.

Dreifuerst: The quest to diversify the field service workforce is really borne out of three different areas.  First is the stated goal by Medtronic to increase the percentage of women in management roles. I feel that I can help this by bringing women into historically male dominated groups and work very closely on career development with them. This includes exposure to experiences and mentors that can promote their career aspirations. I do this for the career development plans with everyone on my team, but it is particularly important for women and minorities in the STEM fields.

The second is the strength that a diverse working group, including gender, nationality, age, and background, brings to my field service team. As we look to enact better and more efficient ways to communicate both internally and with our customers, new ideas and different methods will need to be explored. When your team brings a greater breadth of experience and viewpoints to the table, the discussions and results are more robust.

Lastly, and less noble, is the reality that if you restrict the diversity of your candidate pool, you may be settling for who is available rather than the best candidate. The team suffers, and you could be potentially exposing your organization to discrimination lawsuits.

Nicastro: In your opinion, how has the field service engineer role changed in the past year or two and has this made diversifying the workforce easier or harder?

Dreifuerst: In my opinion, the role of the field service engineer and the way that we use it has become less of a break/fix person and more evolved into a true member of the customer-facing team. For that reason, my team may remain on site beyond the repair time to attend the actual patient case, so the physician and the rest of the lab is comfortable with the work that has just been completed. This also gives us a chance to talk to the customer about the value of the service. Each customer touchpoint is extremely valuable for a relationship to evolve and the service team becomes part of the company consultants. 

I’m not sure if this has made diversifying the workforce harder or easier, but it has made it more of a requirement.  Physicians, lab staff, purchasing agents, and department managers cut across many different ethnic, gender, age, and background barriers so it should follow that the people that interact with them do as well.

Nicastro: What would you list as the biggest misperceptions about the FSE role?

Dreifuerst: The first misperception is that this is merely a wrench turning job. There is a lot more to it than that. They must be good listeners to gain a better understanding of the scenario where something didn’t perform to the expectation of the user, able to analyze the situation and prepare and communicate a plan of action. This instills confidence in the customer’s eyes and gives you a blueprint to the resolution.

Second is the misperception that it is a dead-end career move. As I had mentioned earlier, employee development and the willingness to look at those goals objectively will make FSE roles a jump start to a career that could include being a Clinical Specialist, Sales, R & D, Reliability, or Quality. My team has been very successful in growing beyond a field service engineer for those that have desired that change. The key was to map out those goals early on so that continual progress could be made which is essential for the job satisfaction these employees are typically looking for. Others, however, do want to make field service their career and for them development is still important — it just takes a different path than the others. Involvement in department projects, exposure to day to day management, and exposure to support departments such as Finance, Marketing, and Sales can all provide meaningful challenges and satisfaction.

Nicastro: You mentioned that half of your workforce is 48 or older, and the other half is under 30. What challenges exist in recruiting millennial FSEs?

Dreifuerst: The first challenge is just getting them to apply for open positions. For some reason there seems to be more glamour around R & D positions and FSE is very low on the career pole. For this reason, we have to be thoughtful about recruitment into these positions. I have had some success reaching out to university student-based professional groups that already have events such as industry roundtables, vendor exhibits, etc. as a place to interact with millennials. It is an opportunity to speak with them face to face and explain what we do, how we develop employees, and the autonomy we provide, which can be very rewarding. Of course, the salary and benefits must be competitive, but you must also show that they can have weeks with both work time and free time that is not work related. Formerly we may have called that work-life balance, but it goes beyond that now to include how we are giving back to the community.    

We alluded to the second misperception earlier that field service is a dead-end job. It can be a springboard to a great career if the development is done correctly and all parties have a vested interest in looking beyond the first three to five working years. Many of the millennials like the idea of the travel involved with FSE work when they first hear about the job, but that wears thin after a while. There must be continued job satisfaction beyond the next service call, flight, or hotel stay.

Nicastro: Thirty percent of your field force is women. What are some of the ways in which you’ve been successful attracting/recruiting women to the position?

Dreifuerst: We have made it a point of emphasis to recruit women for our positions even though it may not have been on their radar at the beginning. It helps that my Senior Director is a very successful woman and typically accompanies me on these recruiting visits. The opportunity for the recruits to see her success in the organization and the conversations we have around career development and mentorship can really tip the scales in our favor. Medtronic is also very active in Women’s Network membership, so we always highlight some of those events.

Nicastro: We discussed the fact that one of the biggest differences between older FSEs and millennial FSEs is the differences in communication. What differences have you noticed, and how do you accommodate?

Dreifuerst: Millennials are comfortable having conversations through a text and email. Unfortunately, many of our customers are not millennials so they prefer or even demand a phone call with an email to follow up for confirmation. The older FSEs typically have no issue with the phone calls since that was the only communication tool they had when they started their field service career. For them the follow-up email confirmation is the item that gets missed more often. Millennials often need to develop their comfort using the phone to interact with customers and have few issues with email communication. To accommodate these varying strengths, we’ve professed over-communication for everyone on the team.  That way the customer, both internal and external, will receive the communication they require. 

Nicastro: Having a diverse workforce must present challenges when it comes to how to effectively motivate, incentivize, and manage those workers. How do you handle this?

Dreifuerst: First, you must get to know your employees and try to determine, with their help, what really piques their interest. This will provide some guidance on ways that you can motivate and incentivize them, and it is rarely money. Sometimes it is difficult for an employee to express what motivates them because they may not even know it on the surface. 

Second, reach out to your Human Resources group and dig deeper into the options that might be available to you for rewards. When I first started at Medtronic, I thought there was very limited flexibility in my options but once I looked further, I found a large array of choices. These included non-monetary “Thank You” notes that are posted, participation in projects both within and outside of the business unit, one to three-day training sessions on a subject of interest such as project management, fun events such as a product showcase booth, etc. 

Finally, since my team is remote from any corporate building, we all constantly stay in communication with each other. It helps to provide a sense of team and solidifies the relationship to be able to ask for help when needed. I make sure the annual performance review isn’t the only time I talk to my team members.