Electrical, HVAC, Plumbing, Management, Success Story

Peterman Brothers solves its own labor shortage by paying technicians to train at Top Tech Academy

Diana Lamirand
August 8th, 2023
10 Min Read

As contractors working in a problem-solving industry, Chad Peterman and his brother, Tyler, knew that, to keep their family-owned HVAC, plumbing, and electrical company growing and expanding, they needed a better solution for hiring and training new field technicians.

Like others in the trades, Peterman Brothers struggled with labor shortage issues, few qualified applicants, and a highly competitive job market. 

In 2020, they decided to solve their hiring problems by starting their own tech-feeder training school, Peterman Top Tech Academy. Students automatically become Peterman Brothers employees, and get paid while learning in the classroom and on the job. 

“We are currently on Class No. 5 for HVAC and plumbing maintenance technicians, and we just started classes on HVAC installs and electrical technicians last week,” said Chad Peterman, during a tour in February of the Peterman Brothers’ new headquarters and training facility in Greenwood, Indiana, 15 miles south of Indianapolis.  

The goal, Peterman says, is to simply help more people get interested in the trades, solve his labor shortage, and enable his company to service more customers.

So far, the tech-pay-to-train strategy appears to be working extremely well.

“We hired 300 employees last year,” says Alyssa Jones, Talent Acquisition Manager for Peterman Brothers. That allowed the company to double in size in just one year to a total of 600 employees at the end of 2022.

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15 to 20 new hires biweekly 

With more than 15,000 applications submitted organically in 2022, Jones said Peterman Brothers averaged about 15 to 20 new hires on a biweekly basis, or about 40 employees per month. The company also kept its turnover rate at 22%, compared to an industry average of about 50%.

 “We just hired 15 new employees in January, and we're on track to hire another 600 employees in 2023,” Jones says.

While others in the trades also hire and train their own apprentices, and a handful even operate their own training schools in other states, the Peterman strategy seems to accelerate the tech hiring process to a whole new level.

“The inquiries we get about Top Tech and how to do it are weekly, even daily,” Chad Peterman said. “I think it's the next wave, but you also have to be in a position as a company to be able to take on that work. I mean, you're in the millions of dollars to put this thing on, but it's the only way that we can pump out techs as fast as we can.”

How Peterman Top Tech Academy works

Since October 2020, Peterman Top Top Academy has successfully trained and graduated five classes of maintenance technicians in HVAC and plumbing. This year, the academy began offering its first tech classes in electrical maintenance and HVAC installation.

Top Tech students—also known as Peterman Brothers employees—incur no tuition costs, get paid $17 an hour to attend school and train on the job, and qualify for all company benefits (PTO, holiday pay, etc.) and insurance after their first 90 days. They also must be at least 18 years of age, and make an 18-month commitment to the company. 

Once they graduate from Top Tech Academy in just a few short months, they already have a full-time employer who guarantees a 40-hour work week for every technician. According to Top Tech Recruiter Kathrine (Kat) Meyers, the percentage of graduates from the most recent HVAC and plumbing maintenance classes is 86% (37 out of 43).

“When I was in high school, we were pushed to go to a four-year college, and they didn't really emphasize the trades,” Meyers said, explaining why there's a shortage of plumbers and HVAC technicians to service our homes. “That's one of the reasons why Peterman Brothers created this program. It’s to help individuals break into the trades, but also still be able to continue to service our customers on a daily basis. And plus, we want to train them properly.”

Chad Peterman says Top Tech is in the process of creating its own curriculum with its own trainers and educators, but for now they rely on the Nexstar Network's NexTech Academy online programming to teach the four tech classes. Each operates on a rotating schedule throughout the year, including:

  • 2 semesters each year for HVAC and plumbing maintenance techs 

  • 3 semesters each year for electrical maintenance techs

  • 4 semesters each year for HVAC install techs

Each class operates a little differently.

  • HVAC maintenance: Spring semester, five months; fall semester, seven months. Students spend the first two months in the classroom, followed by two months in the field working alongside seasoned technicians, then a final month in the classroom for advanced training. (Fall semester includes additional field training)

  • Plumbing maintenance: Spring and fall semesters, six months each. Students spend half their time in the classroom and the other half out in the field. Peterman Brothers also enrolls each student in Mechanical Skills, a state-approved trade school in Indianapolis, where apprentice plumbers must attend a four-year program to earn their plumber journeyman license. Peterman employees continue to work and learn on the job while attending this school one night per month, Meyers says.

  • Electrical maintenance: Current spring semester class, six months. Students spend the first three months in the classroom, then three months out in the field. The first class for these technicians started in February.

  • HVAC install techs: Current spring semester is one month of classroom instruction, then students rotate in and out of the field at their own pace until they’re ready to go off on their own. The first class for these technicians also started in February.

“With HVAC install, they always work as a team, an install lead and an install apprentice,” Meyers said. “When they go out in the field, we will bring our current install apprentices that are in the field back into the classroom, so they can start install lead classes, where they learn to be that head person on the install team. It's back and forth the whole year for that class.”

The process simply helps to train higher-quality crews the way Peterman Brothers prefers its techs to be trained, but in less time, Peterman says.

“In theory, we should be able to create eight crews (of HVAC install techs) every eight weeks,” he says. “It'll be a little bit more drawn out, because they're not going to be one step from a lead in four weeks. We know that, but we've got enough crews that we can kind of do a flip-flop game on that.”

Top Tech students learn a new trade, start a new career

Pumping out new field technicians in less than six months does not shortchange the training they receive in the classroom, the lab, or out in the field. In fact, techs receive more intensive hands-on training, support, and mentoring throughout the process—and beyond.

“You're hearing, you're seeing, and you're doing. You never stop learning,” said 41-year-old Kari Clendenning, one of the first plumbing maintenance techs to graduate from Peterman Top Tech Academy in 2021. “There's always something to learn in plumbing, which is what I love about it. My biggest regret about getting into this trade is that I didn't do it earlier.”

Growing up in Lafayette, Ind., Clendenning graduated from high school, then went to work for a local factory that manufactured steering components for semis. She worked at the factory for 18 years, mainly as a shipping and receiving supervisor. Later, as a prototype coordinator, she decided it was time to try something new and explore her interest in the trades. 

“I ran across this opportunity to become a plumbing apprentice with Peterman, going through the Top Tech Academy. And I said, ‘Man, this checks every single box,’” said Clendenning, who was 38 at the time, with a well-established job. “I had a lot of boxes I needed to check before I was going to make a change. 

“I said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ And it was the best decision I ever made. Plumbing is a really cool trade,” said the now-full-time Peterman Brothers plumbing service technician. She is in year two of Mechanical Skills’ plumbing school to earn her journeyman license.

The rotation of classroom, lab, and field work make it easy for anyone to learn a new trade, especially people like Clendenning who like to “hear, see, and do.”

“We were learning about the basics of plumbing in the classroom, then we'd go out to the lab and take things apart and put them back together, and apply what we were learning in the classroom. Then, you go out in the field and you're riding along with techs, who are doing all the stuff that you're learning about in the classroom and lab. It brings it all together,” she said.

Upon graduation, Clendenning initially worked as a “drain tech” for Peterman Brothers, or the tech who answered calls for clogged drains and maintenance checks. Today, she’s a plumbing service tech who can answer any call for service, except gas leak tests.

As a female plumbing technician working in a male-dominated industry, the wife and mother said overall, she’s had a very positive experience working for Peterman Brothers. She and her wife, Jen, moved from Lafayette to Indianapolis last June with their 6-year-old son, and Clendenning easily moved into a new plumbing service tech role at the Greenwood location.

“Probably two or three times a week, I get into conversations with homeowners about being a woman out in the field, and they all love it,” Clendenning says. Even so, she readily admits to calling for assistance once in a while “to get more muscles on a job.” But that doesn’t discourage her, she said. “There are guys who need to make those same phone calls, sometimes.”

Now that she’s mastered the art of starting a new career, Clendenning says her goal is to learn everything she can about plumbing, and one day get her plumbing contractor’s license.

“I want to be the tech that people lean on someday,” she says. “If somebody is having an issue, they can call and say, ‘Hey, I ran into something I've never really seen before. Can you kind of walk me through it?’ I want to be that tech.”

And she’s also offered to share her success story through any Peterman Brothers outreach at local high schools.

“I would love to be a part of that,” she says. “If I would've been introduced to the trades then, and learned about Top Tech Academy or other programs like that, I think my life would've taken a totally different path.”

People helping people: No trade experience required

Interestingly enough, the Peterman Top Tech Academy prefers student applicants with no background in the trades.

“We’re looking for people who don’t have any experience whatsoever in how to be a technician,” Peterman says. “It's people who have a background in helping people,” who tend to excel in the program. 

Take Cheyan Clements, for example. The 21-year-old Fayetteville resident grew up on a farm and enjoyed working with her hands, but worked as a water meter reader and knew little about the trades. Clements, a self-described “people person” who enjoys solving problems for others, joined Top Tech Academy last April and graduated as an HVAC maintenance tech in August.

“I got employee of the month in September for my branch, and they promoted me to service technician in January,” says Clements, who works out of the Bloomington Peterman Brothers branch. “Peterman is also offering more classes to further your education to help make your job easier. And they're paying you to do it.” 

Meyers speaks proudly of Clements’ fast track from maintenance tech to service tech.

“Cheyan came through Top Tech, and she was underestimated in a lot of ways,” Meyers said. “But she graduated as a maintenance tech, and she was the first one in her class out of 15. She spent maybe three months in maintenance and she's already a service tech. I mean she's busting it out, and she's amazing.”

Peterman says Clements was also one of the first service techs in Bloomington to sign up for Level 2 Tech Training, a new continuing education class that begins in April.

“If you just train them, kick them out into the department, and don't ever give them any more training, then you're going to have a bunch of maintenance techs but you don't have any service guys,” Peterman said. “What we've learned over the years is that Top Tech never ends. Once you get in the program, there's always training that needs to be had.”

Both Clendenning and Clements say Peterman Brothers’ willingness to invest in a training facility like Top Tech Academy, and to continue to provide ongoing training to its employees, makes them feel valued. 

“They do seem to really care about the employees, their techs, and their customers,” Clements said. “And if you're worried about not having any knowledge, don't worry about that. They will do whatever they can to get you where you need to be. So, if you're wanting to take that leap, take that leap. Don't hesitate. Just do it.”

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