Management • Business Tips • Technician Tips • 60 minutes

Change Management: How to Retain Talent in the Trades

January 12, 2021

Episode Overview

“An imperfect plan executed swiftly is better than a perfect plan that never gets off the shelf.”

— Eddie McFarlane

Eddie McFarlane didn’t set out to be a trainer, yet after 14 years at Haller Enterprises he’s advanced up the ladder to become Vice President of Learning and Development. Based in south-central Pennsylvania, Haller has more than 400 employees and more than 300 techs out in trucks performing heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing services. 

McFarlane zooms in on identifying objectives, methods of learning and the importance of diversity.

Here are Eddie McFarlane’s top tips for training home services staff:

Even trainers have to be trained.

The training McFarlane does has evolved into business development, but his methodology had to be developed on the fly. “The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Neil Boars defines an expert as someone who has made all the mistakes possible in a very narrow field,” he says. “That was me, and I’m lucky I was with a great team that was vested in me succeeding.”

Good training involves structure and application.

“With each department—whether it’s sales, commercial sales or service—I go in and we identify our objectives and then we put a structure in place with the team,” McFarlane says. “We look at resources and our budget. At some point, somebody has to figure out how to hit it. So that leads you to the training—through structure and the application of training to hit goals.”

Training needs to be applicable to the real world. 

At some point during training you have to get out of the classroom and start doing what you’re learning, McFarlane says. “At a certain point, an imperfect plan executed swiftly is better than a perfect plan that never gets off the shelf,” he says. “Eventually, you iterate and you continue to just move the ball forward.”

The most brash techs may also be the most insecure. 

McFarlane says that what may seem like a lack of sales could really be a lack of technical competency that someone may be reluctant or embarrassed to admit. “Technicians are famous for being simultaneously the most brash, loud, confident people, and at the same time the most insecure,” McFarlane says. Managers should be aware of this duality.

The role of the tech has changed.

People get into the trades to fix things and work with their hands, but McFarlane says the role has changed over the last 20 years. “Back in the day, if you had a universal gas valve, some thermocouples and some belts, you could work on pretty much everything,” he says. Today, McFarlane says techs need to know about building envelopes, physics, low voltage and WiFi. “And by the way, we also need to talk to people about money, which is something that most adults are uncomfortable having conversations around,” he says.

An organization’s top job is to hire great people.

“If you hire great people, then most misunderstandings or frustration simply come from a gap of understanding,” McFarlane says. If that’s the only problem, great employees will learn to speak the company’s language and gain context, and logic will do the rest of the work, he says.

People crave clarity. 

We can and should be transparent with people, McFarlane says. “We say we want things, but when you look at what people actually follow, it’s clarity,” he says. “Brené Brown has this great quote about clarity being kindness. When you have those really transformative conversations, I think you’re being helpful with people. But listen, it's not an easy switch, and it takes practice.”

Yes, there’s a labor shortage. Deal with it. 

McFarlane says there was a labor shortage 20 years ago, just like today. The biggest difference? Everybody knows it now. “We need to understand that it’s not bad, it’s not good, it just is,” he says. “We can bemoan the fact that it’s tough, but what separates great organizations, is working on the problem.”

Get comfortable with diversity. 

McFarlane cites a McKinsey study, organizations that are more diverse and inclusive outperform other companies by 35 percent. “Diversity is the answer to the skilled trade gap—I’m planting a flag on this,” McFarlane says. “We need to get comfortable with it, and not have an emotional reaction to words like diversity and inclusion.”  

Recommend research and reading

QBQ! The Question Behind the Question, by John G. Miller

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Toolbox for the Trades is a podcast where top service professionals share the tips, tricks, and tactics they use to succeed in their industry. Hosted by Jackie Aubel, this podcast is brought to you by ServiceTitan—the leading home and commercial field service software.

Episodes will feature stories and strategies to help contractors grow and scale their service business.

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