The Value of Structured Maintenance Training

Although many apartment companies are reluctant to send their maintenance technicians to classes, the payoff can be well worth it.

Relying on supervisors to train your maintenance staff is not necessarily the best strategy. One apartment company was noticing that it was using a large number of a very expensive air-conditioning part. This was happening over a long period of time across a number of its communities. Eventually, the company traced the large expense to locations where one very skilled maintenance technician had worked. It turned out the technician had learned the wrong information from a supervisor, and then taught it to every employee with whom he had worked.

This case study illustrates just one of the ways in which relying on informal hands-on training, rather than structured classroom teaching, can result in the conveyance of incomplete, incorrect, or outdated information. Yet the fact is that today, in the average apartment community, the only education maintenance technicians receive is on-the-job, watch-and-copy, and possibly, hit-and-miss instruction from other technicians.

Because of high turnover among maintenance technicians, many apartment companies are reluctant to send their maintenance workers to classes, because they think it may not be worth the expense since “they will leave anyway.” Another reason may be that apartment managers think they can’t afford to lose the precious technicians, who have a packed schedule every day, to a few hours or days of classroom instruction.

However, Maureen Lambe, executive vice president of the National Apartment Association Education Institute (NAAEI), says, “If I was given the opportunity to get on a soapbox in front of the apartment industry, it would be to say to apartment managers and regional managers, ‘train your maintenance team members. Suck it up and let them leave the apartment community for training. It may be inconvenient for a few days, but the benefits can transform your community.’”

Lambe points out the irony that the apartment industry has an abundant focus on training leasing consultants, managers and assistant managers, but not the engineers who make the repairs and ensure the technical systems of the building are in working order. Lambe and others from the NAAEI argue that submitting maintenance staff to a formal classroom program that imparts a comprehensive curriculum is “the best investment an apartment company can make,” as it can reduce resident turnover, maintenance employee turnover and various maintenance expense.

Pablo Paz, national maintenance safety instructor for NAAEI’s Certificate for Apartment Maintenance Technicians (CAMT) program, has over 20 years of prior apartment maintenance and six years of maintenance training experience. He explains that when the most effective and/or cost efficient techniques are not known, labor, time and materials can be wasted. These techniques are learned in a class with a good curriculum.

Paz cites an example that drives home the point that properly trained technicians can lead to real dollars and cents saved in the bottom line. “In California, we had a technician who was being taught appliance repair. His community had 14 refrigerators that were about to be thrown out because the compressors were out of order.” The technician subsequently learned that start relays switch the compressors on and off, and that those parts need to be checked. “It turns out that for the 14 refrigerators that were about to be thrown away, all he needed was a $10 spare part,” Paz recalls.

Training programs available

Apartment companies wanting to send their maintenance personnel to classes have a range of options. NAAEI’s CAMT program was recently accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Local chapters of trade associations also provide maintenance technician programs. The maintenance training supplied by local NAA chapters, for example, follow the CAMT curriculum. Technical high schools and colleges also have maintenance programs, although unlike CAMT, these programs may be geared to real estate in general and not the apartment industry in particular.

The curriculum of the CAMT certification program, for example, consists of two non-technical online classes, “Inside the Apartment Business” and “People, Projects and Profits,” followed by five technical classes covering repair and maintenance for the range of apartment systems: electrical; plumbing; Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning; appliances; and interior and exterior. The five technical courses consist of hands-on classroom training followed by online practice scenarios.

All maintenance technicians, whether beginner or veteran, can be submitted to the same maintenance training class. “There is value in the program for everyone, whether they have six years or 30 years on the job,” says Lambe. Paz notes that even very experienced maintenance veterans can have outdated information. “We have found technicians in the business for 10 years who are lacking key skills. They are doing what they learned 10 years ago that is not up to date,” says Paz. Additionally, there are a number of regulatory issues; for example, all maintenance technicians need to stay on top of, and be continually trained for, the use of refrigerants in HVAC systems, as well as mold, asbestos and lead-based paint.

Many larger companies sponsor in-house maintenance classes. Jim Mitchell, director of maintenance and purchasing for Dominium, believes in providing formal training for all technicians. At Dominium, maintenance workers are mandated to attend two classes: a safety class covering the proper use of equipment, and a general maintenance class. The reason for making classes compulsory, says Mitchell, is to ensure that the maintenance technicians’ knowledge base uniformly meets the company’s minimum standards. Rare, says Mitchell, is the maintenance technician who is so knowledgeable that he or she is exempt from Dominium’s training classes. “By nature, the business is decentralized. Training becomes a critical piece in controlling what’s going on out there,” Mitchell adds.

Analysis forms an important subject

One of the most important skills taught in maintenance classes may be diagnostics, says Paz. The ability to quickly and correctly diagnose problems can make the world of difference in terms of time saved and customer satisfaction. Often, technicians spend a lot of time trying to figure out the cause of problems by trial and error, says Paz. With the correct diagnostic skills, they can quickly make the repair and move on to the next project, with less chance for callbacks.

Additionally, Mitchell adds that hands-on training is by far the more important component of classroom training. “There is no substitute for making mistakes and breaking things and learning from that,” he notes. Indeed, adults may respond best to experiential learning, and value, in particular, learning from their peers, says Lambe. For example, the basics of plumbing and electricity would be taught so that students understand how things work. Then, the student will break into groups to create recommendations on how to solve a certain problem. “Everyone is participating and learning, and that is key with adult learners,” says Lambe.

The economics of education

Some managers reason that it may be uneconomical to pay for the training of maintenance personnel, but Paz argues that it can be worthwhile to send to training workers in a field that is characterized by high turnover. “It’s a myth that technicians will leave if you train them. When they obtain training, they feel the company cares for them, and they have a lower tendency to leave,” says Paz. “Many employees quit their jobs because no one cares about them.”

If apartment managers are still concerned about losing their investment if the trainee should subsequently depart the company, they can always institute a policy under which the technician agrees to stay at the company for a minimum of one year after receiving the certification. One year, says Paz, is the amount of time it takes for the apartment manager to obtain a payback in time, material and labor savings, as well as in resident retention. Under this arrangement, if the worker leaves after that period, he will not have to reimburse the apartment company; if he leaves within one year of the training, then the cost of training will be reimbursed on a pro-rated basis and can be deducted from the paycheck.

Mitchell confirms that it has certainly been worthwhile from a return-on-investment standpoint to spend money to send maintenance technicians to training. Depending on how many people attend, he estimates that the cost of providing the classes over a two-year period amounts to between $1,000 on the low end to $2,500 on the high end. Since the training program was implemented in 2002 and 2003, Dominium’s maintenance expenses have stayed flat, Mitchell notes.

“Maintenance workers want to go to training,” says Paz. “The reason they do not is because management does not allow them to. Once they come, they love it. All over the country, we keep hearing the same thing: ‘management does not want us to come.’ We need to open companies’ eyes, and they need to realize this is an investment in the workforce that pays back.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Keat Foong at kfoong@multi-housingnews.com.