Have a Plan: Techs who want to develop their careers can't fly blind
You’ve seen these two types. Maybe you work with one or two. The first are the guys who got someone to “give them a job,” and then put no further effort into their careers. The second are the hires who seems to have a definite plan. Somebody who knows where he or she is going. While the “give me a job” types do OK in their jobs sometimes, the ambitious and eager ones seek out training and other opportunities to further hone their skills. Why? They’re the ones who know the trades are a great place for someone who aspires to business ownership to get into right now if college isn’t in the works.
There’s actually a third type. Those are the guys who have earned a job at a well-established plumbing company and who want to move along in their careers but maybe they aren’t so clear on how to go about making it happen. They’ve heard vague, second-hand platitudes like, “You should network!” or “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you!” all their lives, but still may not have a clear idea of how those things can make a difference between sitting stagnant in a dead-end job or an advancing career and everything that goes with it.
The reality is there are as many ways to advance a career in the plumbing business as there are plumbing companies. One important way is to seek out training and certifications to add to your resume. That seems like a no-brainer since it seems every company, manufacturer and organization affiliated with the industry offers some type of training and certification. What’s that? You know some guys who don’t like being in a classroom? Our friendly advice to them is to learn to like it. That’s just the way things are today.
Eleven years ago, Chris Roberts started in the plumbing field digging ditches. Now he’s considered one of the top technicians at WJ Maloney Plumbing, a division of Hayes Mechanical in Phoenix. He said he was surprised to find out he thought he knew more than he actually did until he received the proper training. “I completed a five-year apprenticeship through the UA Local 469 here in Phoenix. That entails classroom training for many thousands of hours, as well as on the job training,” Roberts says. “Nothing replaces actual training, though. I mean, classroom training is very important to the process.”
If you ask Jesse Wheeler at Any Hour Electric, Plumbing, Heating & Air in Orem, Utah, he’ll tell you how important it is to find the right company, stay with it and learn its systems and ways of doing things. Bouncing around from company to company isn’t going to get you anywhere because you’re always the new guy that way. Wheeler was a tech for a decade before becoming the Any Hour’s electrical and solar manager. He says taking advantage of any training opportunity you can get can also set someone apart.
“So I would take any kind of training opportunity you can get. That sets you apart from the next guy, that makes you the best guy in your field, and not only that it gives you life experience, when you run into a situation that nine guys out of 10 can’t figure out, but you can figure it out because you put the time in, you sacrificed the time for training, you’re the go-to guy,” Wheeler says. “And then, what that’ll lead to is all of a sudden the guys that you work with will start turning to you for advice, turning to you for help. You’ll be able to offer them help, be part of their experiences, and naturally you become that kind of supervisor position, supervisor to those guys, that shoulder most guys can lean on and you’re naturally already there. Makes it easy for the boss or the owner to move you forward. But training is huge, I would definitely say.”
Jorge Medina has been a service tech with Plumbing MD in Dixon, Calif., for about six years. Originally hired as a laborer, Medina has his sights set on franchise ownership: “I was lucky enough to get hired on here. One day there was a meeting and the owner, [and RJ columnist] Mike Farias, told us there is an opportunity here for everyone, Median says. “I sat down with him and asked what it would take for me to be in a truck. I had to do our training program and do a ride-along. I came in every Saturday for almost a year and rode around with all the techs. At the same time I was doing the academic program. Always pursue any opportunities that come along because this is a really good trade to be in. Always try to advance. You don’t want to be stuck where you’re at if there’s more opportunity out there for you.”
Want more proof that having a plan and working it will get you ahead in your career? We spoke to some management-types, some of whom started out on a truck running calls, and they make plain what they’re looking for when they need a new member in the management club and they’re looking at internal candidates.
“Training is in the classroom but also in the field, more importantly, as my father has trained some of the best foremen in this business,” says Kitty Maloney Langmade, former WJ Maloney Plumbing owner and current business development guru for Hayes Mechanical. She noted not to forget the people skills, either.
“What’s invaluable in a person that’s in a leadership position or a management position is their people skills, the way that they communicate to the men, the way they can enable the men doing the job, the way that they can train the men, the way that they can motivate those people,” Langmade says. “So, I mean, the people that I want to become managers are the people I want to work with and who the technicians want to work for.”
Martin Giebelhaus, operations administrator, Marlin Mechanical, says certifications are a great way for technicians to set themselves apart from their peers. He says if you take two techs with similar levels of experience and customer service skills — but one tech has a backflow tester certification and the other doesn’t.
“By having that certification the first tech is able to do work that the other tech can’t and this makes him more valuable to the company he works for. That value means the company will put a greater emphasis on keeping him, and that can come in a number of ways such as better pay, better benefits, or scheduling priority,” Giebelhaus says. “If things slow down, it means he’s more likely to get hours before the other technician.”
Besides backflow testing, code classes and other industry standard education, Giebelhaus says there are peripheral certifications that can help an individual to stand out: “An OSHA 10 or 20 card, or certain heavy equipment certifications such as for a construction reach forklift, point to knowledge and skills that make that employee more valuable to his or her employer.”
Wyatt Hepworth, president of Any Hour Electric, Plumbing, Heating & Air, agrees, with one important caveat. He says seeking out training is all well and good, but someone who does that yet doesn’t apply any of that training on the job might have a stagnant career until they wise up.
“If he seeks out additional training but doesn’t put in the work at his job he’ll never be promoted. I want someone who’s not too good for the work. I want managers who are willing to do anything their people are going to be doing each day,” he says. “We don’t go just to sit through a class. We go through training because we’re going to come back and implement it into our daily routines.”
As mentioned before, there are lots of ways out there to acquire training. You can go to various trade associations; you could go to a union; you could even explore the training offered by many of the major product suppliers. Just remember, use the training – don’t just use it as an excuse to flake off for a day on the company’s dime. Use what you learn and pass it along to others.
“It makes you invaluable to the company when you have certifications that other people don’t have,” Roberts says. “One of the harder ones to come by would be things like medical gas training, which is actually required by law to work on medical gas, not just something your employer’s looking for. Backflow certification is something that not a lot of people put in the time or effort to keep up with and recertify on every year. If you have more experience, especially manufacturer-specific training with, for example, tankless water heaters, Rinnai, or with Noritz, or even with products such as Gastite, where you have to have a manufacturer’s certification, and you hold that, that makes you valuable to the company because you’re able to work with so many more products and be knowledgeable to your customers in the field.”