“Beatings will continue until morale improves!” This famous phrase isn’t just hilarious because of its stark irony, but because of how much it demonstrates the frustrating difficulty involved with motivating and retaining a finely tuned workforce.

The beatings only work for so long until you have to get more creative.
So what does work? Employee
incentive programs? Raises? Bonuses? Paid vacation? A 401(k)? A trip to Tahiti? None of those can hurt, but in each case, the more important question is, “Will it help?” The answers can vary.

More than any of those ideas, however,
C-businesses told us that consistent, plentiful training is the key to retaining your best people.

It makes sense when you think about it. The good eggs, the ones you knew would make a difference from day one, always want to learn more. That theory probably applies to any business, so why not to custom integration? The difference (not to mention the good news) about the business you’re in is that there’s always something new to learn, something “now,” something in demand and requiring new expertise. So you’ll never run out of carrots to dangle.

What are the best ways to train your staff, and is there anything else you can do to keep them happy? The C-businesspeople with whom we spoke had plenty of ideas.

The Apprentice

Your newest trainee has showed up for work, filled out all of the paperwork for payroll and figured out where the coffee machine is. Now what?

The most common approach seems to be bringing the individual under some kind of apprenticeship program. Such programs differ from shop to shop.

For instance, Tim Crandall, president of Nashville, Tenn.-based futurehouse, pairs the new guy with someone who’s not just a senior installer, but the “most qualified, anal guy we have.” That way, he says, the apprentice learns how to do everything the right way and pay more attention to details, no matter how minute they may seem.

Some owners take a more hands-on approach. Ken Erdmann, president and co-owner of Erdmann Electric in Springville, Utah, finds it more important to establish a direct relationship between himself and the new installer. When someone comes to work for Erdmann, he becomes his driver, his helper, his companion on every truck roll. The immediate one-on-one connection, despite being occasionally time-consuming, pays dividends for Erdmann down the line. “It establishes a good relationship with the employees,” he says.

The key for many an owner is to indoctrinate new employees into the company culture before they get distracted with the details of their jobs. They must understand the internal policies and procedures specific to your shop.

Once that’s done, many integrators immediately send their people to CEDIA Bootcamp, with the goal of preparing each individual to become at least a Level 1 CEDIA installer, if not eventually Level 2. There are varying opinions on the helpfulness of the CEDIA education, however.

For instance, Terry Thomson, president of Audio Video Resource in Mount Vernon, Wash., says that while the classes are getting better, the CEDIA tests are “based on memorizing information instead of learning something valuable.” When it comes time to install a multiroom audio system, he says, there’s only so much one can memorize. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Thomson says. “I couldn’t take a class and pass because that memorization is not about what I do.”

On the other hand, Kevin Doherty, president of Technocom Residential in Tigard, Ore., sent three of his installers to CEDIA EXPO this year, and he’s glad he did. “They loved the training they got there,” he says.

Once someone’s been with you for a while, and has all of this training under his or her belt, then what?

Well, CEDIA offers more than just installer training; it offers training for designers, project managers and other parts of the operation as well. There’s manufacturer training, with classes specific to the equipment with which you work. And if someone’s exhausted the training options specific to your industry, many community colleges and local universities offer course work that can be valuable to your shop.

While the cost of education and training can seem hard to justify at first, says Doherty, the value you get in return is usually difficult to predict but easy to notice. “There’s always on-the-job training, but sometimes you have to send them somewhere else,” he says. And there are trade-offs that go beyond economics. “It’s hard when you’re really busy,” he says. “It’s hard to take them off the job.”

Impressing the Best

Of course, there’s a potential downside to spending all of this time and money on training your employees. They might end up leaving anyway, taking all of that valuable knowledge with them when they walk out your door. Even worse, they might end up getting a job with your competition. Even worse than that: They become your competition.

It’s a valid fear, because such things do happen occasionally, but the proactive response for most C-businesses seems to be to create workplaces where leaving the fold is a much less attractive option.

Such compelling work environments come in various forms. For Thomson, sometimes the answer comes in the form an exciting project. If you notice someone who could use a boost, he says, toss him or her the IP-based home entertainment project you’ve got coming up. The challenge of completing a project like that, combined with the valuable experience it’s sure to provide, is pretty difficult to resist. “We do interesting projects that challenge people,” he says, “and this is still a niche market where that type of job is hard to find somewhere else.”

Doherty takes a more punitive approach to the problem. If one of his employees leaves just after receiving training, he or she must reimburse the company for that training. Usually, he says, it doesn’t come down to that. “We’ve had a few try to leave, and most of the time it comes down to finding new systems for them to train on,” he explains.

Crandall believes C-businesses should create workplaces such that the idea of leaving becomes the last thing on an installer’s mind. “After they talk to places that have offered them jobs, they compare our company to theirs and they think of our benefits package, how family comes first here, how we’re now offering a 401(k), vision, dental,” he explains. A package like this usually staves off the employee’s desire to depart for what seems at the time to be greener pastures.

“We’re so into doing the best we can on a job and holding to some kind of epic standard and do what’s right,” Crandall says. “People want to work for a company that represents those values. They’re tired of working for a company that’s just trying to turn a quick buck.”

Finding the Best

Perhaps the best way to develop a staff that’s both easy to train and worthy to retain is to focus more on the hiring process itself. Considering the investment you make in an individual once he or she is hired, doesn’t it make sense to find out as much about the person as you can before the hire?

Here’s the riddle, though: In an industry talent pool so inundated with demand and so short on supply, what stock can you put in a person who’s out of work to begin with?

The answer is difficult, and only one reason why many C-businesses look for help in ways that are unusual and sometimes downright unconventional. Few actually use the standard want-ads or internet bulletin boards to recruit talent.

For instance, Crandall is big on word-of-mouth. “I do not hire people from the CEDIA community,” he says. “I can find a better installer who’s currently working as a waiter at a restaurant.”

Why? “We get a better-quality installer when we can train them the way they should be trained. Otherwise, we end up hiring someone else’s mistakes.”

Thomson agrees that it’s best to find someone that hasn’t yet worked in the industry. He’d rather find someone from a similar discipline, such as information technology, whom he can cross-train. Not only do you get someone who has the inclination for technology, he says, but you now have expertise in something that’s becoming quite hot in the custom installation business.

Sometimes, however, C-businesses find themselves limited in their hiring options. Oregon, for instance, is very prohibitive when it comes to whom can be hired for low-voltage work—a situation, Doherty says, he unfortunately has to deal with all the time. For an installer to work in low voltage, he or she must go through an approved licensing program. And when it comes time to hire someone, the state pretty much forces on the business the next available person on its list.

“I can get people that really know this stuff well,” Doherty says, “but if they’re not in the state program, I can’t hire them.”

Assuming you do have a choice, however, what are the most important qualities to look for in a candidate? Doherty likes people who come from a military background. “They have training and they’re always on time,” he says.

Many C-businesses agree that while a passion for the industry is key, experience in it is not. “I look for aptitude,” Crandall says, “someone with the intelligence and the drive, and who wants to be a better person. We’ll take care of the rest.”

Thomson agrees, adding it’s important to find people who enjoy being team players. “It’s also about finding people who like using technology and putting them to work,” he adds.

“I like someone who loves the industry,” Doherty says. “They always do well because they love the work.”

Not everyone’s rushing to expand their operations, of course. Some installers are happy to keep things as a one- or two-man job. Allen Fleener, the sole owner and installer for Affordable Home Theater in Riverside, Calif., is one of those people. The reason he stays small, he says, is all the grief of hiring people who end up leaving, as well as the regulations California imposes on low-voltage workers.

“I’d rather inconvenience my customers a little bit, take a little more time, than hire people,” Fleener says. “Either you go big or stay small, but there’s no middle ground.” CR