Need technicians? You’re not alone
Six dealers active in the area north of Boston share their experiences in recruiting and retaining technicians for their two-way radio service and sales businesses. How differently they handle the problem may surprise you.
Whenever we print columns or letters lamenting the dwindling supply of technicians, we receive a barrage of email from dealers (and others) expressing their agreement. For example, the June issue’s “Public Safety: `10-2′” column by our public safety consultant, David O. Dunford, explains how the Lenexa, KS, police department has an ongoing problem finding radio technicians. Reader response was overwhelming, and the correspondence brought the problem into stark contrast. Although Dunford was highlighting the problem in Kansas, we wondered if the problem extended beyond the state.
E. J. Riemitis Company While researching another story, I phoned Joan Riemitis, a second-generation owner of North Andover, MA-based E. J. Riemitis Company. She manages a 50-year-old new and used two-way radio service and sales business involved in public safety, commercial two-way and CB radios; community repeaters; and cellphones.
Her company has no problem finding and keeping technicians, she said. The company has four technicians who service customer equipment and maintain the company’s repeaters. Each has been with the company for several years. Riemitis said that her company’s technicians are motivated to stay because “They like the challenge from CB right up through 1GHz. It’s not the same thing every day.”
Riemitis questioned the notion that technicians are difficult to find and keep. She said that of the dealers in her area, none was having that kind of problem.
To find out whether the area north of Boston and near the E. J. Riemitis Company might be an exception as far as dealers finding and retaining technicians are concerned, I phoned the dealers listed in the Lawrence, MA, Yellow Pages, which covers North Andover and the surrounding area. I spoke with owners or managers at Thompson Radio Service, Russet Wireless Group, Cen-Com Communications, Cargill Communications and Industrial Communications. All offered different perspectives.
Thompson Radio Service Nicky Zagarella, Thompson Radio Service’s office manager, said that the company has two bench technicians and one installer, in addition to the owner.
“Our best technician is the owner. He’s a great technician and good with people,” she said.
She said the company also has a new part-time technician who is quite talented; he just hasn’t been around long. Zagarella explained that technicians who are fresh out of school may not be familiar with techniques for servicing older equipment often found at police, fire and ambulance departments.
“Getting newer technicians to install new equipment – that’s easy. When it comes to fixing 20-year-old radios, that’s a problem,” she said.
Finding technicians with the right attitude for customer service is important to Zagarella, too.
“I look for someone I can send out who won’t get anyone upset. You can’t send anyone out who has a bad attitude because it’s the business’s name that’s on the line.”
It seems that age and experience may have an effect on a technician’s motivation to fix older equipment. Zagarella said that the problem with some younger technicians is that if the answer is not in the book, they’re not willing to think about the problem. If a radio doesn’t work, their answer may be, “It’s time to buy a new one.” She said that a previous technician, like the current owner, was good about keeping older equipment operating.
“He was an older man who was retired and had been in the business for many years,” she explained.
Zagarella said that finding technicians capable of engineering a solution is a challenge. The elements of engineering and long hours frustrate her technicians.
“Let me give you a recent example,” she said. “A new product came from a manufacturer with a spec sheet that was vague. An installation that should take two or three hours took eight hours because it required so much engineering to make it work. The manufacturer said it should be easy. I said, `How can I make money if my techs have to be engineers?'”
Russet Wireless Group At Russet Wireless Group, owner Peter Butler said his company has six technicians, and all are good with customer contact. As for finding and keeping good technicians, he said he has no problem. Yet, he differentiates his business from what most people call two-way radio dealerships.
“I’m an engineer. I’ve done microwave. I know people in the industry, such as those working for the defense business and so forth in New England. So it’s a matter of personal networking, as opposed to placing an ad in the paper,” he said, referring to recruitment.
He attributed his ability to retain technicians to the fact that his company focuses on new equipment and what’s happening with the overall business. Yet, he said he generally has one or two technicians who also know product as much as 10-20 years old.
“We get involved in newer equipment. Many customers want support for equipment that is 15 or 20 years old because of budgets. It’s nice if you can say, `It doesn’t work; do you want to buy a new one?’ Generally, though, the kinds of customers we work with can’t rush out and buy new things,” he said. By way of comparison, he said that more commercial customers than public safety agencies are able to buy new equipment.
Further motivating his technicians to stay is the evolution of his business to include wireless and local area networks (LANs). He said that two-way radio is “kind of just going along. [The move to LAN] represents us changing our business to reflect what customers are buying.”
Expanding to include new technologies has become increasingly important.
“We’re involved not only in two-way radio, but also in evolving wireless technologies and computer networking. We feel that’s a protection to stay in business, be competitive and pay well. A lot of the technicians get bored working on 15-year-old, two-way radios and the same old problems when the customer doesn’t have funds to upgrade. The younger technicians are eager to work with the new technologies, and that is the best way to keep out technicians interested in our work,” Butler said.
Cen-Com Communications Frank Hull, owner of Cen-Com Communications, said, “Put me on the trouble side,” when I mentioned that some dealers had said they had trouble finding technicians and others said that they didn’t.
“I’m short a guy now. I’ve tried the Boston Globe, Manchester Union Leader and Monster.com, which goes all over the world. It’s a problem. It’s tough finding technicians. One of the best sources is the military service, which is where we used to get them,” he said.
Cen-Com currently employs two technicians and an installer or two, though in past years, the company employed as many as six or eight technicians and installers. Hull said the difference was improved equipment reliability.
“We still repair to component level, but we’re 99% Motorola, so we use their depot for what we can’t fix without going to extremely expensive de-soldering stations.”
As for what motivates technicians to stay with Cen-Com, Hull said that he’s not sure. One of his technicians has been with Cen-Com for 15 years, and “this is all he does. As for the other technicians, I’ve always had one spinning off. I typically keep one for three or four years. The last one to leave went to work for the New Hampshire State Police.”
Hull said that his company used to handle more public safety radio business, and that most of his current customers are commercial entities.
“We have some large public safety systems that we sell units into and for which we maintain the products and infrastructure. But there’s been a shift into commercial. We also sell airtime on trunking systems.
“For one thing, serving public safety systems can be very demanding. It requires being on call around the clock,” Hull said.
Cargill Communications David Cargill, owner of Cargill Communications, said he has no problem finding and keeping technicians – because he doesn’t need to look farther than himself.
“I do all the technical work myself, and there’s little of that. It’s almost all sales and installation,” he said.
“In the old days of tube and transistor, there would be no way to get by without technicians. But I’ve been peddling Kenwood for 10 years. It doesn’t break. I don’t need any people. They put out good equipment,” Cargill said.
Cargill contrasted his business with that of Riemitis, explaining that Riemitis serves more public safety agency customers.
“To do public safety, I would need a staff of technicians. Public safety agencies need you around the clock. Yet, there’s little supplier loyalty among municipalities. I’ve worked for municipalities. They call you at midnight, and you fix it. Then they want new equipment, and the one who is cheapest gets the bid. I tend to stay away from that,” he said.
Cargill Communications is a community repeater operator with 20 repeaters. Half of the company’s customers use airtime on those repeaters – most of which are Kenwood.
“When the older ones die, I throw them out and put in a Kenwood. Some of these mountaintop sites are almost impossible to reach in the winter,” he said.
“Occasionally, a radio breaks, and I ship it to the factory. That might happen once or twice every six months. The components are so small you can’t get in with a soldering iron and replace them,” Cargill said.
The community repeater operator offered a different opinion about older equipment compared to some other dealers.
“If a customer comes in with a 10- or 15-year-old radio for repair, I discourage repair and sell a new one. I keep radios in stock. They’re computer programmable. I can put them on any customer’s frequency. You don’t make any friends trying to fix junk,” Cargill said.
Industrial Communications Industrial Communications advertises in the Lawrence Yellow Pages and sells products and service in the area, but its headquarters is south of Boston. Its business area includes Rhode Island, Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and southern Maine.
Ann Johnson, the company’s marketing manager, said that the company, which has about eight technicians among its 100 employees, has customers large and small, public safety and commercial. The company sells Motorola products exclusively and sells airtime on Nextel and its own 900MHz trunked network.
Bill Davis, Industrial Communications’ vice president, said that when it comes to hiring technicians, “We’re having trouble like everyone else. With technicians, its like having to find skilled IT people. There aren’t a lot out there looking. Because of technicians’ specialized skill sets and the overall low unemployment, our human resources manager is having to get more aggressive and creative while maintaining a close eye on retention efforts. As much as you have to find them, you have to hold on to those you have.”
As for retaining technicians, “You have to keep a close eye on competitive wages. There has been wage inflation for some time now where you’ve had some salary ranges and because of external forces, the competition and marketplace in general, you’ve had to bump your wages up in certain situations to areas you’re not normally working in,” Davis said.
Davis said that training, especially for newer technicians coming out of schools or the military, lets technicians know the company has a commitment to career growth and an investment in stronger skill sets.
“If you won’t, the competition will,” he said.
Davis said that the company’s director of service emphasizes cross training, which helps to keep the technicians well-rounded and more adaptable to changing work assignments.
“The big picture is a team of flexible, adaptable techs who can program, install, deinstall, troubleshoot and provide customer service. Customer service is as important as the technical prowess. I’ve been in the industry 15 years, and I understand techs want to be techs. We’ve changed that mindset here in how their performance is measured and what we expect of them,” he said.
“It’s a challenge because techs don’t necessarily want to answer the phone or deal with customers. They know it’s expected, though, and that they’ll be measured on how well they rebuild a radio and how well they respond to customers and communicate with them,” Davis said.
Dealer experiences The size of a dealership, its focus on public safety or commercial equipment maintenance and its emphasis on new equipment sales each play a part in technician recruiting and retention.
Large businesses, such as Industrial Communications, can benefit from having a specialist in human resources to administer recruitment, monitor compensation trends and oversee employee performance measurements. On the other end of the spectrum, a business such as Cargill Communications can avoid the need for technicians altogether by focusing its business on less-demanding commercial users and new equipment and airtime sales.
In between, E. J. Riemitis Company enjoys a unique situation among dealers. Finding and keeping technicians for long periods doesn’t seem to be a problem. The individuals filling Riemitis’ four technician positions enjoy the variety of work. Similarly sized businesses such as Thompson Radio Service and Cen-Com Communications might be happy to trade experiences with Riemitis, at least when it comes to filling one or two of their technician chairs as the need arises.
The Santa Ana College electronics program includes a communications option that gives students more than 40 units of digital and analog theory. It includes comprehensive training in RF measurement techniques. Students use IFR-1500 and IFR-1200 analyzers, H-P spectrum analyzers and a variety of other bench and field equipment such as oscilloscopes, frequency counters and antenna analyzers. They use the college laboratory to practice servicing Motorola, Yaesu, Kenwood and other UHF commercial and amateur radio communications equipment. They build and test antennas for SWR and radiation patterns during at least 100 laboratory hours in advanced communications courses.
Although the government no longer requires technicians to be licensed, many employers screen whether applicants have the FCC General Radiotelephone Operator License (GROL). As much as 80% of the college’s students obtain the GROL before graduation.
“We know of no community college that has a more comprehensive program in communications,” said Floyd Martin, chairman of the Electronics Department.
Martin invited prospective employers to announce job openings to graduates by sending notices to him by email at [email protected] or by fax at 714-564-6158.