There is good news and bad news for apartment firms seeking to fill maintenance positions.
The good news is that the job market is getting a little better after it was extremely hard to find maintenance techs in 2020 and 2021. In the National Apartment Association’s most recent Apartment Jobs Snapshot for the fourth quarter of 2022, the percentage of maintenance jobs as a percentage of all apartment job postings fell to 23.9% from 24.7% a year earlier.
The bad news: maintenance jobs still constituted the largest percentage of job openings in the apartment sector, outpacing property management at 20.7% and leasing at 16.5%.
“We're not seeing the economy cooling in that space,” said Melissa Smith, chief administrative officer of Tennessee-based Fogelman Properties. "It's still tough to hire qualified techs.”
For many companies, like Fogelman, the best way to avoid having to hire maintenance technicians is to keep current employees happy. But if there's a gap, many operators are looking to training and centralization to fill it in.
The skills gap
Atlanta-based apartment manager The RADCO Cos. also feels the pain of backfilling maintenance positions when a team member leaves or is promoted, according to Chris Simon, senior vice president of operations for the company. “The industry is extremely competitive right now with compensation and offerings,” he said.
For King of Prussia, Pennsylvania-based apartment owner and manager Morgan Properties, filling maintenance roles remains a persistent challenge, according to Kylee Rooney, regional director of talent acquisition at the company. But finding candidates interested in service roles isn’t a major problem.
“The volume of applications we receive for our maintenance roles isn’t the issue in most markets,” Rooney said. “Finding candidates with the skills to perform the role is the challenge. The term ‘skills gap’ isn’t a fleeting buzz phrase — it’s the reality of the labor market in several key roles, including maintenance.”
Morgan Properties has partnered with trade schools, adult learning centers and community programs to find technicians who have the skills needed for maintenance jobs. It has also crafted work-based learning opportunities and apprenticeships.
“These positions pay employees while they gain hands-on, real-time training and are mentored by seasoned employees,” Rooney said. “We are actively looking for more opportunities to partner with local schools and groups near the properties we serve.”
Morgan Properties also performs skills analysis and identifies how it upskills its current staff and prepares them for long-term growth within the organization. RADCO is carving out opportunities for people who are new to the maintenance industry.
“When onboarding new team members who may not have prior experience, it is essential to provide training and support to help them grow the necessary skills to succeed,” Simon said.
Retention is one way to avoid the need to recruit and train new maintenance workers. Fogelman tries to do this by running a summer incentive program, which is for people who work with the company through Sept. 15.
“For anybody that is there through that period of time, we grant additional time off when things slow down a little bit in the fall,” Smith said.
Fogelman also provides weekly luncheons for the on-site maintenance teams and bonuses for work on holidays. So far, the program has been successful.
“We ran that last year and it dropped our turnover by 20% year over year on frontline positions from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Smith said. “So we're hoping that helps again this year so that it's not a constant turnover. But it's tough out there.”
Morgan Properties takes steps to drive retention by offering service technicians the opportunity to receive up to a 50% discount on their rent with the company. Its service managers are eligible for free rent. Its site team employees also receive a quarterly bonus for essentials, like work boots, tools and cell phones.
“In addition to annual tuition reimbursement for employees, we recently received accreditation for our Leadership Academy with UMass Global,” Rooney said. “Employees earn credits for participating along with a tuition discount for themselves, spouses and their children.”
Centralization and technology are also playing a role in filling the labor gap. Out of maintenance, leasing and administrative functions, Fogelman is focusing its centralization efforts on administrative functions. But there is also room for maintenance.
“On the maintenance side, you’re trying to find your local experts,” Smith said. “So you might have a service team of four people on site. You can’t always have an expert. A lot of them are generalists. So if we have two plumbing experts in Atlanta, why should they be tied to one property?”
Smith said this type of centralization is akin to calling a contractor to fix an issue. But there are also benefits beyond spreading labor across multiple properties. “In my mind, that’s another easy way to continue to promote people, allow them to have their niche, and that benefits all of our properties,” she said.
Although RACDO hasn’t moved to a fully centralized maintenance model, it's taking steps in that direction, according to Simon. “We have floating service team members to assist with training and picking up the slack from open positions,” he said. “This alleviates downtime related to backfilling a position, which can take approximately 45 days.”
Morgan Properties is also exploring on-site optimization, according to Rooney. The firm considers operational enhancements, efficiency, resident experience and employees when looking at making these changes. But it does research before jumping in.
“Before committing to major changes, we may survey the potential advantages different models offer in terms of streamlined processes, enhanced communication and better resource allocation, to ensure we continue operating with the most informed choices aligned to our long-term goals, while not compromising the well-being of residents or employees,” Rooney said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect headshot for Kylee Rooney.
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