A balanced approach: technical and soft skills

Oct. 4, 2013
In one of the most memorable scenes from the 1967 movie classic “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate, receives career advice in one word. In that scene, Benjamin draws near while a friend of his father utters the word “plastics” as a career path.

In one of the most memorable scenes from the 1967 movie classic “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate, receives career advice in one word. In that scene, Benjamin draws near while a friend of his father utters the word “plastics” as a career path. 

During the 1990s, anyone providing one-word career advice probably would have said “computers” reasoning that high-tech’s pervasive growth into every facet of life would offer stable career opportunities. Parents and guidance counselors steered children away from blue-collar type jobs. Becoming a plumber or refrigeration technician just didn’t possess the appeal of high-tech. 

Did computer career opportunities flourish? You bet. But like the Trojan horse, high-tech came with an unseen problem. The Internet enabled both portability and the growth of a remote work force. Computer workers could be overseas, rather than down the hallway, and overseas workers did good work for less money.

Today, there is an unfortunate shortage of technical workers. The market for technicians and installers will grow 34% through the year 2020 according to the U.S. Department of Labor. “The building trades (including HVAC) currently have about 1.2 million job openings that require a technical skill set,” says Howard Weiss, HVAC Excellence Marketing Director. “Unfortunately, parents and school guidance counselors don’t seem to realize that the old blue collar model is gone. Today’s technical worker can have a bright career providing he or she learns advanced math skills along with critical thinking and diagnostic disciplines.” 

Yet, technical skills will only get a technician so far. Soft skills are also a mandatory requirement to ensure long-term employment and a satisfying career. Soft skills are the non-technical skills such as positive attitude, courtesy, proper attire, good communication, empathy, personal hygiene and listening; just to name a few.

When business owners are asked about the quality of trade school graduates, the answers are similar. A contractor will often admit that trade schools do a good job in teaching the technical skills such as troubleshooting, refrigerant recovery, leak detection, soldering, wiring, etc., but students are not being taught to show up on time, dress appropriately and show proper respect. These are the skills that children should have been taught at home – by mom and dad.

Having taught soft skills at more than 20 colleges nationwide gives me a unique perspective into best practices. Similar to a service manager, instructors must enforce agreed-to expectations. A service manager’s role is to ensure that employees do what is best for the organization. In the absence of strong management, employees will likely do what is best and easiest for them self. Unfortunately, the organization as a whole suffers in the presence of self-centered people. I believe that this same rule applies to an educational setting.

Instructors who command discipline upfront usually earn the respect of their students. While this sounds politically incorrect, I’d bet my 30 years of management experience on the merits of toughness. A tough instructor can always lighten up afterwards, but the inverse is improbable. Students who sense that an instructor is a pushover are likely to exploit that arrangement. 

From my experience, the instructors who earn their student’s respect and establish classroom discipline are also the ones who share real-world experiences; enforce a dress code and socially acceptable behaviors. These instructors set expectations and they stick by them. 

This year’s HVAC Excellence conference was book-ended by two college site visits. I taught soft skills at one college just prior to the conference and at another a week afterward. Soft skills was embraced among the entire faculty at one college and met with skepticism among a few instructors at the other. The Program Director, who was in charge of the skeptical instructors, believed strongly in soft skills and he needed help inculcating soft skills into the college’s curriculum.

I might add that two of the skeptical instructors possessed strong personalities, powerful communication styles and an unwillingness to listen: a toxic combination.

My curiosity was aroused by the skepticism and when I asked why, one instructor said, “Soft skills are at odds against the technical curriculum that we teach. Our students should not need soft skills if they focus on getting things done right the first time. Besides, customers want the work done quickly – they don’t have the time or desire to talk to the technician.” Then he continued, “In my home, I don’t want to talk to a technician. My concern is speed and effectiveness. Technicians should get in and get out as quickly as possible.”

Knowing that questions can be constructive, I asked this instructor how he reconciled his remark in lieu of research which indicates otherwise. Specifically that today’s contractors seek technicians with improved soft skills. He answered by saying, “Contractors who seek soft skills are only trying to sell more, they’re not interested in serving customers. It’s my opinion. So that’s what I teach students.”

No doubt we all have our opinions. However, young and impressionable students benefit from the objectivity of broad research along with an instructor’s insight. A mix of the two stirs classroom discussion and thereby results in even more objectivity.

A balanced approach to teaching both technical and soft skills will enable our industry to satisfy future job openings.  And for goodness sake, please urge students to show up on time. 

Steve Coscia helps contractors make more money, boost upselling and increase customer retention. He is the author of the HVAC Customer Service Handbook and a soft skills college curriculum that is taught at more than 80 trade schools worldwide.  To learn more about Steve Coscia go to www.coscia.com.

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