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The Next Generation of Field Service: Training Strategies for Millennial Workers

This article originally appeared in the January – February issue of Tower Times, the official magazine of NATE, the Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association.


Field service has a people problem.

An entire generation of technicians is nearing retirement age, and they’re taking with them decades of training and hard-earned field expertise.

According to a report by The Service Council, 70 percent of field service organizations expect to be burdened by the knowledge loss of a retiring workforce in the next five to 10 years.

At the same time, field service leaders are under pressure to integrate new technologies and meet rising customer expectations around the speed and quality of service.

It’s a complex issue without a miracle cure-all, but the first step is ensuring that new technicians have the tools, training, and support they need to hit the ground running and deliver outstanding service.

As field service organizations look to remain competitive in a changing industry, they need to answer the following questions:

  • How can they minimize the impact of a retiring workforce?
  • How can they build a new workforce, from recruitment to training and ongoing support?
  • How can technology help onboard the next generation of field service technicians?

 

Powering the next generation of field service

Field service is changing. Gone are the days when organizations could manage their operations with paper forms and whiteboard schedules. There are too many sites to maintain, data points to analyze, and moving parts and people to coordinate.

Already, we’re seeing technology transform the way organizations schedule and execute work. Traditional break-fix models of repair are being replaced by predictive maintenance. Mobile apps are giving technicians easy access to everything from site histories to step-by-step mobile workflows.

Even the role of the technician is changing. As more smart meters and connected devices come online, organizations have greater visibility into the performance of each asset. Technicians no longer need to go out into the field to triage an issue and attempt a spot fix; instead, they can be dispatched as needed to execute a series of predefined tasks.

This is significant for two reasons. First, it lessens the impact of tribal knowledge. Field service leaders no longer need to rely on grizzled veterans who have seen it all and can solve any problem. Second, it helps ensure consistent service from all badged employees and contractors, increasing first-time fix rates and reducing the burden on the back office.

According to Justin Chase, president of Corona Contracting, LLC, new tools and training techniques are helping mitigate one side effect of increased technician workloads – a lack of specialization and deep technical knowledge.

“In the early days, a cell site technician knew everything about their sites, [down to the] specific frequencies used by a given radio,” he said. “Now that technicians are managing two or three times the number of sites, the only way to maintain networks effectively is by embracing new tools that keep expert information close to the technician’s fingertips.”

Millennials and the future of field service

Millennials are going to be the next generation of field service leaders, but they don’t learn – or work – like previous generations.

More than other generations, millennials are prone to hopping from one job to the next. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that more than one-third of millennials will look for a new job in the next 12 months, double that of any other generation.

For field service leaders, this raises two questions:

  • How do you attract a new generation of tower climbers and field technicians?
  • How do you build an environment that engages millennials and motivates them to stay?

 
First, organizations need to educate new hires on the impact of their work. Field service keeps people in the daily rhythm of their lives, ensuring that everyone – even those in rural and underserved areas – have the coverage they need.

“Millennials want to feel like they are making a difference,” said Jordyn Ladner, operations manager at MillerCo, Inc. “We motivate them to stay by treating them like family. Feeling like you are a part of something versus just working for nothing makes a huge difference in employee retention.”

Training approaches should also be tailored to their strengths and interests. Compared to other generations, millennials have shorter attention spans and prefer to hit the ground running. They also resist repetitive work, and want to learn through hands-on experience. Most importantly, millennials grew up around technology and expect it to be a part of their daily lives.

Implementing gamification in your organization

One of the biggest trends in workforce development is the idea of gamification, or the application of typical gameplay elements (e.g., points, rules) to other activities. Companies such as Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Amazon have all used gamification to increase buy-in and enthusiasm for different programs.

In field service, organizations are using gamification to deliver on-demand and remote learning programs. It’s self-guided learning, with a carrot at the end of the stick. Out in the field, they are using gamification to incentivize upsell and safety programs.

The benefits of gamification are numerous, from improving company culture to creating healthy competition with leaderboards and prizes. Gamification can also help organizations increase visibility into the field by tracking KPIs, providing real-time performance insights, and reducing absenteeism and employee turnover.

As you consider whether to implement gamification in your organization, here are three programs that resulted in significant change:

  • Build rewards into your training program: Ford Motor Company implemented gamification into its learning portal to help service teams and technicians become product experts. The new and improved portal saw a 400 percent increase in use, especially among younger generations.
  • Incentivize behavior with achievements: Salesforce used gamification to increase CRM compliance by more than 40 percent. The company rolled out a ‘Big Game Hunter’ mini-game for its employees, who started out as chicken hunters before leveling up to bigger game.
  • Enable real-time feedback: Target has begun to gamify the checkout process by measuring transaction speed, checkout accuracy, and worker success rates over time. Cashiers get real-time feedback with red and green lights that flash to show if items were scanned optimally.

 
In an industry where organizations are struggling to attract and retain new talent, gamification is an easy way to drive user adoption, reduce training costs, and ensure a consistent level of service.

Getting more out of on-demand workforces

According to a report by The Service Council, 76 percent of field service organizations are already using third-party vendors to supplement their workforce.

This makes sense, especially in areas with lower population densities. There is an increasing volume of work to be done, and not enough employees in the area to handle it all.

Building a blended team of in-house and outsourced workers can help field service leaders stay ahead of the rising volume of work, whether it’s installing new small cell towers in preparation for 5G networks or leveraging the data coming from the field for greater operational efficiency.

Still, contractors present their own challenges. Subcontractors often prefer to use their own tools and standards, which can be a significant challenge when dealing with subcontractors across the country.

“Standardized work quality, communication, and documentation across teams has been a consistent challenge in our industry,” Chase said. “The ability to pull in extra resources when needed, train according to our standards, and keep quality up to par has been difficult, but these are normal operating conditions now. Managing resources and quality of work is key to success.”

Badged employee or not, these technicians are still an extension of your brand. Success is often determined by the ability to help them ramp quickly, work safely, and deliver a consistent standard of service.

Just look at the way Rob Hepplewhite, a district manager for Vans, described his approach to seasonal workers.

“The way I led my team was that everyone was served by the leadership team the same way, no matter the title, and no matter whether they were seasonal employees or not.”

That underlying philosophy of empathy and respect is one that would serve any organization well, whether they are trying to navigate the holiday shopping season or onboard a new generation of workers.