Case Study: the Skills Gap seen from inside a small service company

I left big corporate America in 2004.  I traded it in for the romantic notion of “controlling my own destiny.”  I bought a small specialty construction and service company, Bay Cities Automatic Gates and grew it into a $2m per year, 16 employee company.  Here’s how I discovered and struggled with the skills gap while owning and running that company and working with many other similar construction/ service companies in northern California:

  1. Manufacturers of the products my team installed and serviced produced manuals and occasionally held hands-on, classroom training.  However, with one exception their training was not pedagogically rigorous with hands on interaction with the equipment, comprehension testing, etc.  Furthermore, the content was exclusively about THEIR product.  

  2. Most companies like mine are “integrators.”  We design and work on systems (in our case automatic vehicle gate systems) which include a variety of pieces of equipment (gate operator, phone entry system, steel gate, concrete foundation, electrical wiring, fire department key switches, etc., etc.).  So effective training must include complete systems -- how they work together, integrate, or why they may NOT work well together.

  3. My field technician employees must have a wide variety of skills to be effective -- and certainly to become a senior technician.  Their skills must include understanding, installing and troubleshooting each of these elements: metal fabrication and field welding; 110V and low voltage wiring and connections; motor and gearbox system troubleshooting; radio frequency wireless systems; electronic boards and relay logic; field report writing; service truck maintenance, repair  and inventory stocking; customer communication and conflict resolution; safe driving; first aid and safe work processes; and time management.

  4. My company included 16 employees -- mid sized in our industry with one thin layer of management supervision.  While I saw the need for strong training for my techs I could not afford to dedicate a person to this task, could not prioritize to do it myself, could not find an outside resource who had what we needed ready to go.

  5. In the San Francisco Bay Area we had a distributor who maintained an excellent room full of equipment from many manufacturers.  They generously occasionally provided a senior employee who performed training for my employees.  But they did not have a curriculum and the delivery was not pedagogically rigorous.  We reached a “program” of sorts where I would provide the agenda and my tech who needed training and their employee would walk them through the content on my agenda.

  6. Potential employees, unless stolen from or fired by a competitor, may have had some, but not nearly all of the prerequisite skills.

  7. Regional high schools and community colleges do not have curriculum matching the skill sets of my niche industry.  A certificate welding program at a local college was ended in 2006.  And despite several efforts to reach out the career placement departments of several public and private colleges there was no interest/ follow through.

I know this is a common set of challenges faced by most small, specialty construction/ service companies.  We cope by accepting:

  1. Difficulty attracting potential field techs who would like to see a training and advancement program.

  2. Less than desired efficiency -- more hours on a job, more call backs, lower margins

  3. Quality problems -- callbacks, unhappy customers, discounted invoices and lower margins

  4. Senior techs spending more time coaching/ demonstrating techniques to junior techs and therefore not being as efficient completing jobs.

  5. Inconsistent training of junior techs -- depending on which senior tech they are learning-on-the-job from.

  6. Higher turnover:

    1. Of junior techs who become frustrated with the challenges of the job (due to not feeling confident or proud of their work)

    2. Senior techs who are frustrated with the inexperienced junior techs with whom they are assigned to work.

  7. The employees do not have a recognized credential to take to their next job.  Instead they have an x month long job at Bay Cities Automatic Gates to show to future potential employees..

Skills Gap, Hiring Skilled Employees, Case Studies


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