Scheduling for Better Technician Retention

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. Farm Fresh here has come up with a way to improve retention of its refrigeration technicians, one of the industry's jobs that always seems to be in high demand. Jonathan Perry, director of energy and maintenance for Farm Fresh, combined technology with some innovative scheduling procedures to make the job more amenable to the most experienced and valuable of his workers. He spoke

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Farm Fresh here has come up with a way to improve retention of its refrigeration technicians, one of the industry's jobs that always seems to be in high demand.

Jonathan Perry, director of energy and maintenance for Farm Fresh, combined technology with some innovative scheduling procedures to make the job more amenable to the most experienced and valuable of his workers. He spoke about the topic on a panel at Food Marketing Institute's Energy & Technical Services Conference in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month, and discussed the program with SN last week.

One of the biggest challenges for workers in refrigeration repair and maintenance, Perry explained, is having to be on call for emergency repairs at any time of the day or night.

“I learned from losing a good technician,” he told SN, “and that was the reason.”

Previously, the Farm Fresh schedule called for some technicians to be available overnight even after they had worked a full shift during the day, which resulted in some workers occasionally pulling 24-hour shifts.

“A lot of technicians become seasoned, and they are capable, they can work anywhere, but they don't want to be called out in the middle of the night,” Perry said.

A few years ago, the chain adopted some new technology that helped screen out the non-refrigeration-related service calls that sometimes dragged technicians out of bed. Farm Fresh also set up a scheduling arrangement that has most technicians working regular Monday-through-Friday hours, with one worker on call at night but off during the day, and others working rotating weekend shifts.

“I really haven't lost a senior technician since then,” Perry said.

In the new scheduling procedure, some workers pull a Sunday-through-Thursday shift, but then the following week they work Tuesday through Saturday, giving them a four-day weekend every so often, a rare treat in the refrigeration technician field, he said.

Perry said retention of experienced refrigeration technicians is critical in the supermarket industry in part because the job requires so much specific knowledge that is built up over time.

Farm Fresh is also on guard against what Perry sees as another looming manpower challenge: the aging of his crew, which usually numbers about 15 to 20 technicians to service the 46-store chain.

“My staff happens to be older, and one of our challenges is to continue to attract young people to be technicians,” he said. “Over the next five years, our group is going to struggle with these guys retiring — this Baby Boomer crowd of people that went into refrigeration and have a tremendous amount of skill. It's going to be tough to train as you lose more seasoned guys like that.”

Farm Fresh retains close relationships with some of the training schools in the area, but to become a good supermarket refrigeration technician, workers need a lot of on-the-job experience, Perry said.

“It's hard to pick this up from just going to a two-year HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] school,” he said. “There's so much more to it. There are so many new things being tried, and so many different systems. How do you take a guy and put him into a store that was just basically invented?”