Hiring Managers Recruit MEP Employees with these 6 Soft Skills
As a hiring manager for a building contractor, engineering, or consulting firm, you look for specific technical skills when recruiting mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) employees. But, what about soft skills? What personality traits and other qualities should you be looking for when hiring MEP employees? This post examines the most important soft skills and how to measure them during an interview.
Soft Skills Matter in the Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing Professions
Hiring managers know that each open position requires certain technical experience working with specific equipment, or on certain types of jobs. Drafters need AutoCAD skills. Estimators may need to know RSMeans. Electrical controls engineers need to understand power distribution circuits.
Understanding and evaluating soft skills can be the most difficult part of the interviewing process. Technology skills, after all, are relatively straightforward to assess for the right expert. For example, to evaluate an engineer’s AutoCAD skills, you can have the candidate evaluated by your in-house AutoCAD guru for 30 minutes.
But, how can you tell if a candidate will work well on a large project team or get along with customers? How do you determine if they have the capacity to grow and take on more responsibility? How do you assess honesty, loyalty, etc.? While not as easy to measure as technical skills, these soft skills are often what distinguish your best hires from the rest of the pack.
At HVACExec.com, we have many years of experience finding candidates who can fit in and contribute value to our MEP clients. Here are the top 6 soft skills that are critical to success in MEP jobs, along with some advice about how to assess a candidate’s strength in each.
Every job in your organization requires employees to work with other people. Whether it’s on an internal team, with partners on a job site, or with the customer’s employees, collaboration is essential to job success for every MEP employee. But, during an interview, all candidates claim to be team players. So, how can you spot the real collaborators and weed out those who don’t “play well with others”?
One effective approach is to simply ask the question, “Do you prefer to work alone or with other people?” Listen to the answer carefully and follow up. If the candidate tells you that they prefer to work alone, probe into what that means to them. It might mean simply that they enjoy spending most of the day drafting but are still able to get along with others and present their designs to the team. Remember, not everyone is an extrovert, and introverts can excel at collaboration. The candidates that you want to weed out are the ones who cannot take constructive criticism or follow direction. You also want to avoid hiring people who hold on to petty grudges and get into a lot of arguments with peers.
To figure out whether a candidate can collaborate or not, you need to go a little deeper. Ask them to describe a situation where they helped a dysfunctional team to resolve interpersonal problems and focus on the job at hand. You can also ask the candidate to describe a situation where they strongly disagreed with a team decision and how they handled it. Remember that your candidate is going to try to sound good, so follow up with probing questions. Try to determine whether the candidate is answering truthfully describing real situations or just making stuff up to sound good.
Technical skills can be taught far more easily than interpersonal skills. If you hire someone who needs extra training, that’s often a simple fix. But, if you hire someone who cannot get along with customers and teammates, you have a much more difficult problem to solve. So, ask the tough questions and listen carefully.
Integrity goes to the heart of a candidate’s character. It encompasses everything from not lying on their resume, to sizing equipment accurately even if it meant not being the lowest bidder. The candidate with integrity won’t cheat to get hired and won’t cut corners on the job.
Integrity can be difficult to discern during the hiring process. But, beware of the candidate that you catch lying. If they deceive you to get in the door, they are not likely to suddenly become scrupulously honest on the job. At HVACExec.com, we never recommend candidates who we find have cut corners or misled us during interviews.
It is not easy to measure integrity during an interview. But one thing you can do that helps is to call references and verify details on the resume. You should always call past employers to verify dates, titles, and job responsibilities. Insist on getting references from past managers, not merely colleagues in the office. And, make sure to call those references. It doesn’t happen that often, but occasionally, we have spoken to a reference who warned us not to hire a candidate.
You should also consider instituting mandatory drug testing and background checks for new employees. These are becoming more common for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing candidates. One of the primary reasons for conducting background checks is to discourage unethical candidates from applying in the first place.
The term “teachability” refers to how open a candidate is to learning taking advice from colleagues on the job, accepting mentorship from more experienced employees. It boils down to an employee’s eagerness to do well plus their capacity to learn on the job.
Of course, for building contractors, engineering firms and consultancies, continuous learning is essential for all employees. MEP technology is changing rapidly, and companies need their employees to keep up.
For this reason, it is often more important to hire employees who are teachable than those who have a specific skill set. Ideally, you can hire a person who has the skills you need today plus openness and capacity for learning the skills they will need tomorrow. But, in our experience at HVACExec.com, the best candidates are those with a demonstrated capacity to learn and grow. We almost always recommend the smart learner over the experienced candidate who is set in their ways and has been doing the same thing for the last 10 years.
As a hiring manager, focus on the candidates with a proven track record of acquiring new skills. It is important that learning be self-motivated as well. Look for candidates that demonstrate curiosity about MEP technology and industry trends people who read articles, attend talks, etc. These are the folks who will step up and learn the necessary skills when you have a client who wants to try something your firm hasn’t done before.
Self-motivation is important. Your company can’t anticipate every trend and send people to training classes every time a new technology comes along. That’s why you want to hire people who are motivated by learning, who seek out mentors, who are teachable.
During the interview, ask candidates to describe the situation in which they learned a new skill that ended up benefiting their employer. Pay attention to whether the skill was self-taught or learned in a classroom or training program. Press candidates to describe a self-taught skill that paid off on the job. Whenever possible, hire the person who demonstrates a genuine interest in learning new skills on their own.
Persistence is the quality of not giving up easily. Successful MEP professionals need to be persistent because the challenges in our industry are always changing. What you did last time won’t necessarily work this time. You need to coordinate with different people, recommend different equipment, present the client with a variety of options. Success is often a matter to trying several different approaches and pushing forward until you succeed.
Persistence is not just a matter of trying the same thing over and over. If what you are doing keeps failing, then you are just not learning. On the contrary, the persistent employee looks at the problem from different angles and tries different approaches until finding the one that succeeds.
As a hiring manager, you may be wondering how you can measure a candidate’s persistence during the interview process. One approach is to ask a few “brain teaser” questions. Give the candidate some difficult problem and ask how they would approach it. The point is not for the candidate to get the right answer, but to keep trying different approaches without giving up. If a candidate responds by saying “I haven’t had experience with that”, then they are probably not persistent. A persistent person would ask you more questions, suggest different approaches, try to solve the problem based on the experience they do have.
While asking candidates to solve hypothetical problems can be helpful, you should also simply ask them to describe a time they faced a difficult situation at work and had to try and fail a few times before achieving success. Listen carefully to determine if the story is real and believable. Drill down and ask for details about why one approach worked while another failed. If the story is compelling and the candidate can supply details, then you have probably found someone who is genuinely persistent.
5. Positive Attitude
The employee with a positive attitude is the one who is always contributing to the solution, rather than complaining about the challenges. That’s the mental attitude you need to hire for. Gratitude is a big part of having a positive attitude.
Have you ever interviewed a candidate who seemed to think that they would be doing you a favor if they took the job? Did this candidate also complain about their previous boss, or leave their last role because they felt underappreciated? More likely than not, they are not a grateful person. And they will not have a positive attitude.
Candidates with a positive attitude will thank you for the opportunity to interview. They will ask for your opinion about where they could help your company the most. They will focus on where they can best add value rather than on salary and benefits. Of course, salary and benefits are important, but if that’s top of mind for a candidate, before you even get to know each other, then beware. Candidates with a positive attitude will first want to establish that there is a good fit. They understand that the time to discuss compensation comes later in the process.
6. Enthusiasm for the Position
There is a lot of job hopping in the MEP professions these days. To a large extent, that’s because of a supply and demand imbalance. More companies are hiring then there are skilled workers to go around.
As a hiring manager, this means that you need to try to hire people who will stick around. Those tend to be the candidates who have a real enthusiasm for the position you have open. Some candidates will take a job for a year, even if they are not terribly excited about it, because they believe that they can use the job as a stepping stone to something better. While it is normal for a prospective employee to consider their career progression, you don’t want to hire someone for whom that is their primary concern.
During the interview, ask the candidate what they like about the position. Ask follow-up questions and get into the details about what attracts them to the job and to your company. If the candidate has trouble answering, or seems insincere, then that is a red flag.
Another way to gauge their enthusiasm is to listen to their questions. If they don’t have many questions, that could indicate a lack of enthusiasm. But if they want to know what they will be working on, who their colleagues will be, where their department fits into the overall organization, etc. then that is a good sign that they are serious about the job.
Our experience shows that, in a tight labor market, your best option is often to take a chance on someone with slightly less the ideal amount of experience, but who has a real enthusiasm for the opportunity you are offering. When you give someone a chance to step up and prove themselves, they are likely to work hard for you, be grateful, and stick around for a while.
Above, we discussed the soft skills that we’ve found to be most important when hiring MEP employees. Of course, there are others, like loyalty, that are also important, but that we haven’t touched on here. If you have questions or are facing a hiring situation where soft skills are important, please reach out to us. We’d love to talk!