After investing a whole lot of time educating a new hire, the person you thought would be your right hand walked right out, choosing instead to fold sweaters in the air-conditioned comfort of Old Navy.
Pool service isn’t for everyone.
Indeed, hiring and training is the hardest part of growing a business. (Why do you think so many service pros fly solo?) But the rewards are exactly that … a larger business.
Here, pros explain how they turn entry-level employees into top-notch pool techs.
Should you train?
Before beginning to develop a training program, consider who should do the training. If not you, is there someone in your company whom you could appoint as the designated training manager?
This decision is critical because not everyone is cut out to be an instructor. There’s a lot to cover.
“It’s fairly exhausting to talk about,” warns David Hawes, president of H&H Pool Service, Inc. in Dublin, Calif. He counts himself lucky that he doesn’t have to train. That’s a duty he delegates to his service manager.
Training requires the “patience of Job,” as he puts it, referencing the much-suffering saint of the Old Testament. It also takes a teacher’s heart. Single-polers, especially, should do some serious soul searching before taking on an apprentice. Even some techs who work for mid-sized firms will opt out of tutoring a new recruit if they can.
Doing the job well is one thing; explaining how to do it is another skill entirely. “Some of our best technicians aren’t necessarily our best trainers,” says Waylon Bennett, president of Poolman, a Phoenix-based firm. “They’re skilled at what they do, but passing that information on takes another level of aptitude.”
Bringing a newbie up to speed on the intricacies of pool care takes time, too. It requires the trainer to slow down and spend longer-than-normal sessions at each pool to show the ropes, so to speak. For employees who are paid per pool, being saddled with a newbie could be an imposition. That’s why Bennett compensates senior techs who volunteer to train, with a base salary.
“It takes endurance,” Bennett cautions. “You have to teach each new person with the same vigor and enthusiasm, even though the last guy may have left [soon after training] for another job.”
The ride-along done right
Riding shotgun with an experienced tech is typically the newcomer’s introduction to the industry. But service firms take different approaches to job shadowing.
For some, the ride-along is a casual, learn-as-you-go experience. For others, it’s a more regimented program requiring the trainer to quiz and document the new hire’s progress along the way.
Whichever method is chosen, it’s incumbent upon the trainer to be thorough. For the experienced tech who can nearly operate on auto pilot, this can be a challenge. After all, how does one boil down the complexities of pool maintenance for someone without the faintest idea?
For longtime service pros, there may be a tendency to gloss over the most rudimentary steps, so start with the very basics. Don’t ask an apprentice to do advanced problem solving on day one. They have to crawl before they can walk.
“You don’t have to train in the entirety of pool chemistry,” advises Gary Crayton, CEO of Bay Area Pools in Tampa Bay, Fla. “Initially, they just need a working knowledge of what they’re testing for and why.”
That means teaching novices how to test for FAC, alkalinity, pH, CYA and, perhaps, calcium hardness. Hold the lessons on phosphates and salt levels until the trainee has a firm grasp of the fundamentals. Keep in mind that it’s not only important to explain how to measure dosing requirements — the instructor also must address how these chemicals affect one another and the optimal ranges for each. You want them to understand the why of what they’re doing, in addition to how.
“Let them know these aren’t independent chemical readings, they all have to work together for proper balance,” Hawes advises.
With so much to go over, it helps to create a checklist for the trainer. Bennett equips all his senior technicians with a worksheet so they can track what has been covered. The list includes basic water chemistry, equipment identification and function, cleaning systems and filter types. At the end of the review, both parties sign a document acknowledging that a thorough overview was conducted.
“The list is two-fold. You have to sign off as the trainer, but also the trainee has to accept responsibility that they understand the different aspects of the job,” Bennett says.
As for giving them hands-on experience, testing is a good place to start.
In Hawes’ program, new hires first review instructions on how to use a test kit and then perform water tests on Day One. Of course, this is done under the supervision of a service manager. The two will then compare results, discuss what needs to be added and the expected results.
Apprentices also should see the results of their work. Trainers stress that new hires should be taken to the same pools week after week so that they can see firsthand how the pools responded to last week’s treatment.
But not all results are visible to the naked eye. That’s why Hawes gives trainees an opportunity to review weeks’ worth of log sheets to give the trainee a historical look at the pools they service. By analyzing this data, they can see how the pH level was affected after a quart of muriatic acid was added, for example.
Though service pros advise trainers to stick to the same route week after week, don’t be afraid to mix it up. Your training program should expose a newcomer to a wide variety of pools. So, venture to your accounts in the tony parts of town with the ultra-modern pools boasting the latest technology, as well as the more modest neighborhoods with deep dive pools and clunky filtration equipment. By training at both types of pool, novices will learn their way around automation systems, and find out how to use chemistry to compensate for deficient equipment, Bennett offers.
Beyond the ride-along
Some service firms supplement field experience with academics. The off-season is a great time to schedule sessions.
Kevin Barron, a Poolwerx franchisee in Orlando, Fla. likes to break things into three different modules: Chemistry, equipment and cleaning. He’s found a wealth of resources that can be used to create more formal classroom-style curricula. Even simple things like instruction books from manufacturers can be great teaching tools.
“The Taylor Test Kit book is a great resource,” Barron says. “That little book right there can tell you most everything you need to know, and it’s about a 20-minute read, at the most.”
Don’t overlook manufacturers’ reps, either. They’re glad to come in for a product tutorial. After all, it’s part of their job.
Plus, you can piece together a field guide for trainees to reference with articles from industry publications, material safety data sheets, plus your own tricks of the trade. Don’t be afraid to test their knowledge, either. The occasional quiz isn’t a bad thing.
“I really want to know what they don’t know,” Crayton says. “We test more to see what they don’t fully understand so that we can give them supplemental training.”
So, how long does it take turn a newcomer into a competent maintenance tech? Senior technicians say it will take anywhere between two and six weeks before they’re ready to run routes on their own.
But as any true professional knows, training never stops.