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Hire education: with help from the NAAEI's Certificate for Apartment Maintenance Technicians program, South Carolina property managers are finding a new stream of well-trained employees.

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Henry Nowicki is nervous. It's a big day--certainly the biggest in the past 10 weeks during which he's worked diligently at training to become a maintenance technician. The day--June 3, 2009--is both graduation day and interview day, and 13 employers from the Charleston, S.C., area have set up camp in classrooms and offices at Trident Technical College (TTC) to see if Nowicki or one of his classmates would be a good fit at their community.

The students are graduates of TTC's first-ever facilities maintenance training class. Through a partnership with the Charleston Apartment Association and employers, funding administered by the local Workforce Investment Board and with curriculum help from the National Apartment Association Education Institute (NAAEI), the college has launched a program that should provide a new stream of qualified maintenance technicians to area apartment communities and other facilities managers while providing job training and opportunities to motivated but unemployed workers struggling in the economic downturn.

Nowicki, 48, a gregarious auto industry veteran, graying at the beard, jokes a bit with a classmate and an instructor. Then he steps into his next interview, prepared to outline the recently earned skills and expertise that qualify him to commence a new career.

Help Wanted

Eager to find a pipeline of well-trained technicians actively seeking facilities maintenance jobs, several Charleston-area apartment professionals, including Victoria Cowart and Ellen Hoffman, had been pursuing a maintenance training class at North Charleston, S.C.-based TTC since 2001.

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"The industry has a shortage of these highly skilled and highly valuable maintenance folks," says Cowart, CPM, Vice President of Property Management for North Charleston-based Darby Development and President of the South Carolina Apartment Association.

"We knew there was an inherent problem and there was a lack of quality in the pool of technicians," says Hoffman, NALP, CAM, CAPS, Partner and Vice President of Property Management for Charleston-based property management firm Nirenblatt, Nirenblatt & Hoffman and a member of the board for the South Carolina Apartment Association. "We worked for years to find a solution."

Other regional industry professionals facing the same problem joined Cowart and Hoffman's efforts. "Finding available candidates to do maintenance is something we all struggle with," says Michelle Lorick, PMIC, CAM, Manager of Plantation Oaks Apartments for High Associates and President of the Charleston Apartment Association. "It's a program that's much needed."

Bill Storey, a Maintenance Supervisor for Ingleside Plantation in North Charleston, S.C., and Vice President of the Charleston Apartment Association, says he has seen firsthand the difficulty property managers have in finding well-rounded technicians with skills in more than just one area. "Now that we're getting guys with a basic understanding of multiple skills, now we have the supervisors of the future," he says.

The program finally got the jumpstart it needed when Cowart contacted Lloyd Kling, Director of Workforce Development at the college, who would go on to coordinate the class. TTC had considered a maintenance class in the past, but had been busy with manufacturing-related programs, Kling says. When local manufacturing industries began to weaken, however, "We pulled this back out and dusted it off," he says.

Kling faced two challenges in taking on the project: finding funding and a curriculum. Kling worked with the Charleston Apartment Association and hospitality associations to identify companies committed to interviewing for maintenance jobs and applied for program funding from Trident One-Stop, a system of career centers funded by the national Workforce Investment Act but administered locally through the Trident Workforce Investment Board, a group of community leaders and business owners. Trident One-Stop paid the full cost of training for the students in the class, all of whom were unemployed and from low-income families.

The class's core curriculum came from the National Center for Construction Education and Research, combined with programs such as appliance repair and HVAC already offered at the college. With Cowart's recommendation and the assistance of NAAEI Executive Vice President Maureen Lambe, Kling integrated the NAAEI's Certificate for Apartment Maintenance Technicians (CAMT) program, allowing graduating students to earn a pre-CAMT certificate that will give them CAMT status after one year of working in the industry.

Time for Class

With curriculum and funding hurdles cleared, TTC set the program into motion. The 10-week course would run for 400 hours, combining a number of classes that normally would run individually on evenings or weekends into one package. The final program included 28 hours of plumbing, 56 hours of electric, 90 hours of air conditioning and refrigeration, 48 hours of carpentry, 12 hours of appliance repair and more. In addition to a pre-CAMT certificate, students would earn a certification from the EPA to handle refrigerants, would be prepared to take a test to earn a pool- and spa-operator certificate and would earn a class-time certificate that could count as college credit.

More than 80 students applied for the class through Trident One-Stop. That program's rigorous screening winnowed the students to 11; Kling attributes the class's 100 percent graduation rate to that thorough vetting. All students had a high school degree or GED and passed drug screening tests and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) check to ensure they met the apartment industry's high screening standards.

The final group came from diverse backgrounds (ages ranged from 23 to 67) and with varied career goals. Nowicki, from Summerville, S.C., was bought out from auto industry supplier Robert Bosch after 24 years and was pursuing a new career field. "I like working with my hands, dealing with people," he says. William Freeman, a 29-year-old student from Charleston, is concurrently pursuing a bachelor's degree in business management; he hopes to eventually use his maintenance experience to move into management.

The school sought such diversity in part because the program was the first held at the school's new St. Paul's Parish site in Hollywood, S.C., a depressed part of the Charleston region with one major employer and a smattering of service jobs and an area from which the program drew about half of its students. "St. Paul's Parish is in the poorest part of Charleston County," says Dr. Mary Thornley, President of Trident Technical College. "It's a juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. We targeted that part because of its unemployment. Our mission is to bring opportunities to all parts of our service area."

Despite the diversity of backgrounds, the group developed a noticeable spirit of camaraderie, Thornley said. "They have become a team. They have become buddies." The teamwork even sparked some mentor-like relationships within the class. Dwayne Norman, 57, from Goose Creek, S.C., had been a carpenter for more than 20 years before joining the class to expand his skills.

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"At first, seeing that I had already been in the trades, it was really boring," he says. "After finding out that some guys came in blind, helping them learn really helped me. I got pushed into the role of class head, making sure that guys really understood what the teachers were trying to show them."

Darby Development hired Norman in June.

Industry Leadership

Since the program's inception, members of the Charleston Apartment Association and other property management professionals have provided support for the program and encouragement for the students, a factor that contributed to the class's success. "About every week, we had someone else from a field that was related come in and talk," Kling says. "It's a piece of the puzzle I can't give them because I don't work in the field. It gave them another viewpoint and see that, 'Yes, this is a viable career direction for me.'"

Freeman, the student pursuing the business degree, said he was inspired by Cowart to follow the management path when she spoke to the class about her own experience combining apartment experience with a business degree. Even more management professionals were interested in teaching segments of the class, Kling says, so future classes will afford them that opportunity.

After teaching a segment about risk management, Naomi Simpson, CPO, SHCM, CAPS, CPM, Senior Portfolio Manager for Charleston-based Beach Management and a Past President of the Charleston and South Carolina Apartment Associations, toured the facility, observing the computer lab, classrooms and a large warehouse with stations for active training.

"I was amazed what they were able to do from a hands-on perspective," she says. "That's something we could never do on an affiliate basis." Simpson and other apartment professionals also are enthusiastic about the in-depth introduction to the apartment profession that students were provided through the CAMT program. "It gives them a more intimate knowledge of our industry," she says.

The CAMT curriculum supplemented the college's existing hands-on training by providing information in different fashions such as online practices and classroom presentations, Kling says. The pre-CAMT certification itself also was attractive, Thornley says. "Any time you can take a standard curriculum and say, 'This is a certified program,' that's important," she says. "Their [CAMT] certification is recognized not just in Charleston. I preach standards because I think it's important they can carry that to any part of the country. That was a major value-add."

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Landing a Job

In addition to instruction on facilities maintenance skills, the program provided students with career guidance to help them land jobs in the industry. Students developed personal management plans and practiced interviews to prepare for graduation. They also received training on the skills needed to keep a job once they are hired. While manufacturers in the area are mostly not hiring during the recession, many of the apartment and hospitality companies that came for the interviews were actively seeking maintenance employees.

It's a job that won't disappear during the recession and that can't be outsourced to another country, says Melvin Washington, 23, from Edisto Island, S.C. "It's a great opportunity to start a career."

The number of businesses looking for maintenance technicians also helped the program qualify for funding through Trident One-Stop. "We've developed programs to respond to business customers' needs," says Paul Connerty, Executive Director of the Trident Workforce Investment Board. "The facilities maintenance program is a great example of that. We felt very strongly this was a situation where there was a need."

The Workforce Investment Board not only provided funding for the pre-employment classroom training--it also provides funding to reimburse employers for wages paid during on-the-job training after the students are hired. Such workforce programs are available in areas across the country, Connerty notes.

The CAMT certification is one reason the program's graduates will stand out from other local job-seekers, Simpson says. "They're definitely going to come out of that with so much more than just a cursory training. When someone has an NAA certificate, they always rise to the top of the stack of resumes I get."

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Most workers have enough basic skills to function in a maintenance role, but the CAMT program emphasizes the importance of customer service, says Jimmy Kerr, Owner and Chairman of AMCS, a Charleston-based manager of about 5,000 apartments. With some of his past maintenance hires, "the problem has been interpersonal skills, the ability to learn to deal with people and realize that everyone's first job is leasing. That's what's tied in with CAMT."

Gralin Dunn, a 37-year-old graduate of the program from John's Island, says the certification speaks for itself. He landed a job even before graduation with the Kiawah Island resort when the resort had a job opening and came to the facilities maintenance class for interviews. The certification "says you're knowledgeable and have some sort of aptitude in the field," says Dunn, a licensed real estate agent who relocated from New York. "It sets you head and shoulders above the average technician in the area."

Making a Career Choice

With the inaugural class out the door, Trident Technical College and the apartment industry are turning their focus to the future. "My hopes are, for the apartment industry and related industries, that we will have an influx of blood to this particular career choice," Cowart says.

At least five South Carolina technical colleges have contacted Kling about the maintenance curriculum. "Other schools could easily pick this up and run with it," Kling says. "With the stimulus money coming down to our schools, many of them are taking a look at our program to see how it fits their geographical areas." TTC hopes to conduct the program three times a year, and began its second facilities maintenance class in July.

The students, meanwhile, also are turning their eyes to the future, with goals that range from part-time jobs to becoming property owners themselves. Seven of the 11 students had been hired as of late August. Henry Nowicki, the auto industry veteran, started work in June at Hoffman's property management firm. Within three weeks, he was already telling the maintenance director that he could finish an apartment turn by himself.

"That was great that he felt comfortable enough to ask to be on his own to do a turn," Hoffman says. "I'm hoping that I can see that he learns from my technicians and he can teach others what he learns from this program. I'm excited for Henry and can't wait for him to start and see all his hard work come to fruition."

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Vet Finds Role in Military Housing Management

A hero has been hired. After interviewing with NAA members at the 2009 NAA Education Conference & Exposition, Joshua DeDecker, a military veteran from Nashville, Tenn., was hired by Lincoln Military Housing, which owns and manages more than 31,000 military family homes for the Army, Navy and Marines. DeDecker attended the conference through Hire A Hero, a program supported by the NAA and the NAA Education Institute that provides employment services to returning service members.

"Josh has an amazing personality and is very charismatic, which makes him a perfect fit to provide great management and customer service," says Jim Brady, Vice President, Lincoln Military Housing. "In his role, he will provide property management services to military families. His previous service to our country gives him an empathetic and very personal perspective that not all people have."

The Web site, www.HireAHero.org, serves the greater military community by providing access to meaningful employment and connects veterans to mentors (those who are currently employed in the civilian sector but formerly in the military). The site has more than 190,000 veterans registered.

Jeffrey Lee is NAA's Staff Writer. He can be reached at 703/797-0647 or jeffreylee@naahq.org.
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Date:Sep 1, 2009
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