When you’re interviewing to hire maintenance technicians or maintenance engineers, look for these five must-have soft skills. Resumés often list the hard skills acquired over the years: pump repair, electrical, plumbing, and so on. But not many resumes describe soft skills that are absolutely critical for maintenance technicians and maintenance engineers to have, especially in a regulated environment.
Scan the job listings for Maintenance Technicians or Maintenance Engineers on LinkedIn, Indeed.com, Monster.com, or Google, and you’ll find every technical job requirement you can imagine. Many of these requirements tell me that the job was posted by somebody in HR, not somebody in Maintenance or Engineering:
- perform assigned preventative maintenance tasks and repairs
- ability to troubleshoot
- review procedures as necessary
Yes, I’m sure we’ve all worked with people who have somehow managed to get away without performing the technical responsibilities while holding the title. I hope we can all agree that those are the exceptions, not the rule. Reading through job listings (and resumés) is sometimes like reading through a list of basic abilities, applying to 90% of all jobs, anywhere. Though it goes without saying, I’ll say it anyway: every job in every company has its specific requirements. Obviously, if you’re trying to hire maintenance technicians to specialize in filler and measurement controls, those are must-have hard skills.
But what about the soft skills that can make or break a production line?
You might be scratching your head, wondering what I’m talking about. You just need somebody to turn a wrench, you say to yourself.
When the production line goes down
When the production line goes down, what kind of skills do you need that maintenance tech or maintenance engineer to have, besides the obvious technical skills? These are the ones I want:
- Positive attitude
- Communication skills
- Listening skills
- A logical approach to problem solving
To me, these are the five most important soft skills a maintenance tech can have. I might add ‘a high tolerance for chaos” and ‘a sense of humor’ but I consider those sub-traits under ‘positive attitude.’
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean every maintenance tech needs to be a whistling clown who is “just happy to be alive every day here in the best job in the whole darn world.” Faced with that kind of person, you might wonder if they are actually paying attention. What I’m talking about is someone who approaches problems with confidence. Someone who is not flustered every time things don’t go their way. The last thing any of us needs in a production environment is somebody whose go-to response to any kind of breakage is to escalate to Code Red.
In an interview, you can often tell how a person responds to stress by asking them a situational question. You describe a common situation and ask how the interviewee would handle it. There is no right or wrong answer.
People who are fearful by nature or easily stressed by ambiguity often show stress symptoms when put on the spot in an interview. There are a number of physical tells, including nervous tics like finger tapping, leg shaking, or eye flutters. Other examples include stumbling over words, looking around excessively, or sometimes just going almost completely silent. Some interviewees stumble at first, and then regroup and are able to give reasonable responses. It’s important to separate the normal stress of interviewing from deflection, negativity, or what I call “know-it-all” syndrome.
While we don’t generally expect our maintenance technicians and maintenance engineers to be award-winning debaters or journalists, good solid communication skills are a must. Maintenance technicians must be able to positively interact with all types of people, especially operators. But we also frequently interact with other technicians, engineers, and inter-departmental managers.
Writing skills are more than handy
Not only that, but in a regulated environment, maintenance techs and engineers need to be able to express themselves clearly in writing. Documenting issues and operations is a huge part of work in a regulated industry. A great thing about interviews (even though, I’m guess most of you hate interviewing people) is that just talking to people can tell you a lot about how personable someone is. You’ll be able to quickly assess how they warm up to you, assuming you’re the warm-up-to-type. Does the applicant have a sense of humor? Do you? Why are these types of observations important? Personality clashes cause much long-term damage in high-stress environments. It’s best to hire employees who can navigate working relationships in a positive way.
For pity’s sake, let them talk!
I’ve interviewed hundreds of applicants for many different types of jobs in the last 35 years. I’ve also been on the interviewee side of the table at least a hundred times, maybe more. Way too many interviewers spend too much time telling the applicant about the job, the company, their last vacation, their favorite hobby–anything to keep from asking probing questions. Or they ask meaningless questions, like:
“What do you see yourself doing in 5 years?”
The last time I got that question, my honest response was “Sipping an umbrella drink on a white sand beach.”
Asking relevant interview questions is part of the job. Yes, there are many legal issues around interviews. Make sure you understand what you can and can’t ask, but don’t let HR and Legal turn your interview questions into useless pabulum. It’s so expensive to hire and train employees that it’s worth asking as many meaningful questions as you can when interviewing.
What will they do every day?
Think about what you need that person to do every day. If you want them to be a self-starter, ask them a situational question that probes how they might go about anticipating a potential problem. If the applicant says, “I just do it the way you tell me to.” then maybe not your ideal candidate.
Sometimes the resumé is the only writing sample you get
Many states prohibit companies from giving applicants tests of various sorts. So, while you may not be able to administer a writing test, you can look closely at the resumé and any supporting material the applicant brings or sends you. If you see a lot of typos, it’s not so much the writing that’s a problem but neglecting to use a spell-checker.
Find out what you can ask
Check with your HR staff, recruiters, and other managers to see what is acceptable in terms of asking them to write something. In these days of high documentation demands, clear writing is a plus. There may be specific questions you can’t ask when you try to hire maintenance technicians and maintenance engineers. It’s likely that any restrictions fall into more general lifestyle, gender, race, or national origin areas. Still, it’s always a good idea to be prepared and ask HR.
Ask them to tell you a story
As for verbal communications, ask the person what steps they generally take when they are troubleshooting on a production line. Ask for a specific example from a prior or current job. If they neglect to mention talking to the operator, that could be a problem. Maybe not a red flag, but maybe a yellow flag.
Does the applicant actually answer the question you asked?
Nervous, distracted, worried?
You might be surprised how often job applicants don’t answer the question. Sometimes, they don’t answer the question because they’re nervous. They answer with something else that was on their mind. It happens. Sometimes, they’re deflecting because it’s an area they are unfamiliar with or in which they don’t have experience. They’re afraid a weak answer will disqualify them. That’s not a good reason to avoid answering the question directly, but it also happens.
In that case, if you feel that the applicant has potential and the area of expertise you’re asking about isn’t a deal-breaker, just tell them that it won’t disqualify them if they lack experience in that area. Tell them you’re just interested in their thought process about the topic. Of course, if the applicant says he’s an expert on his resume, but then can’t or won’t answer questions about that expertise, you might want to take a pass.
But sometimes, the person simply doesn’t listen to what you’re asking. They think they know “what you’re getting at” and they start answering that question, even though you didn’t ask it. To me, this is a major red flag. This can indicate a person who has rigid opinions about the way things work. This kind of person might opt to jump right in to solve the problem instead of listening to the operator’s observations about sounds, smells, and vibrations the equipment made before stalling. This type of approach often introduces new problems.
A lousy listener can cause other, more subtle but damaging organizational problems. Make sure the people you hire know how to listen and consider all of the evidence. When you confer with other people on your team who interviewed the same applicant, be sure to ask them their impressions about the applicant’s listening skills.
The best technicians and engineers have an innate sense of curiosity. Every problem prompts an itch that they need to scratch. And that itch won’t go away until they’ve solved the problem to their satisfaction. As a follow-on quality, effective employees have a strong sense of pride in their work, and in their ability to solve complex problems. It’s part of what makes them tick.
Again, in an interview situation, asking situational questions is the best way to gauge a person’s level of curiosity in problem-solving.
Sketch it out
You may need to ask a very detailed question or even sketch out a workflow or rough schematic on a whiteboard or a piece of paper. Ask they applicant to discuss how they would approach solving a complex problem, given the environment you have described. The really engaged applicant will often take a consultative approach and ask you questions to help his or her understanding of the situation better. They may describe alternative scenarios or options.
Circling the topic
Don’t be overly concerned if they shift their discussion back and forth from asking about company SOPs or operations or constraints to describing how they handled something similar at another company. When an applicant “circles” a problem in this way, it may show that this is a person who considers different angles. An experienced worker understands that there are many factors that they may be unaware of.
A logical approach to problems
How does your applicant approach these situational questions?
- Do they ask you more questions?
- Do they think aloud or consider different options aloud?
- Or do they give you a quick answer and shut up?
- Does the person take notes while you’re talking to them?
Are there gaps in their thought process?
Considering the scenarios you’ve laid out for them, did their answers make sense to you? Or did they make suggestions that seemed completely off-the-mark, as though they misunderstood the question? Maybe they left out important steps that are givens or fundamental knowledge. Look for gaps in understanding or in their ability to explain.
A discussion is better than a tennis match
Some interviews turn into tennis matches. You know, you serve a question and the applicant bats back an answer. Ker-plunk, ker-plunk. I’ve always found a discussion is better than a tennis match. As an interviewee, I’d much rather look at a flowchart on a whiteboard and discuss potential points of conflict or weakness in a process. As an interviewer, my hope is that the applicant will do more than hit the ball back to me, but instead will grab it and run with it. When an applicant starts drawing on the board, asking questions, making suggestions, I get a warm and fuzzy feeling. Assuming the applicant’s ideas are interesting, that is. It’s very possible that you can do something more interactive like this with your applicants also.
Obviously, you can’t use these five skills as your only hiring criteria when hiring for maintenance technicians and maintenance engineers. Like I said, every job has its specific requirements and every region or company has guidelines and regulations about what you can ask and even how you ask. I encourage you to come up with a similar list of soft skills that work for you, your company, and your industry. Talk to HR and other managers you respect, for their input. Situational interviews are not new, but many people still avoid using them. I encourage you to take a look at this article on Situational Interview Questions at The Interview Guys website. The article is aimed at interviewees but you can learn a lot about asking situational questions from this piece. Lots of great examples.