For the past five years, someone from Indianapolis-based Van Rooy Cos. has placed in the top three in Atlanta-based HD Supply and the National Apartment Association’s “Maintenance Mania” competition, where maintenance technicians compete against each other in skill-based games built around common maintenance activities.

Several factors are behind Van Rooy’s five-peat—including local association classes, internal workshops, and a mentoring program—but, ultimately, Bruce Mills, vice president of management operations at Van Rooy, says the company’s success comes from maintenance empowerment, preparation, and a strong spirit of camaraderie.

“We set up stations that mirror the stations in the event that will be at the state level and at the national level,” Mills says. “We have it down to a ‘T’ in terms of all of the requirements. We have the timers and the dimensions. By the time they go to state and national competition, they’ve been through the drill 200 times.”

Still, the biggest outcome of Van Rooy’s investment in Maintenance Mania preparation isn’t the trophies. Instead, it’s the camaraderie that its team develops in the training process. As other apartment owners point out, the key to developing and sustaining a capable and qualified on-site maintenance team is to establish strong communication between and rapport among service team members so that they’re willing to rely on each other for advice. Through the use of three tactics—team-building and mentoring activities; online video training; and partnered professional development—apartment managers have found a way to make their maintenance techs top-notch, even if the only competition they’re winning is the one for resident satisfaction.

1. Team building and mentoring

To train for Maintenance Mania, Van Rooy brings its team of 25 maintenance professionals together for an “open forum,” either at owner Adam Van Rooy’s Indianapolis house or over lunch. Skills are improved, but so is communication. “That kind of maintenance social hour has spurred a lot of good communication,” says Bobby Bridge, regional manager at Van Rooy, which has 10,875 units under management. “They have the opportunity to get to know each other. They tend to develop respect for certain techs in certain areas and know who to call upon if they have an issue.”

What’s more, the company also includes maintenance in its other operational meetings, which further opens up lines of communication. “We have monthly marketing meetings that we tend to invite the maintenance staff to,” Mills says. “That way, each property is not on an island. Every maintenance staffer knows the other maintenance staffers.”

Like a number of apartment operators, Memphis, Tenn.–based Fogelman Management Group has a mentoring program for its 200-large service team. The mentor, often a “superstar” in the Fogelman organization, can sign off on when the trainee learns a policy, such as a corporate standard or HVAC procedure. And there are other benefits. “If you have any questions, you have a peer to call to bounce things off of,” says Melissa Smith, executive vice president for Fogelman.

Dallas-based property management ­giant Riverstone Residential Group, which staffs a whopping 1,700 maintenance professionals to serve its 170,000 units, also uses mentors to develop maintenance managers, while Ann Arbor, Mich.–based McKinley uses a buddy-system approach. “We partner maintenance people with other people on their team and other people at other properties,” says Kenneth Polsinelli, chief real estate officer for McKinley, which manages 33,922 units and employs a team of 350 in its maintenance department. “Every maintenance person has a buddy whom he partners with whom he can really be a colleague, mentor, and resource to.”

The cost for offering such mentoring and communication programs is minimal, encompassing little more than the payroll costs for the time needed to attend training sessions and a few hundred dollars for a monthly lunch.

2. Online video training

Many apartment companies are discovering that technology has further enhanced the ability of a seasoned maintenance manager to serve as mentor—without even meeting his or her protégé. How? YouTube.

Fogelman, for instance, has its maintenance team recording five- and six-minute clips on the company’s channel. The company aims to have 60 field-recorded maintenance and repair videos up by the end of the year after starting in June 2011. The cost to do this is minimal—about $100 per camera handed out at its managers conference. “We gave flip cameras to all attendees at our managers conference, and many people have been using them to produce [videos],” Smith says. “Some others have gone above and beyond and used personal, higher-end video cameras and editing software. We wanted to be organic but are having some challenges ensuring professionalism and video ­compatibility.”

In the online Fogelman training videos, the techs will run through specific tasks, such as switching out a circuit breaker or garbage disposal.

Riverstone, which has about 35 videos in its library, encourages its maintenance team to use their phone video cameras to capture the repair process and upload the clips to the company’s YouTube reference library as well. “If someone needs to get CPO-certified, and they don’t know how to do it, they could click on the videos and see someone going through the steps,” says Dave Denslow, senior vice president of national maintenance and purchasing at Riverstone.

Smith is expecting Fogelman’s YouTube channel to continue to grow, driven in part by the fact that it’s accessible 24/7. “Service teams aren’t the first to raise their hands for help,” Smith says. “They’re fix-it people. So they fix it on their own. At least we’re offering something where they don’t have to ask for help.”

Riverstone has also evolved to on-­demand type training where students can go online to take hourlong classes at any time. “We have maintenance-specific courses on plumbing, drywall, appliance repair, and how to do make-readies,” Denslow says. “It literally goes through the electrical system and how the circuits work.”

Riverstone has a national practices platform that covers professional conduct, safety and OSHA practices, property inspections, emergency preparedness, and everyday maintenance functions. Some of these maintenance practices are accompanied by the company’s own professionally made training videos, but the majority of its “how to” maintenance training videos came through its partnership with HD Supply.

3. Education with partners

Despite the shift to peer-to-peer mentoring and user-generated training videos, apartment companies haven’t eliminated traditional classroom education from their repertoire. However, if and when formal training is used, it’s often in conjunction with partners, whether suppliers, associations, or even community colleges.

Fogelman, for example, sends its people to suppliers that conduct seminars. “Some [seminars] are for products, but some are for skills,” Smith says.

Riverstone, meanwhile, has specific maintenance courses offered only in a classroom setting. The company partners with HD Supply for video training, as well. “You can log in to a personal education portal and click on ‘electrical repair,’?” Denslow says. “It’s an HD Supply video that shows the ins and outs of electrical repair and the troubleshooting, as well.”

Van Rooy relies on the Indiana Apartment Association for many of its courses but will sponsor its own classes for things like EPA certification, asbestos awareness, and lead-based-paint removal techniques. McKinley, too, works with local associations to achieve annual maintenance certification. In two of its markets, the company partners with local community colleges to develop and educate maintenance technicians. In fact, the company offers its management super­visors as adjunct professors or guest lecturers. “They will teach basic property management main­tenance skills, such as painting drywall, plumbing, and HVAC,” Polsinelli says.

McKinley even helps the community colleges design lab space and classrooms where students can get that hands-on experience. The firm believes that by having its employees as teachers, McKinley isn’t just putting the industry in front of prospective employees; it’s also helping to train a new generation of maintenance professionals. “Sometimes, the apartment industry doesn’t have the reputation it deserves as far as the quality career it can be,” Polsinelli says.