Where Have All The Termite Technicians Gone?

The industry has changed — and so has the role of the traditional termite employee.

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Every year, PCT recognizes the industry’s top termite technician as part of the Technician of the Year awards program. And every year, the number of nominations for termite technician are becoming fewer and fewer. That’s led to some head-scratching and question-asking in our Cleveland office. Namely, where have all the termite technicians gone?

Well, if you’re a termite technician and you’re reading this, you’d probably tell us you haven’t gone anywhere (and if that’s the case, we’ll be looking for your completed nomination form in July).

But according to Specialty Consultants, which annually surveys the pest management industry, the average number of termite technicians per company has dropped from 3.1 in 2000 to 2.7 in 2014. It’s difficult to say why, said Specialty Consultants President Gary Curl.

The pest management professionals we interviewed told us this: Termite control has changed so dramatically that the role of ‘termite technician’ in the traditional sense no longer exists.

NOT THE SAME JOB. Better products and application tools have made a huge difference, said PMPs. In the old days, a crew rolled up in a pickup truck with a tank full of liquid termiticide and they spent the day (or two) trenching, rodding, drilling and injecting product into the ground, into areas in the crawlspace and even to indoor plumbing penetrations.

Today, conventional termite jobs are still dirty, but they’ve become less labor-intensive. For example, recent label changes to a leading liquid non-repellent product mean technicians don’t have to dig as deep, drill as many holes or apply as many gallons. And a new high-precision injection system, looking a lot like a jackhammer but without delivering the kick, eliminates the need for trenching altogether and has turned this type of termiticide application into a one-person job.

And then there are the bait systems.

“If somebody had told me 30 years ago that I was going to be killing termites by putting a piece of plastic in the ground with a wood stake I would have told them they were crazy,” said Donnie Blake, president of OPC Pest Control in Louisville, Ky. Baiting is 95 percent of his termite business and although the company still does directed treatments of liquid termiticide to knock down infestations (and give customers extra assurance), most of his technicians “have never done conventional termite work,” Blake said.

New technology has sped up the process, which means termite technicians are “able to do more jobs in a day than they ever could,” said Mike Rottler, president of Rottler Pest & Lawn Solutions in St. Louis. In the Midwest, that means termite work now occurs in a three-month window, more in line with the seasonality of the pest, instead of filling the calendar like in the old days, he said.

Companies are capitalizing on this new-found free time. Many are shifting from termite-only to “universal” employees who are “skilled to do whatever job is necessary,” said Greg Baumann, who leads technical services and regulatory affairs for Nisus Corporation. This lets PMPs “maximize labor” for more flexible routing and ensures technicians have full schedules so they stay on the payroll year round, he said.

Technology has made termite control less labor-intensive, but the work still involves inspecting and treating in tight, enclosed spaces such as crawlspaces.
© SLRadcliffe | iStock.com

City Wide Exterminating in Charlotte, N.C., cross-trains technicians to control pests and termites (using both liquids and baits), although some employees have deeper knowledge in specific areas, said Operations Director Ashley Morrison. “Being small, we have to wear a lot of hats” to make everything run smoothly, she explained.

Being a specialist “is not in the interest of your career” anymore, said Rottler, whose employees are all universal to some degree. One of his best termite technicians retired because he didn’t want to perform nuisance wildlife work like his coworkers and there wasn’t enough termite work to keep him busy full time. “Long term, he knew the job was changing,” Rottler said.

Even for companies like U.S. Pest Protection in Hendersonville, Tenn., with dedicated termite technicians, the “job has expanded” beyond classic termite work, said Technical Director Ron Schwalb. In addition to conventional liquid termite treatments, his employees treat for wood-destroying fungi and beetles, do moisture control work and install encapsulated crawl- spaces.

And many companies now do bait station monitoring and inspections as part of their general pest routes.

Maybe PCT gets fewer termite nomination forms because technicians don’t view themselves as being exclusively termite technicians anymore, said Schwalb. Instead, they’re more versatile and have diverse skills.

CUSTOMER SERVICE. And one skill is increasingly important: customer service, not a traditional area of expertise for termite technicians. Where residential pest control technicians have multiple visits to address customer concerns, a termite-only technician may see that customer once a year or less, explained Ron Harrison, technical director of Rollins. Rollins works with termite technicians to hone this skill “because they have that one touch and if they do a bad job with that touch the customer could be very unhappy for a long period of time,” he said.

Without regular, personal contact, clients even may question why they need to continue termite protection. That’s why Blake has a dedicated group of termite technicians who perform annual interior inspections. (A different group inspects home exteriors.) Although this adds labor costs, it helps “customers see the value in the services we provide them,” he explained.

These technicians who inspect interiors also are good at selling — another skill more PMPs want in this group of employees. At OPC Pest Control, they’ve brought in a significant amount of add-on business.

Gone are the days when the industry just “focused on getting strong, young guys to do the physical work,” said Schwalb.

While the skills needed have evolved, termites have not. “This is still a significant pest that causes a lot of structural problems for customers,” said Harrison.

That’s especially true in the subterranean termite belt that runs from Texas to New York with Louisiana being “the buckle,” said Ed Martin, president of Terminix Service Company in Metairie, La. “It is fierce here. You have houses that are protected or houses with termites in them,” he explained.

That means termite technicians aren’t going anywhere…no matter how employers classify them, how many diverse skills they have or how the industry changes in the future.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink our nomination form.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. Email her at anagro@gie.net.

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