Virtual Training

7 min read

Strengthening the Affordable Housing Workforce in an Online World   

Looking to instruct an employee on the correct way to plunge a toilet or use a ladder? Need to train property managers in effective communications or bring asset managers up to speed on the latest trends? There is likely an online tutorial out there to fit your needs.

Amid the ongoing worker shortage, leaders in the affordable housing space are increasingly using online training to provide employees with the skills they need to manage and maintain properties. From training produced in-house to off-the-shelf virtual training developed by outside companies, affordable housing employees are utilizing the virtual space.

“Our maintenance staff are always out in the field and the fact that they have instant training on their phones makes it easier for them to get a quick refresher in a skill,” says Kim Moffa, vice president of human resources, who oversees the talent development team for Pennrose, an affordable housing development and property management company. “It works very well for our company in how we train maintenance staff.”

“It’s a professional, vetted system that we can trust that delivers the right message that we want for our associates,” adds Kevin Hankins, vice president of maintenance for Pennrose.

Ari Beliak, president and CEO of Merritt Community Capital, a California-based syndicator, says his company launched its Commitment to California initiative, which grants money to cross-organizational programs and oversees several of the programs. These programs use both virtual and in-person training and mentorship to attract, train and retain employees in the affordable housing industry. It primarily focuses on development, finance, policy, asset management and property management. He says it is possible they may expand into virtual maintenance training in the future.

“As an industry, we have not invested sufficiently in people,” says Beliak. “Our programs include everything from scholarships to internships, intensive in-person sessions to virtual training. We also financially support a partnership with a community college system that trains people to become property managers in San Diego.”

Press Play, Then Fix That Faucet
Pennrose uses both in-house developed videos and outsourced online content to train staff in a variety of skill sets. For years, Pennrose employees have accessed content developed by Grace Hill, a Greenville, SC-based company that specializes in online training for employees working in commercial or multifamily residential property management.

Hankins, the vice president of maintenance for Pennrose, says he has taken many of Grace Hill’s courses himself because he wants to become familiar with the content his team is learning. The training also helps to develop consistency in maintenance procedures throughout the company, he adds.

“We want to make sure we are consistent across the board,” Hankins says.

After employees view a Grace Hill video, they must take a quiz and receive a passing grade to receive credit for the tutorial. The Grace Hill system tracks each employee’s completed video courses.

Both Moffa and Hankins say they view online training as a supplement to in-the-field training. Sometimes employees need a refresher, and the videos accomplish that goal.

“It is definitely a supplement,” says Moffa. “Nothing beats hands-on learning, but sometimes you just need a refresher.”

Home Depot and Lowe’s also offer video training in maintenance.

“Most of them are free to customers, but some do have a cost associated with them,” Hankins says of the Home Depot and Lowe’s videos and courses.

Moffa adds that the firm pushes out training to staff through its MyPennrose internal messaging system.

“We push out information to our employees. The system is integrated with (Microsoft) Teams,” she says. “It will push out a message for them to watch a video or read a script.”

“All of our maintenance team members are provided iPhones to communicate with Grace Hill or MyPennrose so they can train in the field,” adds Hankins.

 A few months ago, Pennrose started developing its own online training content in-house.

“We selected well-trained employees to teach content not offered on Grace Hill,” says Hankins. “We videotaped them then vetted the content to ensure it follows our protocols.”

The in-house videos train employees in simple maintenance tasks, such as hanging a door, testing an air conditioner or fixing a faucet. The panoply of training videos produced by Grace Hill, Lowe’s or Home Depot, include videos on golf cart safety, ladder safety, HVAC diagnostics, troubleshooting electric furnaces and water heaters, maintenance techniques that can help conserve power and water, preventative maintenance, and flooring care. Other courses provide step-by-step tips on such topics as preparing a market-ready apartment, lead poisoning awareness, lifting safety, common plumbing repairs, dishwasher troubleshooting and installing a tile floor – to name a few.

Courses in fair housing policies and workplace safety are also available.

“The fair housing and safety videos are required (of Pennrose employees) in the first 30, 60 and 90 days of employment,” says Hankins. “As we promote people, we ask them to take more courses.”

Online Tools Bringing Employees Into the Affordable Housing Field
Beliak says that Merritt views investing in people and building a new era of leaders in affordable housing as key components of its mission. To attain those goals, Merritt has focused heavily on programs that support people to make the industry more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

“Merritt invests across the state of California. Unlike specific employers, we benefit when the state of California benefits,” Beliak says. “It supports our mission as a California-based investor.”

Several of Merritt’s Commitment to California programs are virtual or hybrid and allow participants to be located anywhere in the state.

“We have been working a lot to support asset management,” he says. “There are a lot of opportunities in this area and an underinvestment in fostering new talent.”

Merritt’s 2023 cohort of 25 asset managers across the state receive virtual training that leverages expertise from the Consortium for Housing and Asset Management (CHAM).

“We try to get the best we can out of the virtual platform,” he says. “This is primarily a virtual program and includes multiple modules of online classes and virtual instructor-led sessions. In addition, since so many problems are solved by contacting people in one’s network, we also focus on helping build their professional community, so people have someone to call.”

The Merritt Scholars Program is virtual and in-person. Merritt partners with the California State University system and other universities in California to attract people to affordable housing careers by linking them with mentors in the industry who teach them about the business.

“We have several ‘Meet the Leaders’ sessions throughout the year that are held online. The focus of the program is networking and learning about the affordable housing industry,” says Beliak. “We bring in industry leaders to talk about their experience and career trajectory.”

Twenty Merritt Scholars are participating this year and will meet with affordable housing leaders with expertise in development, finance, policy and government.

“It is virtual, but it is a very small group of people so they can ask industry leaders individual and specific questions,” he says.

Merritt looks all over the country to find compatible mentors for students. Last year, a match was found with a mentor from Boston and a California-based scholar. The group of mentors and mentees also met in person at an event in Southern California. The remainder of the meetings are online. Of the 16 scholars who participated in the program last year, 15 decided to work in the affordable housing industry. Eighty percent of those 15 now have jobs in the field.

Beliak adds that Merritt hopes to move more of its programs into the virtual space as it allows them to expand their reach.

“Everything we are doing we are trying to bring a virtual component to it,” he says. “We really believe that relationships are the most important way people move up in their careers. The virtual programs allow us to engage people in low-cost training wherever they are and to partner with other people and organizations regardless of location.”  

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.