Toughest task: Finding and retaining good people

May 11, 2000
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It’s the biggest problem for everyone in the building trades. How do you find, and keep, good people?

 Look inward first. The best recruiters are your own loyal employees. Before you spend a single dollar placing want ads, inform every good worker on your staff of the job you wish to fill and invite them to come up with potential candidates from within their circles of family and friends. Good employees tend to recommend like-minded people.

Once in a while they might saddle you with a worthless relative who can’t hang on to a job, but for the most part they won’t want to embarrass themselves.

Pay for results.

Offer your current employees a recruiting bonus, and make it substantial (say, $1,000 or more, contingent on the recruit lasting at least six months or a year). That would inspire current employees to do some arm twisting to bring prospects to your door.

Think about how much it costs to run a classified ad in a big city newspaper, and the kind of responses it typically brings. Think about all the training expense that goes down the drain every time an employee turns over.

Now ask yourself whether a $1,000 recruiting bonus sounds like too much to pay for an employee recommended by another one you trust.

Constantly recruit.

Don’t fall into the trap of recruiting only when someone leaves and you’re desperate for a replacement. Keep feelers out there at all times. If someone outstanding pops up, hire them even if you don’t have a spot immediately available. It will pay off in the long run.

Be careful, though, not to hang on to job applications too long. Your application forms should have a notation to the effect that they are “valid for 30 days” or so. That’s because some discrimination lawsuits have been filed against companies based on job applications accumulated over a long time.

Try unconventional advertising.

In the Chicago area, UPS sent flyers to 1.4 million homes advertising for $8.50/hr package handlers and trackers. They reported better results than with classified advertising. Think of some places where flyers might prove fruitful for you. How about home center parking lots, outside of factories where work is slow, etc.

The Irish Plumber, a plumbing and hvac service firm in Villa Park, IL, constantly runs cable TV ads looking for help. The spots always announce that candidates must be experienced and able to pass a drug test. This not only helps screen out drug users, it conveys a powerful marketing impression to potential customers.

Make women and minorities feel welcome.

“Equal Opportunity Employer” has become boilerplate language. People will take more notice if you spell out that “We encourage women and minorities to apply.”

Figure out why people leak away.

A human resources consultant hired by an organization of plumbing-heating-air conditioning contractors determined that 85% to 90% of employee turnover stemmed from “failed interpersonal relationships.” Supervisors in the trades are almost always promoted because of their technical expertise, regardless of people skills.

How many of you put your supervisors through any kind of training that has to do with managing people? You wouldn’t think of doing business without some policies and procedures to safeguard your tools and equipment, would you? Do no less for your most valuable assets.

Offer unique benefits.

Pay is not the most important consideration to many people. Some may be attracted by flexible hours or other job benefits. For instance, many contracting firms report great results offering four-day work weeks, 10 hrs a day. Many people really enjoy having the extra day off for recreation or to tend to personal matters.

Maybe child care is an issue. Not many of you have the wherewithal to set up an in-house child care facility, but maybe you can establish a quid pro quo with a reputable day care center in your area.

Are you working your people 60 hrs a week? When that happens, employees are hard-pressed for time to do grocery shopping, laundry, and other household errands. Some companies have been known to hire part-time “gofers” for their employees in situations like that.

Try drug testing for fun!

An air conditioning company in Arizona has a drug testing policy in effect in which employees are chosen at random once a quarter to undergo testing. To put a positive spin on the program, the owner made it voluntary by developing a raffle in which he contributes $1 per month for each employee participating.

Once a quarter, a name gets drawn at random to undergo the testing, and the selected individual wins the accumulated pot.

What an ingenious way to handle this potentially sensitive intrusion. And although participation is voluntary, peer pressure gets virtually everyone participating.

Target disgruntled white collar workers.

Parents, peers, and school counselors all push teenagers toward college, but many of these kids have greater trade aptitude than academic interests. They either drop out or muddle through college and end up in a job they hate.

Try placing an ad in your local college paper and see if it attracts some disgruntled students.

Distribute flyers at bars and other popular hangouts for 20- and 30-somethings. Older apprentices tend to be more mature and appreciative of opportunity than their younger counterparts.

Don’t put up artificial barriers.

The classified pages are filled with want ads demanding “3 years experience . . . 5 years experience.” Does that make sense? Some people have a better grasp of the work with two years under their belt than grizzled veterans who’ve had decades to reinforce bad habits.

Don’t discourage good people from applying by asking for a year or two more of experience than they can offer. “Experience wanted” will suffice to keep away the raw novices.

Assign apprenticeship costs to overhead.

You won’t save any money, but there is a subtle change in psychology about training when it gets absorbed into overhead rather than tallied as a labor cost. There’s something about the labor burden that gives most contractors the shakes, while overhead tends to get shrugged off as “the cost of doing business.” This is a good way to look at training expense.

Be available during off hours.

Most good job candidates are already working for someone else. They stand to lose pay by taking time off to interview for other jobs with no assurance of landing one. You increase your chance of meeting top-notch people if you make yourself available for job interviews before or after normal working hours.

More savvy hiring skills

Here’s a time saver: When you first contact job applicants, be sure to inform them of your company’s grooming, dress code, drug testing or other policies that some folks can’t abide by. No sense wasting your time or theirs in an interview only to find out that the applicant values his nose rings more than your job.

Reference checking tips: Many past employers are touchy about giving out information due to fear of defamation lawsuits. Here are some ways to wheedle information out of reluctant sources.

  • Don’t just call people given as references by the job applicant. Contact people not on the list who were likely to have had dealings with the person, such as suppliers, co-workers, GCs, etc.
  • When you call a past employer, try to talk to the candidate’s past supervisor. If s/he is reluctant to give out detailed information, ask one simple question — “Would you hire this person again?”
  • Talk to more than one person before making any decision. Keep in mind that some past employers might badmouth an applicant to get even with the person for leaving.

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