Patrick George

The perfect employee is loyal, flexible, and able to get the job done right first time every time. The perfect employee also is just about impossible to find. But, over time, you can groom employees to be all that you hoped, provided you take the time to train them and provide them with a career path.

Over the past decade, businesses across the U.S. have realized that employee development and training makes a big difference in a company’s eventual success. Employer spending shows it: According to data compiled by Deloitte’s research group, Bersin, U.S. employers increased their training budgets by 15% in 2013, up from 12% in 2012, 10% in 2011, and just 2% in 2010. Of those budgets, 35 cents of every dollar went toward leadership development. Clearly, plenty of businesses think it’s the right time to train. And with remodeling work picking up again, it might be time for you to do the same.

It is not a good idea to just hire kids at $10 an hour ... and then have them spend the first year sweeping floors, hauling lumber, and driving trucks. They probably won’t stay around very long.

Training Tips

In the construction industry, training programs can range from simple to complex, and there are a multitude of strategies remodelers can use to train field employees. One of the most basic ways is to have the employee shadow a more-experienced member of your crew. That’s the setup for field employees at Cape Associates, in Eastham, Mass. “We encourage our upper-level carpenters, which are our journeymen and foremen, to demonstrate, teach, and mentor the lower-skilled carpenters whenever possible,” says Lindsay Cole, human resources manager at the company. To further encourage mentorship, Cape Associates created an award program to celebrate its most talented teachers.

Patrick George

Tim Faller, training expert and president of Field Training Services, which provides remodelers with management training and consulting services, says that he’s a fan of mentoring programs. But, he points out, the person you designate as an on-the-job trainer shouldn’t necessarily be the project manager or lead carpenter.

“A lot of these people just want to do their jobs and not be bothered with training new people,” Faller says. “Instead, find someone who enjoys working with people, who is a good communicator, who is patient, who enjoys the opportunity to train, and who enjoys explaining why something is done a certain way, rather than just telling the person what to do.” If you have an employee you’d like to promote, but you can’t quite justify a pay raise for their current position, Faller recommends paying them a little extra per hour to take on some training responsibilities.

As the boss, you could always train the greenhorns. But if you don’t have the time to personally show them the ropes, Faller says you should at least give them a checklist to use every time they do the job. “The checklist is there so that everybody is trained in every step,” Faller says. The idea is, eventually, your employees won’t need the checklist to do things the right way.

Planting the idea of developing skills and growing a career is also important. When you hire a rookie employee, first make sure they have all the necessary tools. Faller says you should tell new field workers that they need to start work with a hammer, a nail apron, a tape measure, a T-square, gloves, and a good pair of boots. This may sound like common sense, but it’s important to prepare your employee for what would come next: “In three months,” Faller says, “tell them they need to invest in some hand tools, then electric tools three months after that, and so on.” The idea is to create, or to at least make them think about, their career development at your company. New tools serve as a benchmark for that development.

“You need to show them that there is a future in the work,” Faller says. “It is not a good idea to just hire kids at $10 an hour, tell them that you will ‘see what happens,’ and then have them spend the first year sweeping floors, hauling lumber, and driving trucks. They probably won’t stay around very long.” It’s OK to start employees out at $10 per hour, local wage rules permitting, but make sure that they know there’s a promotion in sight if they prove themselves. “[Tell them] once they are able to demonstrate these five or eight skills, that you will raise them to $12 an hour,” Faller says.

For a new employee, being able to envision the future is key to a smooth transition. It’s equally important, Faller points out, to give them the benefit of the doubt right up front. Assume that they know the job they’re doing, or can learn to do that job. Trust should be lost, not earned.

“Within a month’s time, you’re going to know whether they’re catching on or not,” Faller says. If they don’t learn or improve during the first month, consider keeping them as simple laborers, or let them go.

Patrick George

Best Practices

Is the best training optional or mandatory? Specific or general? There’s a case to be made for all four.

Part of the training provided by Case Design/Remodeling, based in Bethesda, Md., is mandatory. “We put many of our people through the EPA lead certification training,” says Joe Divel, the company’s business development manager. Craftsmen, helpers, warehouse workers, project managers, and everyone else on the job receives that training. “We also put our people through mandatory safety training, which occurs at least once a month.”

In addition, Case Design/Remodeling also offers some optional training. “In planning for craftsman training,” Divel says, “each year, I ask the project managers who oversee the craftsmen in the different divisions what kind of training they would like the craftsmen to receive during the year.”

At Normandy Design Build Remodeling, in Hinsdale, Ill., employee training varies by department. “A big part of what I do is provide training to our new hires in the design sales role,” says Troy Pavelka, design manager/architect. “In addition, two or three times a year, I arrange to bring in our partners, such as plumbing providers and cabinet providers, to conduct training for all of our people in design sales.”

Another way to help employees develop and gain new skills is through training and certification programs offered by professional associations. “We encourage our people to get involved in NARI [National Association of the Remodeling Industry] certification programs,” Divel says. “Last year, about 14 of our people received NARI’s Universal Design certification. We’ve found that a lot of young designers are really hungry for this certification, and they come to the study groups that we provide, on time and ready to learn.” You might also want to consider turning some of your employees into teachers as a learning tool.

At Neil Kelly Co., employees are encouraged to school their colleagues. “We have carpenters teach a class to new project managers and designers called ‘How to Work Effectively With Carpenters,’” says Julia Spence, vice president of human resources for the company. “We also have our people provide technical training, such as how to install windows, the newest process for installing cabinets, etc.” Neil Kelly Co. found that having its people teach, in addition to learning, helps employees become better at what they do.

“Putting something together to teach [others] requires that they beef up and double-check their own knowledge of what they do,” Spence says. Case Design/Remodeling also utilizes the concept. “We send our people to some shows every year to receive training,” Divel says. “To make sure they make the most of this training, we require them to come back and tell everyone else what they learned.”

One of our executive vice presidents was once a carpenter foreman. A manager of one of our $1 million divisions was once our truck driver.

Budgeting for Betterment

How much money should you budget for training?

“Mistakes cost money,” Faller says. “We’re all in this to make money. We can’t afford to make too many mistakes.” But training doesn’t need to cost a lot, at least when it pertains to certain processes and products. There are plenty of free or reduced-cost resources that remodelers can take advantage of. Case Design/ Remodeling, for instance, arranges for many of the vendors it uses to provide product-specific training for its employees.

“One focus this year is tile, so we’re sending a lot of our people off for this specific training,” Divel says. “In some cases, vendors arrange to send people here to do training.” And in some states, there are grant initiatives. Cape Associates makes use of a general training program and a safety grant program, both provided by the state of Massachusetts. “These involve applying for training grants, both in the area of safety as well as general training, such as carpentry, leadership, technology, and industry knowledge,” Cole says. Every state is different, so you will need to research what training your state offers to local businesses.

However you pay for it, implementing a training program will pay off. For Cape Associates, training programs over the years have helped employees advance their careers. “One of our executive vice presidents was once a carpenter foreman,” Cole notes. “A manager of one of our $1 million divisions was once our truck driver, and a manager in our fastest-growing division was once a secretary,” says Cole. And, Faller says, once you’ve set a new entry-level employee down the right path, that person can end up being a lead carpenter in as little as two years, depending on the worker’s attitude and willingness to advance.

Patrick George

Culture Clash

You can lead an employee to your culture, but you can’t make them think. Complicated as it may be, sharing and interpreting your vision is an important step that gets your employees on the same page. How do you communicate that vision? And what should you strive for?

First, know that every company’s culture is different, even for businesses in the same industry. The workplace environment at Microsoft differs greatly from that of Apple or Google. But there are usually similarities, too. Last year, the Harvard Business Review listed six components of a “great corporate culture”: vision, values, practices, people, narrative, and having a sense of place. If your business embodies those concepts, you’ll have a strong foundation on which to build a cohesive culture.

Jack Nichols, a retired contractor in Lakewood, Calif., says that his company, Jack Nichols General Contracting, valued safety, order, and doing things right the first time. During his decades in the business, Nichols made sure that his employees knew what he wanted them to do and why he wanted them to do it. Though Nichols didn’t call it a “culture” at the time, he practiced mentorship and lead the company in a way that ensured his employees felt empowered and accountable for their actions.

“I would take the time to work with them,” Nichols says. “They began to realize it was for their benefit, not mine.” And the reason he did it that way was simple: His company’s culture helped prevent accidents and injuries to its employees.

You could also go the scientific route. At Mark IV Builders, in Cabin John, Md., owner Mark Scott has his supervisory employees take a DISC Compass Leadership Report test, which measures everything from general personality traits to behavioral styles and work tendencies. “It tells you a whole lot about your personality,” Scott says. With this knowledge, Scott has a better sense of how to approach and talk to each of his supervisors, which, in turn, helps him tailor his message to each of them. The company even writes up do-and-don’t lists for talking to each employee based on their test results.

“It’s bothersome how much information a computer can come up with in 20 minutes,” Scott says. “I don’t want to be that predictable.” Instead of forcing them to adapt his particular world view, Scott cultivates each employees’ strengths and weaknesses and bases how he interacts with them around those traits. For instance, an employee who is sensitive to confrontation may prefer to be spoken to in a softer tone. And because training is all about the human connection, establishing the right tone with employees can make all the difference in whether they treat you like a leader who they want to follow on their career journey, or just another boss.

Bill Atkinson also contributed to this article. See his story about internships.