Remodelers who lament the challenges of attracting new people to the profession often point to external factors — the demise of vocational education, the aging workforce, slackened work ethics — as the causes of their plight. By the same token, they identify educators, policy makers, parents, and other external entities as the desired agents of change.
Perhaps they should be looking in the mirror instead. In the highly fragmented remodeling industry, some of the most successful solutions to the skilled worker shortage are emerging from the bottom up, in modest but resourceful endeavors launched at the local level. These scrappy startups may seem inconsequential in the scheme of the $295 billion remodeling industry, but they're sustaining good companies and injecting them with bold new thinking for at least another generation or two. Collectively — and by the time the housing market is back on its feet — they might even help restore a sense of national luster to the building trades.
Here's a sampling of initiatives and opportunities, organized into four general categories:
Patience, persistence, and personal contacts are emerging as the three Ps of education. Schools face intensifying pressure to raise achievement in subjects such as math, science, and communications, and, in many areas, to just teach basic English. This, combined with the relatively high cost of building materials, makes it increasingly unlikely that construction classes will ever find their way back into the core curriculum.
In terms of educational trends, two divergent movements stand out. At the one extreme, remodelers and educators agree that construction education should be integrated with core academic and business-related classes, to meet employer demand for critical thinkers. At the other extreme, many remodelers cite a need for remedial education in areas such as math and reading — as well as in work habits. David Yost, a building construction teacher in West Virginia, recalls a builder telling him "that if I just taught students how to show up for work on time, work a full day, have a willingness to work with others, and a willingness to stick with things, I wouldn't have to teach them anything else."
"Literally 50% of our grade is for attendance," says Dave Borgatti, an instructor at The Wood Construction Center at Seattle Central Community College. "It's petrifying." One remodeler told him: "I've got some geniuses and some plodders, but I'll take plodders anytime. I know they'll show up."
Above all, prepare for the long haul. Remodeler John DeCiantis, who has put in long hours to help the Home Builders Association of Connecticut develop successful "trade day" programs and construction programming at a community college, says, "The key to making these efforts work is for remodelers to volunteer their time realizing they may not see a return on it. But maybe our children will."
Leverage connections. As an overall educational strategy, working with school bureaucracies to strengthen vocational education from the top down is often dishearteningly frustrating to remodelers. Underscoring the general theme of bottom-up activism, they've had more luck building relationships one by one — with teachers, principals, parents, and other "adult influencers" who are often surprisingly pleased to learn that remodeling doesn't mean handyman jobs for low achievers but creative, lucrative, and lifelong careers for educated professionals.
As with any effort, a collective impact is stronger than a single point of contact. Enlist the help of your colleagues — even a few friendly competitors — to find meaningful ways of getting on educators' radar screens. Nationwide, we've heard of chapters of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and the National Association of Home Builders Remodelers (NAHBR) partnering with school systems in a broad range of activities.
Counsel the counselors. High school counselors often perceive remodeling as dirty, unskilled, industrial-age work. Take the time to show them how its career possibilities include not only sophisticated positions in production, but also the different tracks that lead to design, estimating, business ownership, and more. "The ones listening are surprised," Borgatti says. "They're like, 'This is a really viable career.'"
Build critical mass in working with school professionals. The Home Builders Association of Connecticut asked its members to make personal contacts with school counselors; some 200 members had visited high schools as of late last year.
In Fairfax County, Va., famous for high college placement rates, a small but robust construction education program directly targets counselors. An initiative called "Camp CTE" (for career and technical education) invites counselors to see the county's trade programs firsthand. When students in the construction program completed a $2.1 million, all-brick home, 15 counselors were shuttled out for a site visit that included presentations from construction companies and other allied professionals.
The Home Builders Institute, the workforce development arm of the NAHB, sponsors events with the American School Counselors Association. "It's a way to reach out to the opinion shapers," says Steven Kramer, HBI's vice president.
Make the case for CTE. Career and technical education is the umbrella term for schooling that combines academics with career-specific technical subject matter. With content ranging from medicine to automotive repair, CTE might have greater sway with educational decision makers than the more outmoded "vocational education" because it both prepares students for college and is proven effective in reducing high school dropout rates, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education. Every chance you get — from chats with teachers and principals to appearances before school boards and local officials — "get the word out that career and technical programs are important and beneficial," says David Snyder, who teaches at the Career and Technology Center of Frederick County (Maryland). For more about CTE programs, visit www.acteonline.org.
Enlist professionals from other industries to work with you ? colleagues, perhaps, in complementary fields such as accounting, banking, and insurance. David Foster of Remodeling Solutions, Lorton, Va., has played a role in shaping the construction curriculum of Fairfax County Public Schools by serving on the advisory council of its Foundation for Applied Technical Education. "It's been very helpful to have the caliber of the other board members," Foster says, especially given the system's enormity (46,000 high school students) and strong academic focus.
Teach the teachers. Identify local schools with construction programs, Borgatti suggests. Then, introduce yourself to teachers. Offer to volunteer, be a guest lecturer, do classroom demonstrations (your employees can do this too), or lead field trips to jobsites. Alert teachers to summer job openings; do they have any good candidates in their classes?
A few minutes of hands-on doing or visually stimulating teaching can add immediate relevance to abstract concepts that wither on the blackboard. "I get blank stares when I talk about the Pythagorean theorem," Yost says. "Then I show them how it applies to building," using simple tools like a tape measure, a framing square, and a floor on which to lay it all out. "After about two minutes, they start understanding that construction is all about right angles."
Reach out to math and science teachers, too, Borgatti says. They might be happy to help you develop a simple lesson plan that applies math to framing load calculations, for example, or shows how geometry relationships work in a stair stringer or rafter. A science teacher might help you with a lesson plan about, say, energy efficiency, passive solar heating, or some other topic of interest (yes, green is golden to the up-and-coming generation).
Think outside the classroom. "Provide equipment for classrooms and labs. Provide tours. Create job shadowing and internship opportunities. Get on a steering committee," says Tom Holdsworth, director of communications and government relations for SkillsUSA.
"Get involved with after-school programs and activities," Snyder suggests. "After-school and community projects are a way to get the word out about remodeling, without fighting the public school system." In fact, after-school programs may be the only viable on-ramp for some students. "Many students who excel at hands-on activities aren't good test takers," Snyder says. "They'll be kept back for remediation and therefore won't have room in their schedules for career and technical programs."
Neil Kelly Co., in Portland, Ore., brings in a couple dozen high school students each year for job shadowing. "If someone asks, we'll always say yes," says Julia Spence, vice president of human resources.
To set up internships, apprenticeships, or other work-study programs, "Reach further down into the inner workings of the school," advises Brindley Byrd, a former remodeler who is executive director of the Capital Area Construction Council of Lansing, Mich. Ask for the school's placement coordinator ? a generic term for the professional who helps place students in career exploration opportunities.
Give. Sharp cutbacks in construction education shine a welcome spotlight on even modest donations of financial, material, and administrative support. "The bulk of the problem is money," Borgatti says. "Most places would allow a presentation in a heartbeat if you'll pay for the basics."
"If the teacher coordinates a class on his own time, the school district will put it into the program," says Darius Baker, of D& J Kitchens & Baths, in San Jose, Calif. Last year, Baker's NARI chapter raised $5,000 through raffles and bingo games; it then donated that much in grants to students and tools for programs. A truckload of new tools for one woodworking program helped increase enrollment by 70 students. "You have no idea how much this means to us in these times, when every penny is spent on increasing test scores and new technology," wrote an instructor. Some remodelers, including Baker, have found good employees through this activism.
On a larger scale, consider corralling the financial clout of suppliers and manufacturers. They too have a vested interest in the next-generation remodeling workforce. Otherwise, notes former remodeler and current consultant, Shawn McCadden, "Vendors are going to have no one to install their products."In Frederick, Maryland, a $10,000 grant from Lowe's helped fund an interactive program that introduced middle-school students to the many "pathways" they can take in career and technical education. Lending financial support "was so smart on Lowe's part," says Martha Lowry of the Frederick County Career & Technical Center. Corporate sponsors of SkillsUSA include leading manufacturers and suppliers such as DeWalt, Bosch, and Lowe's.
Organize a trade or career day. Many gifted tradespeople are visual learners, an issue exacerbated by this generation's upbringing on computer games and TV. "What engages their learning is the sense that it is real," says Gearhart of SkillsUSA. "They love the sense of tangible accomplishment."
A great way to trigger those "aha!" moments is a trade day or career day — an event that celebrates the hands-on construction trades by bringing together students and trade professionals to don hardhats and goggles and work with construction tools and equipment. Wildly successful trade days have been held in a number of states, some attracting more than 1,000 students from many high schools. One held in Rhode Island "was an incredible enthusiasm booster for the builders that got involved," says REMODELING columnist Tim Faller, who helped organize the event. "They saw kids who were interested, and they got out of the 'nobody wants to do this' mode of thinking."
Learn more about career days from the National Construction Career Days Center.
Reach higher. Along with a growing number of training opportunities through community colleges, a surprising array of four-year institutions may welcome your involvement.
Neil Kelly Co. works closely with the housing and interior design programs at Oregon State University; Spence sits on both programs' advisory boards, helping to shape the curriculum, set up career symposiums, provide employees for in-class presentations, and arrange internships for seniors.
Serving on the industry board at a nearby college "is a fabulous way to get to know who we are and what we do," says Dannette Gomez-Beane, coordinator of Outreach and Career Development at Virginia Tech's Department of Building Construction. Her program also invites employers to give in-class presentations, participate in Career Day, and list job openings on the program's Web site. In higher education in particular, it pays to capitalize on your use of green materials and methods. "There's huge interest in sustainable development" among colleges and universities, says Spence, noting Neil Kelly Co.'s long-time leadership in the field. Teach a class, offer a site tour, sponsor or advise a project. Engineering and architecture students from more than 20 universities competed in the 2007 Solar Decathlon, designing and building cool homes that operate off the grid.
Start young. Don't wait until students turn 16 to tell them about remodeling careers. The Associated General Contractors of America reports that kids view construction as a viable career option only until 6th grade, before other goals steal the spotlight. In addition, a growing number of states require that students commit to either college or the trades when they're as young as middle school.
How to connect with kids? Lots of remodelers have enjoyed providing fun in-class demonstrations, including former remodeler (and current consultant) Shawn McCadden. His young daughter's class enjoyed a presentation in which he outlined reasons to consider careers in the remodeling industry. Click here to download his handouts.
Alternatively, several organizations offer a wide range of materials and programs for businesses and educators alike that are designed to enhance the image of the construction industry for a wide range of age groups. For instance:
- NAHB has a downloadable "Homes of Our Own" coloring book and other materials for the kindergarten-through-third grade set.
Using materials from NAHB, Lucy Katz of Katz Builders, Austin, Texas, created a presentation for her grandson's school called "How a House Is Born." Besides NAHB's coloring book, she brought in blueprints, tape measures, levels, pencils, and note pads. The students engaged because "I just told them at the most basic level how a home is built," she says.
- The Home Builders Institute, NAHB's workforce development arm, has a number of programs aimed at fostering construction education, building the construction workforce, and enhancing the image of construction careers. Its Residential Construction Academy, for instance, offers textbooks and training for carpentry, masonry, and other skilled trades. HBI's "Make It Happen" initiative targets middle- and high-school students — and their teachers, parents, and advisers #&151; with information about construction careers. Materials are also available in Spanish.
- SkillsUSA ranks high on many remodelers' lists as a way to impart a love of the trades to students and, in some cases, to get in position to "cultivate and cherry-pick prospective employees," says Eric Gearhart, director of the organization's Office of Business & Industry Partnerships. Through chapters at high schools and colleges, and hands-on competitions, SkillsUSA prepares young people for careers in technical, skilled, and service occupations. Some 60,000 students are enrolled in programs falling within its Architecture & Construction Career Cluster.
- If I Had a Hammer is an innovative program that integrates academics with construction through field trips, hands-on training (including the assembly of an 8-foot-by-11-foot modular house), and training for math tutoring, with an emphasis on real-world relevance.
- The Associated General Contractors' "Build Up" program helps fifth graders explore careers in construction through a "toolkit" consisting of workbooks, teacher guides, a video, and more.
- The Ace Mentor program partners construction professionals with high school students considering careers as construction managers, architects, or engineers. Mentor companies commit to spending 30 to 40 hours per school year taking students on field trips, helping them develop projects, and more.
- Learning for Life provides a broad range of educational programs in several "career clusters," including the skilled trades.
The days of massive, federally sponsored job-training legislation are as distant as the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who signed the National Apprenticeship Act in 1937. Given the diminishing pipeline of young people exposed to the construction trades, your best bet may be to look for employees who are eager to learn and work — even if they lack experience or training. The good news is that there's an expanding constellation of smaller initiatives, some of which essentially pick up the tab for employers that are willing to invest some time in developing skilled workers.
Sixty thousand student members take part in SkillsUSA's construction programs. Contractor partners often hire students they get to know. Paralleling education, the emerging trend is toward training that imparts well-rounded professional skills — the traditional construction trades along with communication, technology, math, and science.
Partner with suppliers and manufacturers. Relevant and low-key training opportunities may be abundantly available from the companies that make and sell the products you use every day. See what seminars are available through your lumberyard, or ask them to set up programs with their suppliers. Invite product reps to provide on-site training of their new products. Green builder and remodeler Allen Associates, of Santa Barbara, Calif., offers extensive green training to all staff, in the form of two- to four-hour onsite training programs held four or five times a year.
Click here to learn about one remodeler's "excellent" training adventure.
Certify employees. Excellent job-specific training is available through NARI and the NAHB Remodelers. NARI has seven certifications, including those for kitchen and bath remodelers, lead carpenters, and green remodelers. NAHB Remodelers certifications emphasize business management and aging-in-place. Many workshops at The Remodeling Show and JLC Live (sponsored by Hanley Wood, this magazine's publisher) are eligible for certification credits.
Ready to go green? In Vermont, the Yestermorrow Design/Build School offers a certificate in sustainable building and design, along with dozens of other courses in design, woodworking, and building materials, methods, and systems. The U.S. Green Building Council has a professional accreditation program for LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design), along with online training, in-house workshops, and more.
Certifications can boost earnings, making them potentially powerful recruitment and retention tools. An analysis by the Case Remodeling Institute, a corporate university run by Case Design/Remodeling, showed that certified carpenters earned 10% to 20% more, on average, than comparably experienced workers who lack certifications.
Besides offering certification programs to employees, you may be able to use them to partner with nearby schools that offer some construction education, says Dan Taddei, NARI's director of education. "We'll give you a set of outcomes, so you can say: 'Here are some things we think you need to teach to prepare students for careers in remodeling.'"
Start an apprenticeship program. A centuries-old system of training skilled craftspeople, apprenticeship involves a progressive schedule of on-the-job training, mentoring and, often, related schooling. "I think industries are looking at apprenticeships with new eyes," says Dick Scott, apprenticeship coordinator at Lansing Community College (LCC), in central Michigan. LCC's apprenticeship program epitomizes the concept's revival. In the last 18 months, the program has more than doubled in scope, to nearly 200 apprentices at more than 50 companies. Apprentices typically start at a lower salary, often making 50% of a journeyman's salary the first year, with incremental gains as they progress.
Click here for a look at the first remodeling company to use the LCC program.
You don't have to be union — or even be a big company — to have apprentices. Click here to read about one resourceful remodeler's home-grown apprenticeship program.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Apprenticeship helps employers develop apprenticeships in all 50 states, all of which have their own rules. Many state programs will help you find apprentices, partner you with schools and colleges, and even pick up some or all of your expenses. The Labor Department also has a great deal of general information about job training programs at the federal, state, and local levels.
Create job descriptions. Documented job descriptions can recast mere jobs as careers, defined by clear expectations and measurements for success and promotion. At interviews, give copies of descriptions to candidates, and consider linking online job postings to detailed job descriptions. Strong candidates might be more motivated to apply, and weak candidates might screen themselves out of contention.
Construction-specific job descriptions are available from a number of sources. The Remodeling Turnkey Business System includes 21 descriptions for positions in production, sales, and administration. Field Training Services, run by REMODELING columnist Tim Faller, has an HR system for production employees that includes job descriptions. Companies such as Remodelers Advantage have job descriptions for members' use. Outside the construction-specific realm, the O*NET Resource Center has extensive job descriptions and other tools for employers.
Create career paths. Expanding on the concept of job descriptions, a growing number of remodelers are developing clearly articulated "paths" that lay out long-term plans for sequential advancement, benchmarks for measuring progress, and pay raises and/or promotions tied to them.
"Workers in this industry often wear a bit of a straightjacket," says Mark Richardson, president of Case Design/Remodeling. "Whereas the worker of the past was looking for a job, workers of today are looking for an opportunity." Part of Case's hiring process, in fact, involves showing candidates high-ranking employees who began as helpers or in other entry-level positions. Along with a nationwide reputation as a high-end green builder, Allen Associates finds career paths a powerful inducement to highly educated professionals willing to work their way up.
Tie training to money. Few things motivate employees to learn new skills like guaranteed raises. Lay out clear goals; evaluate them in reviews at 3, 6, or 12-month intervals; and reward success with automatic, mutually agreed-upon pay bumps of another 50 cents or dollar an hour.
You can even create certifications within your own company, based on your needs or business goals, Borgatti suggests. It can be as simple as learning how to install a certain product or use a certain technology, in half-day training sessions on Saturdays. Encourage experienced employees to train novices. "Then everyone gets really pumped," he says. "They realize that the more they know, the more they can make."
Partner with community colleges. Many of the nation's almost 1,200 community colleges support school-to-work programs for construction-related careers. Community colleges can also connect you with educated professionals who want to move into new careers. The average age of their students is 29, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Many already have a bachelor's degree. Visit www.aacc.nche.edu to find colleges near you.
In one of the more ambitious outreach efforts to community colleges, Quineburg Valley Community College, in Connecticut, now has an accredited, two-year degree program in construction technology. The Home Builders Association of Connecticut spearheaded the program, with the help of a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Cross-train. Ask your licensed trade contractors to teach your crews to run wiring, do plumbing, and otherwise gain the well-rounded skills that are needed in remodeling, Byrd suggests. It's a win-win-win: your crews get on-the-job training from seasoned craftspeople; your contractors get relatively cheap labor; they'll pass on the savings to you; and you'll all learn to work better as a team.
And even though your employees may not be licensed in the trades, "there are no liability issues because your sub is vouching that the work is good," Byrd says.
Offer language training. Several construction training programs target the fast-growing Spanish-speaking construction workforce, with an eye on improving safety, communications, and loyalty alike. NARI's lead carpenter certification is available in Spanish, for instance. HBI's "Sed de Saber" (thirst for knowledge) program is a self-guided program that teaches construction-specific English in about 16 weeks. OSHA offers a number of safety-training programs in Spanish.
Find informal ways of helping employees learn English. At Prestige Custom Homes, in Seattle, all field staff write their performance review. Human resources manager Lesa Keller sits down with English-as-a-second-language (ESL) employees, helping them organize and express their thoughts. "It's really a positive motivator for them," she says.
Go union? The unions may be diminished — and some business owners shudder at the thought of them — but remodelers who hire through them say they get workers who are well-trained, loyal, and enthused about jobs that offer security and good benefits.
About 40% of the carpenters at Riggs Construction came through the carpenters union in St. Louis. "They've had thorough training and they chose carpentry to be their career," says Amie Riggs, vice president. The relationship isn't at all adversarial, she adds. "Our carpenter's union is very likeable, casual, highly rated, and nonthreatening."
Partner with community groups. Numerous religious and community service groups operate programs that introduce individuals to the building trades, including those that target at-risk youth and others who are simply down on their luck. For instance, there's Covenant House International, a Catholic charity that works with homeless youth in 21 cities. Its facility in Washington, D.C., runs the Artisans Woodworking Program, which has thrilled local employers by supplying them with young workers trained in the craft of carpentry as well as the basic work ethics many kids never get elsewhere.
Another respected organization is YouthBuild USA, which helps low-income people ages 16 to 24 learn construction skills while working toward their GEDs or high school diplomas.
Find programs for women. Many women still sense hostility on construction sites and feel more comfortable learning the trades from other women. Through the National Association of Women in Construction, member and sponsor companies can offer training to their female employees and strengthen their image as equal-opportunity employers. NAHB's Women's Council has a number of programs. Habitat for Humanity's Women Build and Girls Build programs assemble female crews. Also check out local organizations such as Oregon Tradeswomen; its Web site, in fact, has links to a number of other organizations focusing on women in the skilled trades.
Economic woes and the beleaguered housing market in particular may be spawning more job seekers, but hiring the wrong people — including those raised on new-home construction, some remodelers say — can be more damaging than having too few of the right ones.
Get creative. Widen your recruitment net by imagining that you're competing for good people with all of the following: entrepreneurship, the military, the health care industry, the service industry, colleges and graduate schools, and the kinds of "prestigious" professions that tend to harbor unfulfilled professionals. Also, prepare to address earnings and advancement expectations that might seem unreasonable but that seem to be rampant, particularly among young workers. Market what you offer. Show the opportunity — to learn and advance, to be part of a great team, to have a work-life balance, to contribute to cool projects.
Recruit online. This is a no-brainer for reaching the wired generation, but look beyond the obvious to maximize your exposure to prospective hires. In addition to national Web sites such as CareerBuilder.org, Monster.com, and Craigslist.org, you'll find online job banks and resume databases at most city newspapers and at many trade associations, colleges and trade schools, community development organizations, and government sites. Every state has a free job bank, says Byrd; you can link to the bank in your state by clicking here.
Make full use of the technology to avoid being bombarded by poorly matched applicants. "You want to limit respondents to the most qualified people," Byrd says. Be specific about what you want and what you offer. Provide links to full job descriptions and to your company's Web site (which should also spotlight job openings, needless to say).
Solicit referrals. Employee referral programs can be your most effective way to find employees who fit right in with your company's culture. You might find people who weren't even looking.
Many remodelers offer employees referral bonuses, often building in a trial period to ensure the referrers have a vested interest in recruiting wisely. Paul Reeves of Reeves Construction, El Dorado Hills, Calif., offers a referral fee of $500 if the new hires do well during their first 90 days. He found his last two employees this way.
"We leverage our own team with referral bonuses," says Case Design/Remodeling's Richardson. "We think we have a pretty good network of folks in the field, so we offer them incentives if they bring in someone."
Turn your employees into ambassadors, in fact. If you're expanding, remind them to be on the lookout for friends who might be good matches for the company. Word-of-mouth referrals can be especially valuable in reaching ESL prospects, who might be intimidated by the written application process.
Informal referral programs can extend to teachers, clients, and trade partners. To find summer employees, for instance, you might contact a local trade instructor (any trade, even auto mechanics) in early spring and invite him to share your contact information with bright students.
Offer internships. Companies of all sizes use structured internships to test-drive prospective employees and vice versa. For their part, students are seeking internships in unprecedented numbers; 78% of college students this year plan to complete one or more internships before graduating, according to MonsterTrak.com.
Your remodeling company might not attract the same mountains of applicants as, say, Google (5,000 in 2007), but even small companies have found that good internship programs give them their pick of smart, eager-to-learn students, especially if they partner with colleges and universities, that offer construction, engineering, or architecture programs. Contact their career office to learn more.
"I think we're one of the only remodelers that's in a sense recruiting on college campuses," says Tom Kelly of Neil Kelly Co., which is especially active at Oregon State University. Interns begin as seniors; many go on to secure full-time jobs in design or sales.
Fish in new ponds. One of the best is stocked with career changers — professionals in their 30s or 40s who are ready for career fulfillment at last. Don't be daunted by their advanced degrees, or by the big bucks they may have made in the past. Negotiate a starting wage with the promise of fast-track increases, based on the valuable analytical and other skills that they bring to the table. "Say: 'You'll need to pay your dues, just like everyone else, but here's what I can do," Borgatti says. Click here to read about one unconventional career changer.
Reach out to skilled tradespeople who've lost their jobs in other industries. Much of the rust belt is awash with mechanics, engineers, and those laid off from plant jobs. Visit your state's Web site to find job banks and training funds. Look to the related, more seasonal trades as well — marine carpenters, for instance, whose workflow tends to slow down at some times of year.
Grant a second chance. More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., most for nonviolent offenses. Virtually all states have re-entry programs and good training for nonviolent offenders, who are often extremely grateful for gainful employment. The federally sponsored Fidelity Bonding Program provides free insurance to protect employers. NAHB's HBI also has a program, called Project Craft, which provides training for people who have been incarcerated for light offenses.
Show them the money. A powerful message to prospective employees — and their parents — is the money to be made. "Parents think: 'Carpenters, what do they make? $10 an hour?'" says John DeCiantis of DeCiantis Construction, in Stonington, Conn. "I would pay lead carpenters $55,000 all day long if I could find them."
High earning potential is particularly meaningful in light of the debt many graduates have when they leave college or post-secondary trade programs, many of which are for-profit. "They've gotten incredibly expensive," Borgatti says, noting a 45% increase in tuition and fees at his school. Some of his students work full-time to make ends meet.
Showcase your use of technology. Being wired is another given for attracting most good worker pools, from experienced professionals to anyone under a certain age, many of whom "think they have an inalienable right to their iPods and cell phones," McCadden says.
He and others agree that remodelers should take a middle ground: embrace technology as a business tool without downplaying the grunt work and safety concerns that remodeling will always entail.
Show the reality of how your company uses technology — for example, your nail guns and cordless drills, your corporate Web site, or your use of drafting software, spreadsheets, Nextel, BlackBerries, PowerPoint, laptops in the field, iPod docking stations on jobsites, real-time telemetry, GPS in vehicles, laser levels, and so on.
Be visible in the community. Play up your company's values, community spirit, and teamwork. Assemble a team (wearing company gear) to volunteer with rebuilding organizations such as Habitat for Humanity or Rebuilding Together; refurbish local parks or schools; or to sponsor local home tours and arts festivals. Have business cards and marketing materials on hand, and talk with would-be job seekers — or their parents or friends — about life at your company.
See applicants through new eyes. Don't overlook potentially strong candidates because their resume lacks certain keywords, their cover letter isn't perfect, or they fall short of your experience requirements. "Many people who apply for positions in the trades are not as articulate or as literate as men or women of letters," Borgatti says. "You have to draw them out. Find out what they've done." He encourages his students "be proactive that way." See the innovative online "portfolios" that students create to introduce themselves to prospective employers.
Any number of the steps already outlined can help you create a happier, more loyal workforce, including involvement with schools, training and advancement opportunities, and good pay and benefits. Those outcomes are more important than ever, given the growing ease with which many people hop jobs and even careers, the coming exodus of an entire generation of skilled tradespeople, and the increasing cost of recruiting and training new people.
Realize also that the rising generation of workers is more entrepreneurial than any before. More than 70% of middle and high school students would like to be self-employed at some point, according to Junior Achievement. Many of them may be deluded, but the fact is that production employees in particular often think it's a cakewalk to run a company. They're often quick to put their theories to the test by leaving employers whom they feel don't respect them.
With that in mind, here are a few other things you can do to strengthen company culture and employee retention.
Support a sense of ownership. Young employees want a piece of the pie. Even if you don't structure your company as a true employee-owned firm ( click here to read about one that is), you can foster a sense of ownership by encouraging employees to help with strategic planning, serve on committees, spearhead initiatives, and otherwise have face time with company leadership.
Open-book management — sharing the company's numbers with all of its employees — is certainly a way to make everyone feel more invested in the company's success. Click here to learn more about open-book management.
"I think one of the most helpful things at Neil Kelly Co. is that it's a very participatory company — very flat," says Spence, the company's vice president of HR. "And though it's a privately held, family-owned business, Tom opens the books for employees. People here know what's going on."
Most employees join companies but leave managers, according to Manny Avramidis of the American Management Association, in a podcast on Business Week Online. Avoid toxic personality conflicts and align expectations by regularly touching base — asking employees how they're doing, what they need, where they want to go. Simple misunderstandings — easy to correct — are usually what drive employees away.
Create mentoring programs, especially those that partner older, seasoned workers with those who are newer to the trade. Besides teaching one another valued skills, older and younger workers can gain valuable insights that help them bridge the communications problems that often derail working relationships between people of different generations.
Mentoring-type programs "are the fastest way to get a crew that works well together," Borgatti says. "The interpersonal stuff is huge. Personality issues tend to dictate whether crews will work well together."
Here's one of many articles that REMODELING has published about mentoring.
Be flexible. While you may not be able to offer telecommuting or true flex time, be aware that you're competing for people with industries that do. Strengthen your position by simply giving employees a window of time during which they can perform their job — say, any eight hours between 9 and 6.
"You can be my way or the highway on certain things," such as client meetings or important deliveries, Borgatti says. "But if someone has child issues," or a doctor to see or a class to attend, "being flexible is really rewarded." The key, he says, is to set out the same rules for everyone, and to clearly define them in employee manuals and discuss them in staff meetings. "It's huge to keep up that line of communication."
Part-time positions can also strengthen retention, especially with parents of young children and older workers who might be considering leaving the workforce altogether.
Job-sharing is a less common but increasingly popular means of retaining employees who have busy personal lives. A survey of British companies found that 74% of employers that offered job-sharing said it had improved staff retention. Clear communications and accountability are key to making these relationships work.
Volunteer as a team. For bringing employees together and making strong community connections, few practices can do more for a company than volunteering. Many remodelers assemble groups of volunteers for community service efforts such as Habitat for Humanity or Rebuilding Together, nonprofit organizations that build or remodel houses for people in need.
Volunteering is particularly attractive to young workers. In a Business Week podcast, Tony Pazelli, a managing partner with Deloitte & Touche, said members of Generation Y (ages 18 to 26) want to volunteer in ways that are both hands-on and use the skills they've acquired in school. "This group really wants the opportunity to give back to the community, but not in the traditional way," he says.
Volunteering even has a recruiting hook. One survey found that 97% of GenYers believe their employers should offer volunteer opportunities. If your company does this, failing to tell job candidates can be a missed opportunity. Organizations such as Volunteer Match and United Way can help you identify volunteer opportunities in your community.
Celebrate success. Finally, "thank you," "good work," and "let's celebrate" can go a long way toward fostering team spirit, shoring up morale, and making employees feel good about their jobs. From the annual holiday party to quarterly bonus meetings, many remodelers make a point of telling staff how much their contributions are appreciated, as a group and individually.
Even weekly department or all-staff meetings are an opportunity to celebrate success. If you received a glowing letter from a client, read it aloud. If a project came in on time and under budget, or if it won an award, give a congratulatory pat on the back to the lead carpenter, the designer, and the rest of the crew. Thank an employee for taking the time to train another one. Even acts as simple as celebrating employees' birthdays and academic or training achievements can foster a sense of family. Cash is nice too. Riggs Construction celebrates what it calls "the wow factor." Whenever owner Tom Riggs says "wow" at a staff meeting, he gives $50 to the person who inspired it.