What to Do If You Need Manpower (Part 2 of 2)

Doug Bellamy / July 2017

No doubt those in search of a quick fix or easy answer will be disappointed by this article. Consequently, as I said in the opening comments of part 1, any true progress with regard to addressing the manpower shortage will be the cumulative effort of bringing several solutions to bear on the problem. It’s complicated.
As is often the case, we are going to have to think our way through the problem and follow up by actually doing specific things—time-tested, predetermined solutions. Finally, addressing it will take time, and progress can feel exceedingly slow. However, if you are relentless in your efforts, progress will be slow but sure. Figure out what works best for you and your organization, and do more of it. Stick with what works!
The stubborn reality of struggling for solutions is exacerbated by the fact that there truly is a shortage of skilled labor. As you well know, any effort to try to obtain something that does not exist is an exercise in futility. Is it possible that part of the solution has nothing to do with more skilled labor? Absolutely!
Undoubtedly, there are things that you and I can do within our organizations that will be worthwhile in this environment. By way of review, we will remind you of a few important concepts that were covered last month.
Break the problem down and address each of the smaller problems that contribute to the larger problem. This is a practical approach to problem-solving, and the shortage of skilled labor is no exception. We will get into more specifics later.
Don’t get depressed. Stay in the right frame of mind. This is a natural part of the construction cycle (admittedly, a bit worse than usual). Nevertheless, if you are going to survive in the long term, you need to learn to navigate your way through it successfully. Being busy is a good thing; the alternative is being slow. Comparing one with the other, we have agreed that being busy is better. A problem, nonetheless a “good problem.” Count yourself fortunate, not doomed.
Get face to face with your entire organization and pull them into the problem. Utilize the synergistic power of networking through your existing workforce. Take full advantage of the connections to labor your existing workforce has, and do what you can to motivate them to assist you in solving the problem. This can have a significant impact. As I said last month, if every employee brings in an additional employee tomorrow, you double the size of your organization overnight.

Recruitment Opportunities
Here are some additional suggestions for growing your workforce.
Last month, I mentioned getting face to face with your workforce. There is no better venue than to select somewhere they will feel interested in and a bit privileged to attend. For the past few years, we have sponsored, baseball games, family picnics, fishing trips and Christmas parties. When we have such gatherings, we do them up big-time. Significant raffles are typical. Sure it costs money, but it is on par with any other business investment and yields significant returns.
Employees are encouraged to invite a tradesperson not currently employed; in some cases, these are family events. We traded our annual baseball game this year for soccer since many of our employees are Hispanic. We have found that to be a real bell-ringer. Though some upper management loved the idea of a baseball game, the workforce wasn’t nearly as interested. A soccer game, on the other hand, was just the ticket.
Each of these venues provide an opportunity to tastefully address the topic of skilled labor and allow interaction with potential new hires. It also says a lot about your organization’s willingness to invest in building the workforce. Too many organizations are too short-sighted and too stingy to do so, and the workforce is quick to figure that out. They will gravitate toward companies willing to invest in mutually beneficial interaction and recreation.
Sometimes we have struck it rich by picking up a foreman with a following. I recall one time we got a lead on an unhappy foreman and took advantage of a mass exodus. Hiring him followed with 42 new hires overnight—42 much needed employees, much needed and obtained in one fell swoop. Whew! That was way cool. Keep your eye out for resources with resources.
While I don’t recommend or condone stealing employees from competitors, if you run into someone unhappy and with a following, take advantage of it. The answer isn’t to become a part of the pack of wild dogs fighting over the same piece of meat. That is bad business. However, if the postman shows up at your front door with box of prime steak, by all means, fire up the barbeque!
One might also advertise for skilled tradesman in areas that are not considered current hot spots, areas where unemployment still remains comparatively high. We have picked up some good people over the years from other geographical regions.

Problem Dissection
In the interests of time and space, we are addressing two of the problems that contribute to the manpower problem as a whole. For emphasis’ sake I remind you that the more you can dissect any problem, dividing it into a number of smaller problems and bring solutions to bear on each problem that contributes to the larger problem, the better chance you have at reducing the overall size of the larger problem.
So then, continue this exercise on your own. Brainstorm it with the brightest minds you have organizationally. Slice and dice your problem, and figure out steps you can take toward solving the smaller problems that make up the whole. You’ll be better off for it.
The true problem is that your organization has more to do than you currently can accomplish. You have more opportunity than capacity. I like that. It frames the problem quite well. It’s a matter of opportunity and capacity. Somehow, you must boost productivity. Why? Two problems: You have insufficient skilled labor coupled with the limitations on the productivity of your existing workforce.
How, then, can you obtain a larger portion of existing labor and/or make the existing organization more productive than it currently is? Simply attempting to solve half the problem can only get you half as far toward solving the whole problem. So what can we do to address our available market share of the skilled labor in our area, or for that matter, throughout the nation? Moreover, how can we boost productivity with our existing workforce, thereby expanding our organizational capacity?

Close the Back Door
While you are busy sprucing up the front door of your organization and trying to entice the available workforce you don’t currently employee, don’t forget to close the back door. Slowing the rate of attrition and or employee turnover is something any business can accomplish in the immediate and doing so, will aid you in the accumulation of a larger workforce.
All too often we are fixated on bringing in new employees to meet the demand current opportunity is providing. However, we remain oblivious when it comes to holding on to our existing workforce. While employees trickle in the front door, others trickle out the back door. This is a fact, plain and simple. If we are hiring and losing employees simultaneously, that alone can zero out our efforts. Not good.
Failing to close the back door is equally or perhaps more important than addressing issues that are slowing your rate of new hires. You have a lot more control over those who are leaving as opposed to who comes in. The easiest way to grow is to hold on to existing employees, and every time you hire going forward, your workforce will grow.
Close the back door if you want to grow your workforce. It’s up to you to determine why you are losing existing employees and address that. If anyone wants to leave, have an exit interview, see if they might be persuaded to stay or, at the very least, find out why they are leaving and, if at all possible, change that.

Communicate with Your Customers
Get your customers on board. This is a shared problem, industrywide. They may play dumb but they have eyes, and they can see. We aren’t the only trade caught in this. They are hearing it elsewhere, trust me, and they don’t have a lot of alternatives either. Your best customers will be glad to hear that you are addressing this organizationally and will want to work closely with you toward solutions.
Don’t play hide and seek. Don’t just sit on your hands and wait. Reach out to them and keep them apprised. Don’t wait until they’re calling your office and you are behind schedule. Be proactive. Some are concerned that doing so is a sign of weakness, but it is actually the opposite. It is a position of strength.
The best customers can and will help. Start there, with your very best customers. We’ve had them step up and pay overtime, partner with us in various endeavors, subsidize training, and offer us incentives to complete on time. Generally speaking, any effort to partner with customers in extremely busy periods has proven productive.
Many times we’ve received authorization for overtime, which can be a huge relief. Sometimes they have delays with other trades that you are unaware of, which can relieve some of the pressure. There are too many possibilities to list, but possibilities exist, and you will never know about them if you fail to communicate.
Take the initiative and pick up the phone, or sit down face to face and lay out your plan and ask for their assistance to achieve the common goal. Chances are good they will provide a piece of the puzzle, and their contribution will reduce the size of your problem.

Fully Utilize Your Existing Workforce
Make certain you know your workload, where you need help and projects where you can afford to pull employees from, even if it’s only for brief periods. Sometimes managing the workforce and workload is like a giant chess game, and if you are not careful to shuffle employees (around the board) as needed and at will, you lose. It’s a pain in the neck and will take time and energy among upper management, but sometimes we find that the answer to solving our problem is right under our nose. We don’t necessarily need more, we need to do more with less. You may get a lucky break and a job gets caught up and you need only a ghost of a workforce present, which allows you to flood a job that is behind. When that occurs, make sure you see it coming and immediately take full advantage.
It’s also critical that you take advantage of employees who are versatile enough to have a skill set that enables them to be moved from department to department, as needed. In our cyclical environment, oftentimes a specific department slows while another booms. During such times, I’ve discovered good employees who were currently useful but sitting at home. While they could no doubt be helpful to another department, man-hours are being wasted. There are at least two major problems there. The idle workers with the skill set to be beneficial could have been useful in addressing your problem, and you just might lose them by letting them sit during such busy periods. Don’t let that happen; fully utilize your existing workforce.
Furthermore, when it comes to boosting productivity among your existing workforce, don’t drag your feet when it comes to taking full advantage of the latest technologies and materials. Sometimes doing so appears expensive on the surface, but think of it as an investment. What if you simply can’t grow your workforce sufficiently to provide the capacity to take full advantage of the opportunity? What about the cost of lost opportunity, damaged reputation, credibility in the customers mind and failure after failure?
You will have to make it your business to stay on the cutting edge of what makes your manpower as productive as possible. This is not the time or place to elaborate on the vast numbers of today’s technologies and innovations when it comes to productivity. Let your own necessity mother invention and foster innovation as a business. Try new things. If you are running a bit behind the times, get yourself caught up.
As a quick example, one which I’m sure many of us are aware of, some have found collated screw guns very helpful in boosting output of installers. Though they have been around for decades and had their share of problems in the past, the latest versions are pretty much problem-free. The lack of cords, the minimal waste of screws and the additional sheets on the wall all make a difference when it comes to reducing the actual cost. The remaining cost can be paid for in short order by the uptick in productivity. Once they have paid for themselves, you have nothing but advantage. Collect on it!

Selective Failure
When everything you can do, simply isn’t enough …
Now I’m going to tell you something that, if ever you quote me, I’ll deny saying it. No doubt, what follows is controversial. Some will feel it is just flat-out wrong. Others will recognize the business wisdom of prioritizing success and what I call “selective failure.” Personally, we have always tried and mostly succeeded in a philosophy I call “never fail” mode. Our objective is to never fail when it comes to schedule. It is deeply ingrained in the culture of our organization.
However, I can remember a time when we were screaming busy in our residential division. We were turning around 65 residences a week, and it was clear that we could not complete next week’s work in the agreed-upon time frame. The 65 houses were a cross-section of a half dozen different customers.
I realized that if I selected the builder we had the weakest relationship with, the one with whom we had the most issues (i.e., difficulties stemming from their business practices, which make them unreasonable and unfair), and I pulled them out of the mix, we could complete every other project. That’s when selective failure kicked in.
I called the builder and told them that we would need an additional week and apologized for the delay. They somewhat reluctantly accepted my explanation and we moved forward unscathed. The remaining work was completed on schedule as opposed to failing in multiple areas, if not all of them. That hasn’t happened often, but it has occurred from time to time, and I have found selective failure necessary, as opposed to failure across the board. It is always better to manage than to be victimized by your lack of management. Management even comes into play when it comes to if, when and where you fail. When failure is inevitable, manage it in such a way to optimize it just like anything else you manage.

Doug Bellamy is former president of Innovative Drywall Systems Inc. dba Alta Drywall, Escondido, Calif. He is known for his original thought, innovative approach and the personal development of unique processes, systems and procedures. He is available for consultation, business management seminars and training. Visit him on LinkedIn or contact him at doug@altadrywall.com.