Labor Shortages: Navigating Shallow Waters

Ulf Wolf / July 2016

According to a national survey, some 80 percent of construction businesses now have a hard time finding qualified, skilled labor. Some would add that they have trouble finding any labor, skilled or not.

Another report predicts that as construction spending continues to grow, the labor shortage is likely to intensify.

These are shallow waters indeed, and a key test of management skills is how you approach and solve this problem. Turning, as always, to the membership of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, we asked for their take on some very relevant questions, and we hope some of their answers might help you steer clear of the reefs.

Now vs. Ten Years Ago
First of all, how does today’s hiring climate compare to a decade ago?
    
Timothy Rogan, vice president at Houston Lath & Plaster in Texas, sees it like this: “The larger companies are probably better off today since they can offer careers to new hires rather than just jobs, and there seems to be a pool to fill such positions.
    
“As for the smaller buy, I think they are worse off today because non-union construction wages have not kept up with the cost of living, and potential hires are going elsewhere.”
    
Mike Miller, president of Miller Drywall, Inc. in Missouri, thinks we’re worse off because “these days, young, motivated people are going to college. They do not realize that construction has a great place for them if they want to go straight to work and earn a decent wage.”
    
Robert Coyle, operations manager at Dayton Walls & Ceilings, Inc. in Ohio, feels that we are worse off today. “Too many have left the trade due to stagnant wages, benefits and lack of work during the downturn,” he says. “Also, local trade schools no longer offer carpentry classes due to lack of both funds and interest.”
    
In John Kirk’s (owner of Kirk Builders in California) neck of the woods, things are looking up. “I think we are better off because the unions (both Carpenters and Tapers) have really pulled their acts together on training apprentices,” he says, “and also because if someone cannot get into tech, Internet and computers, the trades are still a way to make a good living (when we’re not in a recession).”
    
Mike Heering, president of F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, sees it this way: “We definitely have to work harder today to find people who want to enter our industry. I think we all have to work harder at changing a perception that many have today. Growing up, they are told that they had better study hard to get good grades in school, or they will end up working in construction. This is not the message they need to hear. Yes, construction is hard work, but when you are done, you’ve accomplished something that you can step back and look at, and show off to your family: You helped build that project. It is up to us to change the negative industry image being painted for young people entering the workforce today.”
    
Pat Arrington, principal at Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico, also weighs in. “We are worse off today,” he says. “We lost the up-and-coming tradesmen during the 2007–2008 downturn. They simply had to find something else to do.”
    
Tina Martin, office manager at Reitter Stucco, Inc. in Ohio, sees it this way: “I don’t think that our industry is in a better hiring position today than we were 10 years ago. Today, it is tougher to compete for qualified candidates because many industries, including technology, health care and logistics, have grown exponentially over the last decade creating more competition and attracting more of the overall workforce.”
    
Howard Bernstein, president of Penn Installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania, has a similar take: “I don’t believe we are in a better position today as many of our most valued craftsmen and office personnel have retired and the challenges in attracting this next generation are a puzzle that many of us are still trying to figure out.
    
“The old school methods of hazing, yelling and delegating the worst jobs to newbies is a sure way to drive away young talent, and it seems that fewer and fewer young people view our trade as a viable career path.”
    
Dick Mettler, executive director of Northwest Wall & Ceiling Contractors’ Association in Seattle, shares this view: “I don’t think we’re in a better position today. The old school no longer applies for work, and few of them are drawn to construction as a career compared with 10 years ago. As a result, most of my contractors are short of potential hires. Also, the Seattle Hispanic workforce is much smaller today, and those who remain tend toward non-union shops.
    
“The old-time school attitude of ‘my way or the highway’ doesn’t fly these days: Young people are looking for a more flexible work environment, which is one thing construction is hard pressed to provide.”
    
For Stephen Baker, president of Baker Drywall, Ltd. in Texas, it’s a mixed bag. “From our company’s perspective,” he says, “we are in a better position when it comes to office talent, as many university graduates today recognize specialty contractors as a viable career option. It is, however, much more difficult to hire field employees. We are not in a better position for craftsmen compared to 10 years ago.”

Current Pools
Of course, there are still pools of potential recruits. But what size are these pools, and what type of prospects—schooling, experience, computer literacy, etc.—are in the pools?
    
As Joel Chambers, vice president of sales at J & B Acoustical, Inc. in Ohio, sees it: “Our market is small and so is our pool. The few that we have interviewed lately have been a mixed bag, some right out of college and some in their mid-40s looking for stability.”
    
Heather Vinas, president of Atlantic Meridian Contracting Corp. in Georgia, says most of the applicants she comes across “only have a high school diploma or equivalent and no industry experience. Some have college or vocational training, but not many.”
    
Those in Rogan’s pool show “a lack of knowledge and motivation and a careless attitude for the profitability of a job. They only want to put in their 40 hours.”
    
According to Coyle, “The available pool is much smaller than we have seen in even the recent past. Compared to 2014, to date in 2016 we are seeing 65 percent fewer applicants, mainly due to several large GCs in our area starting to self-perform our work. Also, the experience level is just not there unless you want to hire the guys who bounce from company to company.
    
“The applicants we see today are typically 18 to 28 who have worked in fields without room for growth, or they have worked for a company that did not think of them as individuals with something to offer—only as head-count numbers.”
    
Says Heering, “The pool we have to pick from is rather small, and subsequently we find ourselves looking for labor in areas we never approached before. Today, we talk to high school coaches, tech schools and the Veterans’ Administration. Most of our applicants do not have any construction experience but we are willing to train. In a lot of cases, they have graduated high school and are not interested in going on to higher education. Some have computer skills from high school, and we have found that most want to learn more, as we cover so many functions now using tablets in the field.”
    
Offers Arrington, “As we work all over New Mexico, including the Navajo nation, we have a pretty good pool. We also have a state- and federal-approved apprenticeship program (in association with several Indian tribes). We bring individuals who show some construction trade promise into this program, and this way we also build future foremen. The Navajo apprentices that become journeymen run their own crews, and this has proven very effective.”
    
According to Martin: “We have had a very small pool of candidates to choose from during our last several hiring initiatives.”
    
Quips Bernstein, “It is difficult to give an accurate description of what the pool consists of when they always bury their faces in their smartphone screens.”
    
Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California observes, “The pool of Bay Area union workers is quite small today, so we rely heavily on word of mouth and friends of friends to bring in new applicants. Meanwhile, the non-union work force has grown significantly, and we are now also targeting that pool to fill our expanding crew needs.”
    
Mettler observes, “Interestingly, the average age of a Seattle applicant these days is 28 years old. Years ago, we recruited workers right out of high school, or, after a year or two of McDonald’s, 21 or 22 years old. Those we see today have been in the workforce for a number of years and now look to change their careers, or they need better pay to handle family and other obligations. It appears that construction is becoming very much a second choice.”
    
In Baker’s experience, “The field pool is small and it usually consists of an employee’s family or friends. As a rule, these applicants have a high school degree and are computer savvy.
    
“As for the office pool, it is quite large. These applicants have college degrees, sometimes even a construction degree. They love our focus on innovation.”
    
It is evident that the pools, as a rule, are much smaller today than before, and, as Mettler pointed out, it seems that construction is becoming a Plan B to turn to when Plan A peters out.
    
The challenge for the wall and ceiling industry is to return the construction industry to Plan A.

Social Media
With more or less everyone online today, to what extent do contractors vet applicants by checking their social media pages to draw a fuller picture of whom we’re dealing with?
    
While Baker and Vinas say they check an applicant’s social media pages prior to hiring, Martin and Chambers do not. “However,” says Chambers, “my father asks them about the last book they read and what their favorite book is. I like that idea.”
    
In Coyle’s company, “Management does not but our key employees do, and they let us know if there is something we should know about. We rely heavily on employee referrals, so we certainly listen to what they have to say.”
    
Then there are those who see the benefits. Scott Robinson, director of public affairs at the EIFS Industry Members Association, offers this view: “As a general statement: Yes. Anytime I’ve ever interviewed someone, I’ve looked for them on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and, in recent years, even more so on Instagram. While you must be careful about how you view this information, the person who’s posing in a bathing suit with his hands full of drinks might not be your next hire.
    
“When it comes to social media, what people seldom look for is how often people post on each of their pages. If someone is active, posting on several topics and is generating a lot of interactions with others, their influencer status could provide a great deal of added benefit to your company.”
    
Bernstein shares that his company “would be more inclined to view social media pages for office-staff applicants, hoping that they would have the maturity not to embarrass themselves and possibly putting our company’s reputation at risk. It is quite sad to see what some otherwise intelligent people will throw out on Facebook or Instagram.”
    
Mixed bag here. It is true, though, that what some people will post (i.e., reveal) with their guard down, might speak volumes (either for or against).

Interview Questions
When interviewing, what questions are being asked of the potential new hire that weren’t asked 10 years ago? Also, how do questions for a millennial applicant differ from those we’d ask an old-timer applicant?
    
Shares Chambers, “These days we ask about tech experience, and, if none, are they willing to learn? Personally, I look for someone who is relatable, who is driven (obviously), and someone who is looking for stability in their career.”
    
Vinas takes this approach: “I ask the same questions today as before to learn all I can about the synergy between the applicant and the culture that I have at my company. This holds true whether a millennial or an old-timer, but I do take into account what is valued by each generation so that I can attract the top talent.”
    
Rogan offers several sample questions: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Have you ever filed a workers’ comp claim? Can you read a tape measure? Do you do side jobs?
    
“Old timers will always have a job with us if we need men because they give you eight hours of work for eight hours of pay,” Rogan says. “I have found that millennials only show up for a check, if they show up at all, because mom or dad said to get a job or move out. Starting at 7 a.m. to them means getting out of the truck and going to the port-o-can—while texting.”
    
Coyle says, “Our applicants take a written test that gives us enough information to then guide the hiring process. We decide on interview technique based on answers provided. If it’s someone looking to change careers, we talk about growth potential. With someone new to the trade, we talk about the training we offer as well as the growth potential.     

“With an extremely skilled individual who is not happy where they work currently, we’ll talk about their growth potential and, more specifically, where they want to be in 10 or 20 years. In other words, today’s applicant drives the direction of the interview process. Some need to hear about benefits while others only care about wages. Still, most want to know about additional training and growth potential.”
    
Kirk’s approach is this: “I only ask a few basic questions. If I decide to give someone a try, it’s then up to them to make the most of it. But I always endeavor to provide good support.”
    
Heering’s company tries to show millennials “the opportunities they have in the field using tablets, laser layout systems, drywall milling machines and CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) machines. They are often interested in that part of the work, more so than the old-timers. The old-timers want to know that they will have a job for a long duration and are usually willing to do anything and go anywhere.”
    
Martin’s company tends to ask “more behavioral or soft-skill related interview questions rather than focusing on experience or hard skills,” she says. “We have found that if we can hire a person with the right attitude who may be looking for a career and is willing to learn, we can teach them the hard skills they need to be successful and so add value to our organization. That said, we typically use the same interviewing techniques for every candidate, whether a millennial or old-timer.”
    
Suggests Daley: “With younger hires, it’s important to explain the full career path so they know there is the real possibility of advancement in job titles and pay.”
    
“These days, we focus more on what their expectations are of us as an employer, and this goes for both millennials and old-timers,” says Baker in Texas.
    
Interviewing applicants with an eye to what he or she is looking for (rather than what you need) might be a step in the right direction.

Retention
Once we have brought a new hire onboard, what do we do to keep him or her with us (especially those who prove valuable to us)?
    
Says Chambers: “Incentives are good for those who perform. It is important to set goals for them, and once achieved, reward them accordingly.”
    
From Ohio, Coyle says, the most important thing is to demonstrate to the employee that his company appreciates him or her through actions, not just words. That can take many different shapes: wages, benefits, added perks, bonuses or maybe just showing concern for the employee’s family.
    
“Bottom line,” says Coyle, is to “make sure they know they are needed and appreciated.”
    
Adds Robinson, “I think employers welcoming new ideas from a younger generation is crucial: We all want to feel we’re being appreciated, and this goes a long way.”
    
Heering’s company shows appreciation through benefits. “We offer a 401(k) plan where the company matches up to 4 percent,” he says. “We start their vacation time at one year on a pro-rated system, and we provide health insurance. We try to keep our pay above our local competition. We are also an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) company, so we are able to give them shares of company stocks. After their first year of employment, they are vested at 10 percent of their maximum shares, and over a five-year period, they become fully vested. This alone is a great benefit that will be there for them upon retirement, along with the 401(k).”
    
Offers Martin: “We have made a conscious effort to maintain competitive wages and have increased our starting hourly rate in each of the past few years. Additionally, we have implemented several new processes to enhance our onboarding and new hire orientation as well as our employee development and training programs. (“Onboarding” is the process by which new hires are adjusted to the social and performance aspects of their jobs quickly and smoothly, and learn the attitudes, knowledge, skills and behaviors required to function effectively within an organization.)
    
Martin’s company has also increased the number of performance reviews for each new-hire during their first year. He explains, “We have noticed that investing a little more time and effort in these processes initially, and maintaining communication and frequent feedback during the first year, can improve both engagement and retention—and that it creates a better foundation for new-hire success.”
    
With a sense of humor Bernstein says, “Just prior to new employees becoming fully vested in our retirement package, we implant a device in their neck that we are able to detonate from our iPhones. There’s an app for that.”
    
And then he gets serious: “Beyond that, I believe people want to be able to express themselves and feel that their opinion matters. Also, having flex time to the greatest degree possible can do much to lessen stress while improving morale, as long as no one person is allowed to abuse such a policy.”
    
Offers Daley: “We do provide good competitive pay and benefits, but more importantly, we provide a positive place to work and encourage a sense of inclusion. We let employees know their suggestions are heard and appreciated.”
    
Charles Antone, consultant at Building Enclosure Science in Rhode Island, has been hiring for his company. “We have technical specs for the ideal candidate,” he says, “but once you interview them, you can almost feel if there is a match or not. We stress that new employees will have the latitude to exercise their creativity.”
    
Says Baker: “We focus on technology, onboarding, mentoring, training and keeping them informed and engaged.”
    
In a nutshell, making your employees feel valuable and appreciated will go a long way toward retaining them.

Pearls of Wisdom
Some final thoughts and suggestions.
    
Vinas offers, “I think that in order to fill our recruitment pipeline with qualified individuals, we need to approach the workforce sooner—not after, but during high school, perhaps by hiring apprentices during summer breaks.”
    
Gerald Roach, owner of Forks Lath & Plaster, Inc. in North Dakota, says, “Once the high school kids figure out (with or without our help) that they can go straight to work and learn a trade with zero student loans and make more money than their classmates with massive student loans who are still looking for work after graduating, things will change.”
    
Coyle says, “Many years ago, I came home from a rather difficult day trying to persuade a young employee, in a somewhat forceful manner, to do things the way I wanted them done. Later, I told my wife about my frustrations with this individual who had the potential to be one of the best the trade had ever seen, if he would just listen to what I was trying to teach him. After several minutes of listening to me gripe, she asked me how old this guy was. I answered ‘Twenty, so you’d think he would want to listen.’
    
“She said, ‘Maybe if you treat him like the man he is, he will listen.’
    
“Those words still ring true today. The millennials need us old guys to listen to what they have to offer. They will Google or look for a YouTube video to solve a problem that we used to muddle our way through. We sometimes chase their buy-in to what we have to offer, when what we should focus on is our buy-in to what they have to offer. In other words: Shut up and listen. Treat them like the adults they are. Your company will be better for it.”
    
There is no escaping that our employee prospect pools are fewer today, and more shallow. The best we can do is to listen and determine what we can be and do to let new hires feel safe, at home, and appreciated.
    
That might well land you a valuable hire who’d want to stay a while.

California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.