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How to Attract and Keep Skilled Workers

As you know, the industry is experiencing a severe shortage of skilled construction labor.


And, as many of you have already observed from time to time, it’s a broad cultural change toward an emphasis on higher education (i.e., the college industry) combined with the aging of the workforce—especially at the top—that has brought about not only a general decline in available workers but, more importantly, a decline in experienced workers and managers.


In this climate, how do you find and keep skilled workers?

Loyalty and Respect

Those who respect you as a leader and boss tend to grow increasingly loyal over time and are likely to remain with you and your company. Respect being such a valued currency, how do you earn it?


“In order to earn loyalty and respect,” says Andrew Koza, president of Executive Building Systems, Inc. in New Hampshire, “you have to show that you, as a manager, are putting forth the same amount of effort as do others to bring projects in on time successfully.”


“To me,” says Gilly Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont, “good communication is key. Of course, incentives help—say, a bonus at the end of a project.”


William Fritz, CEO of Mission Interior Contracting LLC in Texas, says. “We demand safety for our workers, and we treat them as we would want to be treated.”


“Don’t ever attempt to cheat your men,” warns John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in San Francisco.  “Also, understanding is the most important quality I can bring. If a crew member is having a tough time with something, I take the time to train and teach rather than yell.”


Adds Chuck Taylor, director of operations at Englewood Construction, an Illinois general contractor, “We work with our people and let them know they are part of the larger goal of repeat business every time. Our team members are extremely proud of their work and will protect their reputation. By promoting that culture, we maintain respect from both office and field.”


Says Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, believes that “people stay with a business for a number of reasons. The first, and most important, is loyalty to a person—whether an immediate superior or the owner of the company. Then, if the boss shows interest in his/her employees and their life issues and gives them encouragement and praise for work well done and provides a path toward advancement, they are usually content. Also, if the company operates ethically and provides its clients with safe, timely and high-quality work, this engenders a sense of pride in the employees, and nurtures respect for the company management.”


“We treat our people with loyalty and respect,” says Mike Espeset, president of Story Construction Company, an Iowa general contractor. “Also, we seek to stay relevant with both pay and benefits. Additionally, we find ways to engage the minds and hearts of our people in planning and executing their work—the ultimate form of respect.”


Observes Scott Bleich, a principal at Heartland in Iowa, “I think a lot of it comes down to employee engagement—collaboration on projects and giving them ‘a voice’ are key.”


“Be open and honest in your communication at all times, especially when things are going well,” suggests Dion Cowles, senior general superintendent at Western Partitions, Inc. in Portland, Ore. “Field leaders and their crews soon hear about it if things are going badly, so be sure also to tell them when things are going well. And always remember that, regardless of title, respect is earned, not given. Once your people respect you, loyalty follows because they go hand in hand.”


Advises Mike Heering, president of F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, “You will earn loyalty and respect by caring for your employees. You need to listen to their concerns and become engaged with them to gain that respect.


“I have found that when I really listen to their concerns, they tend to open up with me and will lay everything they have on their minds on the line. When they become comfortable with the fact that you do listen to them, they become more loyal to you and more dedicated to the company.”


“Get in the trenches with them,” suggests Richard Wagner, owner of RWE – Richard Wagner Enterprises, LLC in North Carolina. “I have worked in the field with all of my lead men and most of our crews at one time or another.”

Appreciation and Encouragement

A worker who feels appreciated and well thanked for work well done will enjoy his job and his company. So, how do you best encourage your employees and express your appreciation?


Suggests Turgeon, “We try to keep them as motivated as possible by offering them raises every year, and bonuses. In the end it’s mostly about money.”


Fritz’s advice is to provide “bonus clauses, random lunches for the crew and genuine concern for them and their families.”


Kirk adds, “Recognize when they are doing a great job and let them know. Be open to their ideas about doing things. If they have issues with other workers, take it seriously and resolve it if possible.”


Says Taylor, “We must not only let them be part of the decision-making process, but we must also trust them to make their own decisions up to a certain level.”


“Never miss a payroll,” says Aird. “Show them that you care as much about them as you do your good clients and your bank account.”


“We do jobsite lunches,” says Bleich, “Thank-you cards or gift cards when we hear positive feedback from customers. Also, we show appreciation on social media, and we put on companywide family events.”


Advises Wilshire, “Treat your workers like people—like friends, even—instead of just employees. By talking to them about their lives and genuinely getting to know their interests, you build relationships with people that are based on mutual respect and understanding.”


Cowles says to challenge them. “Good people can easily grow restless and bored,” he says, “but if you continually challenge them and reward them for taking on more, they will find it gratifying. And it’s not always about money either, most enjoy the recognition in view of their peers.”


Says Heering, “We try to include them in the decision-making process when we are looking to change things that affect them. Of course, they appreciate financial rewards, but they appreciate more that we include them in some of our management meetings and listen to how it might impact them and their crews. This builds a stronger bond.”


“Train them properly, and they’ll stay with you,” says Wagner.


While money matters—and for some more than others—engaging your skilled workers on both business and personal levels will run deeper and build a more lasting loyalty.


(Bad pun, I know).


Even though they say bad news travels five times faster than good news, good news does travel, and your own, happy crew may be your greatest recruiting tool.


Or as Koza puts it: “Word of mouth is the best way to attract skilled workers that may be unhappy in other working situations. Also, we offer referral bonuses for those who recruit workers to join our team.”


Adds Turgeon, “We always ask our existing crews if they know of anybody out there looking to be trained or who already knows the basics. If so, we ask them to stop by and talk with us about a job.”


“When friends and relatives hear that you are a good company to work for, it becomes a magnet for job seekers,” says Kirk, “and sometimes it is not the workers themselves but their wives that recognize that their brothers or cousins should work for a better company, i.e., yours.”


“We constantly encourage our team members to be on the lookout for talent that would be a good fit,” says Taylor.


Aird points out that “if the word gets out that the company is enduring and will have work throughout the year and well into the future, that is appealing to someone looking for a job. In other words, workers like job security.”


“Our people are our best recruiters,” says Espeset. “They all have friends, family and connections to introduce to the company.”


Bleich agrees, “Word of mouth is as strong an advertisement as any medium. This, of course, can be either good or bad. We work toward and want every employee to have a great feeling about who Heartland is and what a great place it is to work.”


Cowles suggests, “Talk to your good people and tell them you need their help finding and retaining the best people out there. Genuine recruiting is based on what’s said when the boss isn’t in the room.”


Adds Heering, “We offer our guys a financial reward if they bring us people that we end up hiring. Additionally, if that person stays for one year, our guy will get another reward—more than for the initial hiring.”


Word of mouth is a two-edged sword. Unhappy employees will spread their unhappiness around to a greater degree than those who are happy. Conclusion: Have zero unhappy workers and a full house of happy ones, and you can’t lose.

Skill vs. Character

Even when pressed for time and the need to add to your crews now, now, now, you still need to ask yourself: Am I looking for character or skill?


“Both are very important qualities,” says Koza, “but someone’s character defines them and, as a representative of your company, that would be what is most important during the interview process. We can train someone to the standards we need and to fit within our building process, but you cannot change who someone is.”


“Speaking from the ‘School of Hard Knocks,’” adds Kirk, “it is definitely character. I can think of three instances when I overlooked character because of skill; I made three big mistakes doing that.”


Taylor agrees. “I look for character and drive over skill,” he says. “Certainly, skill is important in construction management, which is to say we cannot use someone who is completely green right out of the box, but you can always teach and they can learn skills.”


“Why not both?,” suggests Aird. “Character suggests that an applicant will be honest and represent the company well. Skill is what puts money in the bank and food on the table. Zero callbacks equals good profit.”


Bleich feels that “although we believe in the skill of what our people do, character, attitude and willingness to learn are much more important.”


Says Wilshire, “We focus on character. Individuals with values that align well with our organization’s values can always learn the technical skills needed to be successful.”


Cowles agrees: “A person’s disposition and personality have to be number one for me. Hard skills—like knowledge—can be taught, but learning to be a good person took place way before they landed on our doorstep.”


As does Heering: “In today’s hiring process, it is pretty much based on the character side of the process. Today, most skilled people are already working. Therefore, you must try to pick from unskilled ones those that you feel have a good work ethic and who will show up on time every day. Showing up on time seems the hardest trait to find in young people today.”


The message here is pretty clear: You can teach skill but not character, and you definitely need both in a good employee.

Strong Cards

If asked by a good potential employee why they should join your company—or our industry, for that matter—what would your answer be?


Says Koza, “The top reason skilled workers should join our company is to join a team environment with great opportunities for growth and development.”


Turgeon says, “Construction is a good career path that soon will pay extremely well. As our workers grow older and start leaving the industry, the younger generation will be able to name their price if they have enough skills. I can see carpenters making $100,000 a year in the near future.”


Bullets Fritz: “Good pay. Appreciation. Career path. Camaraderie.”


“I believe,” says Kirk, “that work satisfaction, good pay, the opportunity to learn, and appreciation are the things that would most interest potential hires.”


Taylor says, “We offer a competitive compensation package, we have a great corporate culture, and we have plenty of avenues for advancement. Certainly, there are companies offering the world in pay plus perks, but we know that this is short-lived. During the downturn of 2009, we did not lay off a single staff member—in other words, job security might well trump most other strong cards.”


Shares Bleich, “Besides the obvious cards of good pay and benefits through our union relationship, I would say it is our desire to be different. We want to make sure that we engage our employees and show them our appreciation at every level and not just see them as a number. We also want to make sure we are at the forefront of the technology in our industry and use this as a differentiator with both employees and customers. Lastly, I think all of this speaks to our great companywide culture.”


Says Wilshire, “People who work for us are offered the opportunity to work with others who are committed to being the best at what they do. This drive to be the best has formed a strong level of camaraderie within our crews and other work groups. Of course, this has to be an internal motivation. You can focus on the needs of your customer, the competition and on sales, but the greatest satisfaction comes from being able to do your best work with other people doing their best work.”


“I would stress,” says Heering, “that many of our employees have been with us for many years, which shows that we take care of our people. Also, I’d point out how our dedicated technology department is always looking at new technology entering our industry to see if there’s a fit. Another great tool is to have potential hires meet the management team and some of our lead superintendents. I think those conversations help more than anything. Lastly, I’d tell them that we pay very well, that we have a strong 401(k) benefit plan, and we are an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) company so they will become an owner in the company and will receive shares of stock each year.”


Wagner would similarly stress, “We pay our people very well, we offer paid time off and holiday pay; Aflac insurance paid by the company; company vehicles, and we offer an annual bonus based on their years at the company—and, of course, we offer free coffee every morning.”


Apart from good pay and benefits, most workers look for job security, career path and job satisfaction (from teamwork and camaraderie). If you can offer this, you should not have a problem attracting and keeping both character and skill.

Other Thoughts

Muses Koza, “With the current shortage in skilled workers, you not only have to find and retain skilled workers but you need to have a system in place to develop the younger workers and bring them up within your system. Take the glass-half-full approach and use this time to your advantage and build for the future.”


“Still waiting for those robots,” quips Turgeon.


Says Aird, “Communication is always a key. I speak Spanish and since most of our field workers are Hispanic, they appreciate that I can communicate clearly with them.”


Espeset’s view is that “finding is hard, keeping is harder. Keeping is the key. We invest a lot in choosing well and then keeping. That’s the key to being successful today.”


Adds Wagner, “To quote our company T-shirts: ‘Skilled labor isn’t cheap. Cheap labor isn’t skilled.’”


Cowles summarizes things nicely: “We all learn that we should treat people like we want to be treated. But, with a mixed bag of personalities, education levels and hands-on knowledge/experience, this can be difficult. You need to ascertain each person’s core values and address and meet them. Be honest and respectful when addressing each person’s weakness, and allow them to run with their strengths. Do not micro-manage good people. If you have to do that, you need to look at your ability to hire the right person for the specific task in the first place.


“Treat people well and others will follow because that’s the reputation you’ve built.”

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

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