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The Ugly Side of Beautiful! (Part 5)

Hopefully you’ve been keeping pace with this series and I don’t need to do a lot of review in order to set the stage for the content of this month’s article. If not, you’ll just have to get online or dig up your past issues and take a look at the preceding four parts of this series. Suffice it to say, we have a shortage of manpower, and we need a solution. For the sake of emphasis, I will repeat one paragraph from last month’s article, which is well worth considering:

“The real problem is that there simply isn’t enough manpower! All the money in the world isn’t going to solve that problem unless you focus on spending money to produce (not seduce) more of what it is you need. Manpower! So then what’s a soul to do? If manpower is so very lean and in such high demand, and you’re going to do your best to resist the tug-of-war for what little skilled labor currently exists?”

Produce, Don’t Seduce!

There’s a lot to be said about the phrase that titles this section. We must produce more skilled labor instead of trying to seduce what little skilled labor there is. Sure you can do both—and you need to, to some extent. But don’t make the foolish mistake of focusing on the latter. Produce, don’t seduce! I’ve already explained the reasons why and if you don’t get it, I’m sorry. You might as well just read another article.

Lessons Learned

In 1980 we were slower than death. It was a typical recession, at least in Southern California. Things were going gangbusters from the mid 1970s through late 1978, and then the bottom fell out. By around 1981 it looked like things would never come back, and we were down to single-digit employee numbers. If something didn’t change—and change quickly—it looked like we had one option: Close the doors!

But change did occur, and not long thereafter we experienced explosive growth as we raced our way to more than 425 employees. It was difficult to manage the surge of work, and we were shorthanded in general and particularly when it came to management. We did the only thing we could in order to accommodate the surge in workload and the shortage of skilled labor and management: We started training at every level. We took on numerous unskilled individuals and taught them the trade. We drew from the skilled labor we had and handpicked the best of them for management positions. Fortunately, we were able to train sufficiently to meet our need. Many of those individuals became a part of our core group, which ultimately became the backbone of our organization.

Granted, it wasn’t a quick fix, but it was the best thing we ever did. Starting an apprenticeship program and training your own management may seem like it takes too much time and costs too much money, but I’m here to tell you that our experience has proven that it works. It didn’t cost money, it made money.

Honestly, many scoffed at the notion of hiring so many apprentices, and the existing skilled labor had a certain amount of resentment for having to work with apprentices as they learned the trade. True enough. It did appear to be a bit of a gamble. The apprentices did rough work, and we depended on those who knew what they were doing to clean up their mess (at times). That was just part and parcel of the process, the nature of the beast. As for how we organized and paid for it, that will remain ours. Although I will share some pointers, there are specifics that I will not share in the interests of protecting our intellectual property and some very hard earned lessons.

I will say this: If you can merely get involved with an existing apprenticeship program, that may be your best bet. There is no sense in reinventing the wheel. However, if there isn’t one available, the next best thing is to start your own.

The Best Employees I’ve Ever Had

Looking back on more than 35 years of business, I can say with certainty that the best employees I’ve ever had were employees we taught ourselves. Why? It’s the old dog’s new tricks syndrome. You’ve heard it before. “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” That is so very true. Have you noticed how moody the existing workforce is and how difficult they can be to work with? How stuck in their ways they are? How unreliable they can be?

New trainees (generally) listen, they follow instructions, and they learn how to do things your way. That is such a refreshing change compared to most employees you hire as skilled labor. Such workers oftentimes have bad habits. They persist in them no matter what you try to do. The group we trained back in the 1980s became the core of our business and even developed into upper management in some cases. Some have spent entire careers with us and never worked for another company.

If you are in search of a quick fix or an easy answer for the lack of skilled labor, there isn’t one. If you’re looking for a real solution, begin rebuilding your business from the ground up. Granted, it’s a process, and it will take time. However, if you take this approach, you won’t regret it.

So what exactly is the approach? I’ll give you eight points and some commentary. Next month!

Doug Bellamy is president of Innovative Drywall Systems Inc. dba Alta Drywall, Escondido, Calif., where he is known for his proactive, innovative approach to our changing industry, and use of modern technology and cutting edge products and services.

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