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Hunt, don’t fish

"Build an inventory of people."


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October 29, 2019 by Steve Maxwell

By Steve Maxwell

For as long as I can remember I’ve been hearing the same heartfelt complaints from contractors. “We can’t find good people! No one wants to work these days. I can’t get workers and subs to show up on time, stay sober and keep working.” The people telling me these stories are all earnest and they back up their claims with real life examples of under-achieving people doing bad work and costing them money. These owners certainly have trouble, but there are also things about this story that don’t add up.

If poor labour quality really is the result of a lack of good people in the economy, then how come our world still appears to be more-or-less properly constructed? Someone’s got to be doing the work, right? And if a shortage of good people really does exist, then why doesn’t the economy respond with higher wages, pulling higher quality people into the trades, solving the problem? That’s how the free market works in every other part of the economy. Why wouldn’t it work in the contracting business?  Then there are those contrary stories of comfortably retired people who started contracting years ago, built a business by hiring people and subs, with one of their kids now overseeing the operation of a stable venture that employs 20, 30 or even 50+ people year round today. If outfits like this can find and keep dozens of good people, why can’t you find a few?

So here’s a question that might make you angry: Could it be that there really is no true shortage of good workers? Could it be that there are just barely enough good people around to satisfy the demand, but no extra? Maybe the reason you can’t get and keep good workers is because other contractors who are smarter and more proactive than you have already got them.

Looking for skills in all the wrong places

So how do you go about finding decent people to add to your team? If you’re like most business owners, you might place an ad in print or online. You’re also almost certain to ask the good people you’ve already got if they know of anyone “looking for work”. This last phrase is a clue to the source of the problem many owners experience when it comes to staffing. In an economy where there’s no shortage of work for good workers and subs, good people are never looking for work. The only time a good worker isn’t working is when they choose not to. Most of the obviously available, unemployed workers and subs are, by definition, bottom-of-the-barrel producers. They’re just barely good enough to be engaged some of the time. When their last contractor gets tired of paying money that may or may not cover the cost of wages, these marginal people become available. Hope makes company owners hire these people because they’re available, and the cycle of disappointment begins again.

It’s vital you recognize that good people rarely look for work. The fact is, you need to approach staffing as an active outreach operation – hunting so to speak. This is not a passive sit-and-wait venture – like fishing. So how do you hunt for good people? You’ve got to start by thinking differently.

First, get your mind right about recruitment. Hiring is, primarily, a sales activity. We typically don’t think about it that way, but you should. You’re really trying to sell prospective hires and subs on the merits of coming to work for you, while you are also evaluating whether or not they’re a good fit.

If you’re used to hiring and managing people who are regularly unemployed and available, then you might also need to check your attitude and adopt more than the usual amount of humility when recruiting. If you want craftsmen, you need to treat them with respect.

Too many contractors think of themselves as the great and powerful Oz, and that everybody else is just lucky that they’re offering them a job. That’s not what it takes to get and keep the best talent. Business is all about competition, but too few contractors realize that this competition extends to the hiring side of things, and not just winning jobs from clients.

The first thing to ask yourself is who are you going after? Since most good workers and subs are working all the time, they are the people you need to find. They’ll almost certainly not come to you, even if you place an advertisement. Occasionally, decent people cycle through the ranks of the unemployed, but more often than not they’re working for another company all the time. That’s why you have to be willing to recruit people away from other contractors. Do you feel uncomfortable doing this? Well, you’re already recruiting customers and jobs from your competition. So if you really have an issue with competition, then you should never bid on another project again.

Business is ultimately about competition, and if a worker voluntarily chooses to leave one place to come and work for you, it’s their choice. You’ve just given them a situation where their work experience is better. What’s wrong with that?

Selling what workers want

Once you realize that you’re really selling two things – completed projects to property owners as well as superior working opportunities for subs and workers, you can start recruiting in a way that most contractors never do.

If contractors use recruitment messages at all (most don’t), it usually goes something like this: “We’re hiring. Come grow with us. Experienced people wanted.” A better message would be aimed at subs and workers whose contractors and bosses don’t appreciate them. This is something that a lot of people identify with. Most people don’t quit their companies, they quit their bosses. When you mention the problems that many workers and subs experience day-to-day, spotlight those problems then solve them by letting these people know that you’re different. It works.

Once you get good messaging out there and go after the right people, you’ve got to make sure that you’re online, that you have signage and messaging that let’s people know you aim at creating a great working environment. Sit down with the kind of people you want and have a conversation about their career. You’ll be surprised by the quality of people you end up talking to.

Building an inventory of people

Does active recruiting sound like a lot of work? It is, but it’s not nearly as costly as babysitting even one employee or sub who’s causing you grief, destroying your reputation, and maybe even costing more money than they earn for you. Like anything in life, you need to look at recruiting as a good habit that becomes part of your professional life. You definitely don’t want to start recruiting only when you have an immediate need, either. You’ve got to recruit whether your crew roster is full or not.

While marketing to skilled, employed people is an alien concept to most business contractors. Proactive recruitment to keep the bullpen full is  common outside the contracting business, even beyond the white collar world.  On the back of every 18 wheeler, what do you see? There’s almost always recruitment messages. There’s sometimes as much recruitment marketing on an 18-wheeler as there is recruitment of new customers. It makes no sense to aim 100% of your marketing just at sales, and none for building your capacity to actually build. Your work vehicles should have signage that invites people who want a better career to call a 24-hour toll-free hotline for subs and workers. Use a recorded message to tell them why working for you is a great career opportunity, then meet with them and see if they meet your standards.”

Like most bad things in life, bad subs and employees happen more or less automatically. If you want things to be different, you need to take active steps to make it so.


Steve Maxwell

Steve Maxwell is the tools editor for Canadian Contractor magazine. You can follow him on his website (www.stevemaxwell.ca), on Facebook or via Twitter.
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