The Contractor's Incomplete Guide to Finding and Keeping Great Employees
As I've traveled around the country talking with concrete contractors of all shapes and sizes, there's a common song that each of them are singing.
"We need more good help. We can't find good guys anymore."
That familiar refrain is usually followed by a few verses that nod to the root cause of the issue.. usually something about Millennials, their city's economy, or the age-old cop-out of "people just don't want to work anymore."
The Problem is Real
If you've been following me for any amount of time, you know I'm a raging optimist and I see the bright side of situations by default..
However, I'm not going to pretend like the problem of shrinking workforce doesn't exist.
The generational propaganda of mandatory debt-driven 4-year degrees, pop culture, and the perennial slandering of working in the trades has caused a real humdinger of a crisis.
As Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs said more eloquently than I ever could:
"The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work."
I've noticed a few things from my conversations that the best contractors on the planet are doing successfully to hire and retain great employees to fill these roles.
Four things I see exceptional contractors doing differently:
1. Marketing to Employees
If you were in business in February of 2009, you may remember how it felt to arrive at the office at 5am after another sleepless night, knowing your backlog was getting smaller every day.. The stress and anxiety of a shrinking workload, employee layoffs, and dwindling profit margins marked the demise of a lot of hopes and dreams.
Even as a kid, I remember the impact it had on my dad's business as a draftsman, and how we spent years recovering from the financial blow it dealt. I can recall licensed plumbers, concrete finishers, or roofers just hanging around a local Starbucks hoping for some day labor.
At that time, I bet you did anything in your power to drum up work. You probably beat the streets, called old contacts, slashed your prices to keep your crews working, or maybe came up with creative avenues to do government projects or speculative work.
But a funny thing happened when the work started pouring back in..
Contractors seemed to forget the level of energy and creativity it took to keep the lights on when times were lean.
They don't realize it takes that same enthusiasm and persistence to solve the opposite problem. As one owner of a $30M/yr contracting business told me:
"When you don't have work, you have to sell yourself to customers. When you do have work, you have to sell yourself to employees."
The best contractors I've met don't make excuses for their lack of work force. They figure out how to market themselves to potential employees. They make it seem like the best place to work on the planet. Then when they hire someone, they prove it.
Maybe more importantly though, they understand that the world has changed.
Social media and the internet have turned my generation into different creatures than the Baby Boomers were. Motivated by different things, attracted to different things, concerned about different things.
As much as you might hate it, more than ever, having a killer online presence, a strong brand, and being active on social media really do matter. That's where the eyeballs are! But many companies in construction are frozen in the ice age, not realizing that their glitchy, 9 yr/old website actually does reflect poorly on them.
We could go on for a thousand years about employee recruitment online and the generational gap.. There's an endless list of folks who have written about it better than I can, so I'll leave it at this:
Recruitment IS marketing. If you're a recruiter (*aka business owner) nowadays and you don't see yourself as a marketer, you're in the wrong profession." - Matthew Jeffery, Head of Employment at SAP
2. Being the Best in the World
So many contractors I talk to seem to be all over the map with their services.. They do everything from huge flatwork to forming grandstands to pouring ADA compliant city sidewalks.
The best (and most profitable) contractors I've talked with all have the common thread of specialization. Of course they offer various services, but it seems they get really good at serving a certain kind of client or doing very specific projects.
I talked to a concrete contractor a while ago who told me they travel all over placing ice rinks.
Another contractor is absolutely killing it on projects that require extremely tight tolerances for quality, where most of the competition is afraid to get in over their head.
Of course, by "best in the world" I'm not talking about some objective best. Instead, the best quality/convenience/experience in exchange for the money spent.
And by "world" I'm not talking about the whole world.. But your world. The world of companies in the southeast who place ice rinks. Or plumbers in Wichita who work on retirement homes.
The best contractors I know are absolutely the defacto leader in their circles, and everyone knows it.
The result? Employees can become massively efficient, teams can hustle without interruption or constant re-training, and all systems and equipment are set up for reproducing one, highly-profitable result.
Are you specialized or are you known for being the jack-of-all-trades, master of none?
3. Profit Sharing
"Okay, enough with the rah-rah hype Mr Millennial" you say, "let's talk about the money."
When we implemented per-project profit sharing at a previous company, the quality of workmanship on every project, the overall teamwork and communication, and employee attitudes made marked improvements.
We always wrote profit sharing checks at the end of each quarter, and we would base it off performance from the previous quarter.. so on July 1st (Q3) employees would get a check for Jan-March (Q1)
This turned out to be a huge perk because of the cyclical nature of construction.. If winter slowed down a bit, the summertime profit sharing checks would more than make up for not hitting 40 hrs/week.
Everyone has their own system and there's a lot of ways to set it up.. But if you haven't implemented any kind of profit sharing, I'd suggest you dig around, ask other contractors, and talk with your accountant.
I don't believe this is the cure-all, but I do think profit sharing is an underrated concept that can have terrific trickle-down within companies. Some of the best in the business are doing it. Maybe you should too.
Before writing this article, I asked my friends on Instagram what they thought the #1 key is to finding and keeping great employees.
The answer was resounding:
Treat them like family, not employees.
This one needs no explanation. Golden Rule. Empathy.
So many people have wrung this subject out that it's become rote. But it's harder to practice than it is to put in a LinkedIn article.
Just know that "kids these days" aren't so much different than anyone else.. more than anything in the world, they want to be recognized for their effort.
How you doing with that?
These are a few of the things I've noticed in companies where employees stick around, are genuinely happy, and the leadership feels like they actually have enough of a team to tackle the work load.
I know there's more to it, but more than anything I want to bring this up to start a conversation.
When I travel from California to Texas to Massachusetts and hear the exact same complaint over and over again, it makes me think this is a conversation worth having.
What about you? What do you think is the biggest key to finding and keeping great employees?
Benjamin Holmgren with Console spends his time writing for, talking to, thinking about and meeting with contractors all over North America to help them make more money and stress less about schedule, tracking and dealing with paperwork. When he's not doing that, he's hanging out with his wife and kiddos, drinking great coffee and trying to come up with even more dad jokes.