Everywhere you look, contractors are seeking employees. Things have changed from when I started in this business over 40 years ago. Most of those changes are social in nature. The demographics of American employment has dramatically changed through the years. Yet many contractors haven’t changed with the times.

We used to attract hard-working farm boys, but automation, fewer children per household, corporate farming and lots of other factors have shrunk farm employment from 18 percent of the workforce in 1910 to less than 1 percent in 2000. It seems there’s no one left to recruit.

Drug and alcohol abuse doesn’t help. Partnership Staffing Solutions, Inc., a national recruiting firm, pointed out in a recent newsletter that three quarters of all addicts have a job. Another source indicated that 18 percent of the unemployed are drug users — twice the average of those employed. In a September 2017 article, Quartz reported that nearly half of working-age American men who are out of the labor force use painkillers daily.

And it’s not going to get better. A 2015 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report indicated that 20.7 percent of construction workers are 55 years of age or older. That means that one in five construction workers are looking to retire in the next ten years.  

To make matters worse, many young people don’t see roofing or other contracting jobs as an attractive career. Not too long ago, we surveyed a large union contractor’s workforce in a metro market where employees were paid very, very well. While happy with their job, the workers overwhelmingly didn’t want their children to go into the trades. 

So, what can we agree on? That it’s going to be harder and harder to find, recruit and keep good workers. That said, there are really two approaches to the current labor shortage situation:

  • Recruit people and train them to meet your needs.

While we intellectually know this, are we merely giving lip service to the problem or has your company culturally changed? Are you constantly looking for people? Do you have a recruiting budget and onboarding process or are you simply doing business as usual? Do your really pursue employees as hard as you do potential jobs? To survive, you have to change.  

  • Be the best employer in your area and attract people.

I’m not talking about simply paying more and stealing people. It goes beyond that. Employees talk and know each other. They know where the best places to work are. What’s your employment reputation? Are you seen as the leading employer in your trade? Do people aspire to work for you? What’s your turnover rate? When employees leave you, where do they go? Remember, employees tell us they left for more money but survey after survey finds people leave because they weren’t happy where they were employed and didn’t feel appreciated.

Here are some common-sense steps that can help with employee recruitment and retention.

First, who’s in charge of the effort? Assign someone to make this a priority. Consider and have a regular progress review. Unless you make it a priority by putting key people in charge of the process, you’ll probably struggle. You may even want to hire someone part time to help.

Next, take a broad approach to recruiting. Put applications on your website. Offer employee bounties to bring in good people. But if you offer a bounty, pay something once a month for six months as long as the person stays. Advertise on your trucks, Facebook, website, at supply houses, in coffee shops, churches, etc. Blanket the market. If you see a young person hustling in a fast food restaurant, is your first instinct to offer them a job? If not, you probably don’t have the right mindset. There’s a cartoon of two vultures sitting a tree, one turns to the other and says. “Patience my #$!?#, I am going to kill something.” Kill something, don’t wait for it to happen. Like any other commodity, scarcity brings on urgency and aggression; if not you will be left out.

Change your culture by doing a better job of training and onboarding existing employees. Don’t just hire people and throw them to the dogs. Support them. Some surveys report that as high as 50 percent of new employees decide the first day whether they will or won’t stay. Certainly, by the end of the week. Do you touch base with people to see how they like working with you, are they going to stay, etc.? Probably not. Ask your foreman for separate feedback. Do they think the new person will stay? How did the person do? What needs to be done to ensure they succeed? New employees that can turn into a stable employee are a valuable commodity. Not keeping in touch with them and doing whatever you can do to ensure their success, is like leaving a stack of money on the job with no one to guard it. 

The employment shortage is so severe many wonder if even a severe recession would solve the problem. I don’t think any of us want that as part of the solution. If you’re going to stay in business, you must change your approach to employment.