There is no single strategy for getting the best workers.
By William Atkinson
During the housing bubble that existed from 2002 to mid-2006, finding construction labor became more and more difficult. Even though the bubble has burst, it is still a major challenge for many precasters to find good workers. One reason is that many construction employees who found themselves out of work on the residential side simply migrated to the non-residential construction side where strength continues. And if the residential market begins to gain strength before the non-residential begins to weaken, finding good workers will continue to be a challenge.
For these reasons, precasters must find both old and new approaches to recruiting employees. Before creating such a strategy, though, it is important to determine the caliber of employee you are seeking and/or willing to accept. How easy or difficult it is to locate employees depends on the quality of people you are seeking, according to Gene Vineyard, president of ConcreteCareers.com based in Bremen, Ga., a recruiting agency that helps precasters find management personnel as well as production employees. If you are content to hire “warm bodies” (who will either leave shortly after being hired or, worse, stay around for years as marginal contributors), an adequate supply always has been, and probably always will be, available. However, according to Vineyard, “Despite what the media wants us to believe about a recession, good people are still very difficult to find.” He emphasizes the term “good.”
“Companies that come to us and pay us a fee to find people for them are looking for higher-quality people than if they just ran an ad in the paper,” Vineyard said. “They want people who can make immediate and significant contributions to the company. If companies want good people, they are still going to be hard to find.”
While finding good management people can be a challenge, an additional challenge with production employees is that they are usually less likely to be willing to relocate than management candidates.
Recruitment firms use a variety of approaches for finding potential employees. ConcreteCareers.com begins with a concentric circle search, trying to find qualified applicants as close as possible to the company, then works outward from there. It carefully screens applicants, then sends resumes of potentially qualified people to the company. The company can then conduct a phone interview. If it is still interested in the applicant, it can then invite the applicant in for a personal interview. “We encourage the company to spend time during the interview selling itself to the applicant, because it is a seller’s market, and applicants are selective in who they interview with,” Vineyard said. In fact, on average, about 85 percent of the applicants ConcreteCareers.com sends out end up getting job offers.
How do precasters themselves recruit new employees? The one strategy that seems successful for most precasters is word-of-mouth, where current employees recommend people they know for employment. But while there are a number of different approaches, virtually none are universally effective. While one strategy may work extremely well for one precaster, it may be useless for another. For example, while radio advertisements may work well in one market, they may fail in another. Some precasters may find newspaper ads are more effective.
For C.J. Pink, London, Ontario, a close working relationship with a temporary agency has proven to be the key to success in finding new employees. “In Ontario, there are not a lot of employees available to hire,” said Dan Bundy, plant manager. “Ontario doesn’t have a lot of construction people, so we are really struggling. We have tried the traditional ‘hiring pool’ approach, where we grab people at the corner and hire them for a day or a week. However, that just doesn’t work.”
The company will occasionally hire people who are recommended by current employees, who might be their friends or family members.
Primarily, though, C.J. Pink works with an agency that not only provides temporary employees but also recruits for the company. At one time, C.J. Pink worked with a number of temporary employee agencies. Now it is limiting itself to just one, because that agency has been so much help to the company. “We have been working with them exclusively for about two years,” Bundy said. “Before that, we were working with a number of agencies. Over time, though, we found that the current one has done the best job, because they learned about our operations the best and always sent us good people.”
In fact, C.J. Pink has an open invitation to the agency to contact the company any time it finds a potential hire. “We are usually willing to try that person out immediately,” Bundy said. “The agency knows who would be appropriate, because it has come out here and researched what we need.” As a result, according to Bundy, the agency has almost always been “dead on” with the people it sends.
Since C.J. Pink is unionized, it brings the new people in as temporary employees for 90 days. It also pays the agency directly, not the employee, for those 90 days.
The agency isn’t concerned about having its temps hired away. “One reason is that, because we usually do hire its people, we are willing to pay a little higher premium to the agency, because it knows that it is going to lose them in 90 days,” Bundy said.
The concept works well. The employees that the agency sends out are trained in general construction as well as safety. “All we have to do is provide the specific training in precast,” Bundy said. “In addition, the employees tend to stay with us. We have hired three employees in the last year this way, and all three are still with us.” There was also an instance when the agency called Pink to recommend someone. At the time, the precaster really didn’t need another employee, but it hired the person the next day anyway. The reason: “We know how difficult it can be to get good employees most of the time,” Bundy said.
Word of mouth
At Bartow Precast of Cartersville, Ga., Michael Tidwell, operations manager, has found that it has been a bit easier to hire people in 2008 because of the job market. “Residential building and construction have fallen off in Georgia,” Tidwell said. “As such, a lot of people have been laid off from their jobs, so a lot of people are looking for work. Six months ago, it was an entirely different scenario.”
Bartow has also found that word-of-mouth is an excellent source for finding new employees. “If our employees know some people looking for work, we will consider them,” Tidwell said. However, the company tries to avoid hiring best friends and family members, because it can lead to potential conflicts. If the friend or family member ends up having a “falling out” or other serious dispute with the employee about something unrelated to work, it can lead to tension and other problems on the job. “You end up with two employees who really need to communicate with each other, but who may end up communicating as little as possible,” he said.
So what else works for Bartow? Typically, it has run advertisements in local newspapers and on Internet sites. “Over the years, we have found that the best source for us has been newspaper advertising,” Tidwell said. “In the ads, we are specific about the types of employees we want and the types of equipment we operate.”
The company is also contemplating adding a resume section to its Web site, because there are times when people are looking for a new job but are not actually ready to apply anywhere yet. “In this way, they can go to our Web site first, learn a little bit about us, and then decide if they want to apply,” Tidwell said.
Monarch Products of York Haven, Pa., has tried recruiting applicants through radio, television and newspapers. What works the best for Monarch is advertising on a small local cable station. “I think the reason that it’s successful is that the people who watch this station tell family members and friends about the job opportunities we have,” said Ed Wagman Jr., vice president. “One of our employees suggested the idea about five years ago, and we looked into it.” It costs $10 a week, and the ad runs continuously for the week. The company runs each ad for about two weeks at a time, and it usually gets about 10 responses.
Another effective way for Monarch is word-of-mouth from current employees. “We allow the employees to do this on their own,” Wagman said. In the past, Monarch offered bonuses to employees who recommended someone that the company hired. However, that met with some problems. “In some cases, the employee didn’t stay very long,” Wagman said. “In other cases, a number of employees talked to the same person, so they all thought they deserved the bonus.”
For Gainey’s Concrete Products based in Holden, La., the best ways to recruit employees are the same strategies the company uses to retain existing employees: a good benefits program, advancement opportunities, a smooth transition into the job and steady work.
Various forms of advertising get applicants in the door in the first place, though. “We are big on having our employees wear the company name,” said Greg Roache, president. “At the local supermarket, the most common signage you see on the back of T-shirts is Louisiana State University. The second most common is the local high school. The third is Gainey’s Concrete,” he said.
“We also plan to set up a billboard in the near future, showing my wife, Lisa, next to a black-coated wet well,” Roache said (Lisa is vice president of sales). The billboard will have the pink Gainey’s logo, and the tagline will read, “Precast concrete never looked so good.”
Roache was a supplier for years and learned a lot about strategic marketing. As such, Gainey’s just went through developing its second three-year strategic plan. The plan has three objectives: To increase sales and market share, to increase efficiency and to increase employee retention.
Gainey’s uses its retention strategies to get applicants interested in employment in the first place. “One of the most important things we offer is a good benefits plan,” Roache said. “This can be important to the employees themselves, but it seems to be even more important to their family members.”
When the company conducts interviews and the applicants ask what kind of benefits it offers, the interviewer stops the interview and brings in the office manager, who handles the benefits program. “They then sit down and go through the benefits handbook,” Roache said. The office manager then gives the applicant a summary sheet of the benefits program, so the applicant can take it home and show his or her spouse.
Management also emphasizes to applicants that, just because they will be new employees, they won’t be required to do all the “dirty work.” The company assigns a mentor to each new employee and makes the new employment experience a positive one.
“We also let them know there are advancement opportunities, because we try to promote from within whenever possible,” Roache added.
Finally, the company makes sure it can offer new employees enough hours so they can pay their bills.
Finding good workers is not a simple process, and in fact it often requires a serious effort. With a strategy, a little planning and maybe some outside help, your efforts should pay off.
William Atkinson is a freelance writer who covers business and safety issues.
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