Happy New Year! And happy hiring. Or not.
Finding and keeping qualified staff is becoming increasingly difficult. It hasn’t been easy for quite a while in the skilled trades arena – and it has gotten worse. Now it’s a challenge across the board for numerous reasons that are completely out of your control (e.g., possible recession, ongoing supply chain and inflation issues, retirements, etc.). It may get harder still in 2023, depending on the fate of new federal independent contractor rules being considered.
To examine these trends and share a few insights to address them, I reached out to these industry professionals:
- Ossipee, NH-based general contractor and National Association of Homebuilders Remodelers Chair Kurt Clason.
- Interior designer, showroom owner and design industry business coach Cheryl Kees Clendenon in Pensacola, FL.
- National Kitchen & Bath Association CEO Bill Darcy.
- Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association’s Marketing Director Kymberly Glazer.
- Brian Kirchgatter, owner of the Keercutter specialized executive search firm for the kitchen and bath and building products industries.
- Greg Sizemore, v.p. of health, safety, environment and workforce development with the Associated Builders and Contractors trade organization, whose members work on multi-family projects across the country.
- Seattle area interior designer and showroom owner Sarah Walker.
It’s no secret that many of the industry’s most knowledgeable and experienced trades professionals are approaching retirement age, and there aren’t enough young people interested in filling their shoes. This is one ongoing trend that has plagued the kitchen and bath field for years, and for which recruitment strategies have had mixed results. “The competition for talent is aggressive,” Sizemore notes, with outreach efforts across the industry.
COVID-19 certainly derailed those activities for a couple of years. There’s also been chatter about a wave of adults leaving the workforce altogether. NKBA leader Darcy is skeptical. “I don’t hear too much about the ‘great resignation.’ That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, but it’s not something I’ve seen our members focus on,” he shares. “What I do see them focusing on is labor shortages. I don’t know of any company or brand that hasn’t been affected. I’ve heard from several designers that they can’t get an installer to the job because they are so backed up. It’s the same with carpenters, plumbers and electricians [that] are in such high demand…there just aren’t enough of them to go around. And, of course, talk to any manufacturer and they will tell you how hard it is to get factory workers. I think every segment has been hard hit.”
DPHA’s Glazer definitely sees manufacturing labor shortage challenges. “One manufacturer shared that they have to offer large signing bonuses just to get positions filled, only to have the new hires fail,” she reports. Glazer also notes ongoing challenges for retailers, with candidates’ desire for hybrid and remote work exacerbating their difficulties: “It has always been challenging to properly staff showrooms, especially those with retail hours. Remote work doesn’t really jive with retail sales.”
This is a fact of life for Sizemore’s ABC members, too. “You may be able to perform certain construction functions from a home office, but you can’t build from one. In some cases, that may keep potential talent from seeking employment in the industry,” he cautions.
Skilled carpenters and carpenter leaders are Clason’s biggest staffing challenge, he says. “As crews age out, there is no one behind them to promote up. Pre-pandemic, it wasn’t easy, but now it’s nearly impossible.” The New Hampshire remodeling contractor has also seen a trend toward less-resilient candidates. “For the most part, the younger guys that have come to us have not fared well with the harder work in all weather conditions,” but hastens to add, “the ones who stay have been awesome and will become the leaders in the next 10 to 15 years!”
One tried-and-true approach for many small business owners and corporate managers for meeting staffing and occasional overflow needs is to retain talent on an independent contractor basis. This reduces costs and provides flexibility. Pending rules through the Department of Labor, as previously reported in Kitchen & Bath Design News, may make that much more difficult. At press time, the new regulations defining who can – and cannot – be classified as an independent contractor versus an employee were still posted on the Federal Register for comment. Even if implemented, litigation will likely forestall them from being enforced. (An online search of California’s AB-5, the 2020 law on which these new rules were modeled, shows the potential impacts and arguments.)
ABC had this to say on the matter: “Independent contractors provide specialized skills, entrepreneurial opportunities and stability during fluctuations of work common to construction…Any effort by DOL to undermine the use of independent contractors in the rulemaking will likely be challenged by ABC and other stakeholders.”
Business owners and corporate managers are trying various strategies for finding workers, depending on their needs and budgets. Clason shares, “We have tried word-of-mouth, newspaper, Indeed, ZipRecruiter, Facebook and Craigslist.” Indeed, he says, while costly, yielded the most consistent hires. He also found success with signage at his office.
Being specific about needed skills and knowledge is important to finding your best hires, Walker suggests. She has had her own hiring difficulties finding tech-savvy architectural drafters with interior design experience, the Seattle designer notes, as she expands into larger projects. What has worked for her growing business is recruiting at local design schools, as well as on Indeed and LinkedIn. Walker also stresses focusing on what she calls “soft skills” to create strong teams that enjoy spending time together, “particularly for small firms where collaboration between a tight group of people is vital.”
To increase your potential talent pool, especially in small markets like hers without design schools or programs, Pensacola-based Clendenon advises employers to keep contact lists updated; “you never know the longevity of a chance encounter,” she observes.
“I think you have to be more creative about finding people, looking at different avenues to recruit – more than just posting on job boards or advertising,” Darcy suggests. “Word of mouth, letting people know you are hiring, approaching people at events or conferences…even looking outside your field,” he offers as potential strategies.
When it comes to recruiting young people, “One-and-done career fairs do not move the needle enough,” Sizemore says. “Repetitive interaction with hands-on career exploration activities creates interest and excitement that translates into a higher number of entries into the industry.” Trade organizations in the kitchen and bath and construction industries are already doing this.
“Based on our research and feedback from members, it seems that paying a higher wage is one of the ways they are retaining workers,” Darcy observes. This is especially true for skilled staff and tradespeople, he adds. ABC’s Sizemore sees signing bonuses, telework opportunities, flexible schedules, paid time off, childcare and other benefits being offered, he says.
This makes sense, Kirchgatter points out. “Candidates who are looking to make a change want the entire package. In most cases, they are not willing to take a step back financially and professionally to take on a role. Employers who are in tune with this are stepping up to get the best talent. Others find their positions staying open for months and sometimes years.”
Sometimes hiring misfires are the fault of an overly hesitant hiring process, the recruiter cautions. “In this environment, the employer needs to be ready to sell the company, position and opportunity quickly, and in many cases, put their best offer on the table,” Kirchgatter remarks. He focuses his candidate pitch on the financial health of the company, its products, client base and growth potential. “Candidates want to know more detail about a company than they have in the past and this is usually due to economic factors and politics,” he adds.
Benefit packages can be tough for smaller businesses, Clendenon notes. She cites healthcare as a particular challenge. When she does find a great candidate, the high profile designer has one appealing professional benefit she – and you – can offer: The knowledge, reputation and willingness of the principal to help their team members learn and grow.
In other words, well-established business owners with strong reputations and a development focus bring what she calls “reciprocal value” to candidates and can help advance their careers. This is both a hiring and a retention benefit.
“We address retention by having a relaxed casual culture,” Clendenon shares, “but the truth is many want to learn from me, and that is a big part of what keeps them here.” Without a local feeder school, she addresses the challenge of finding talent with in-house development. “They recognize the value, even if it is sometimes hard to be in Cheryl boot camp!” she muses. The Florida designer’s reputation as a successful design professional and her willingness to develop her team keeps talent coming – and staying.
Given a challenging employment market, businesses “have to work harder to not only find – but retain – talented employees,” Darcy states. Clason adds that creating a good work environment and communication are key to keeping great people on your team.
Glazer shares insights from her DPHA roundtables that have succeeded for other kitchen and bath business members: Increase sensitivity and flexibility in dealing with employees’ personal challenges; don’t give staff a hard time for keeping regular business hours and don’t work them “to the max”; create a culture of reward, recognition and continuous education, and make your workers feel part of something greater. That last point is crucial.
The association executive notes that younger generations are very cause-driven, so creating a culture of being part of something important – like providing sustainability and wellness solutions for clients, as two examples – and linking those Gen Z-oriented causes to your product lines or services is much more motivating than just selling faucets or installation services.
There are new staffing paradigms, new career ideals for a new generation and new applicants to consider. High school seniors are certainly strong prospects – especially when sharing the opportunity to forge a high-paying career without college debt. But there are other candidates who can fit many employers’ needs, but are sometimes overlooked. These include mothers returning to the workforce, older adults, skilled immigrants and individuals with disabilities who don’t preclude working full-time. These may require more flexibility, but in a challenging market, that can be a kitchen and bath business executive’s super power. ▪
Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC is an award-winning author, wellness design consultant and industry speaker. You can learn more about her design industry presentations, books, Clubhouse events and consulting services at jamiegold.net.