Get them, keep them Featured

9:53am EDT July 22, 2002

It’s no news that technology companies are finding it difficult to find and keep highly skilled workers. And employers that pay at the lower end of the wage scale are having headaches attracting workers and holding them.

But companies that lie somewhere between those requiring high-knowledge employees and those hiring unskilled and high school student workers are finding themselves scrambling for reliable, skilled workers, too.

“The lack of quality workers is a real problem in the construction industry, where the average worker is 49 years of age,” says Jerry Fox, vice president of Patio Enclosures Inc., a manufacturer and installer of patio and porch enclosures, solariums, custom blinds and shades, and casual furniture.

When the company began to feel the worker pinch a few years ago, it launched a comprehensive program to attract and retain workers with extensive training and assurances of future growth within the company.

Still, the company doesn’t expect the pressure to ease up any time soon.

“I think it’s going to be a long-term issue,” says Tony Schipani, general manager of the Pittsburgh operation. “There are a lot of other things out there that they can do. You don’t get a big pool of people to choose from.”

A booming economy that created a surge in demand for its products has meant a growing need for employees at Patio Enclosures. A shrinking labor pool and other options for employment have made it more difficult to find workers willing to stay in the construction industry.

Patio Enclosures has seen its sales more than double since 1992, but finding workers has been a problem. By last year, there was a shortfall companywide of 78 employees. The company, which has annual sales of $65 million, estimates that a shortage of workers last year cost it $5.5 million in lost sales.

In just two years, it has closed the gap substantially, and the recruitment and retention program appears to be succeeding. Turnover has dropped, and to date this year, the company is short only 32 installation employees, fewer than half the number last year. Here’s how Patio Enclosures is easing its labor crunch.


Goals and rewards

Schipani says there’s no magic to his company’s approach. The keys are to make sure applicants realize that there is a future with the company, that there are opportunities to progress in terms of pay and responsibility, and that there is a structured training program designed to help them meet their goals.

To make sure employees have the greatest chance of success, all go through a structured training program that requires them to reach certain benchmarks and rewards them with additional responsibility and pay raises.

Most begin as probationary apprentices (although the company does hire higher-skilled workers at advanced levels) with the potential to reach lead carpenter level. For employees to progress to the next level (apprentice 1), they must be involved in 20 installations. Through additional experience, they advance to installer, lead installer, carpenter, measure/breakout person and lead carpenter, with testing and evaluation at every level. Construction employees have opportunities to move into sales or management positions.


Get the word out

But while you might have a stellar program for training and promoting your work force, Schipani says, you won’t have much success unless you can recruit qualified applicants. Part of the problem Patio Enclosures found was that prospective employees weren’t aware of how rewarding jobs in construction can be.

Entry-level rates at Patio Enclosures range from $9 to $16 an hour, and employees who work for a year or more become part owners through its employee stock ownership plan. And while construction work is often seasonal, the company offers an opportunity to work on residential projects in other cities, on commercial jobs or at trade or home show booths.

To make sure it was reaching a wide range of potential employees, the company distributed pamphlets to its employees, at trade shows, job fairs and trade and vocational schools, explaining jobs available. Information is also posted on the company’s Web site.


Consider emotional support

The issue of attracting and retaining productive workers goes much deeper than simply offering adequate compensation, says Charles Popovich, professor of marketing at Robert Morris College and a private business consultant. Popovich says the major social institutions that used to provide individuals with emotional support — intact families, churches, schools and others — have faltered.

Businesses now are faced with finding ways to fill those needs in some cases, says Popovich, if they want to attract and hold onto their best employees. If the workplace becomes more than simply a way to earn a living, if it provides interpersonal connections and becomes an entity with which employees can bond closely on a social and emotional level, workers are more likely to stay.

If employers provide a clear path for employees to succeed and achieve, workers become convinced that the company does, indeed, have their best interests at heart. And, says Popovich, satisfied employees are a company’s best recruiters and boosters.


The training factor

Schipani recommends that employers consider a few basics before putting a recruitment and retention plan in place. First, he says, develop a program that’s appropriate to your business.

“Before you put in a screw, you have to know how to hold the screwdriver,” says Schipani.

You also have to promote the fact that you have a strong training program designed to move employees up the ladder by providing valuable skills training and communicate to prospective applicants that your policy is to promote from within.

Says Fox: “The idea is to create a coaching environment where men and women can learn on the job from people with experience.”

How to reach: Patio Enclosures, 412 431-7000

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Pittsburgh.