Don't overlook an ugly duckling

ASK ANY PLUMBER, he'll tell you. Kids today don't want to get their hands dirty. They want to work with computers. They are lazy, want flexible hours and top pay. As a management consultant and a parent I agree that the new generation offers unprecedented challenges. However, I am also old enough to remember Paul Lynde lamenting in the musical "Bye, Bye, Birdie": "Kids! ... disobedient, disrespectful,

ASK ANY PLUMBER, he'll tell you. Kids today don't want to get their hands dirty. They want to work with computers. They are lazy, want flexible hours and top pay.

As a management consultant and a parent I agree that the new generation offers unprecedented challenges. However, I am also old enough to remember Paul Lynde lamenting in the musical "Bye, Bye, Birdie": "Kids! ... disobedient, disrespectful, oafs ... noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy loafers!"

Folks, that movie was produced in 1963; some of those kids went on to defend America in Vietnam. Granted, that generation may not have been perfect, but members of that generation did show up for work on time, wearing a belt and having their boots tied.

Where are their replacements?

I've taught a Business Review course to a thousand plumbing contractors over the last year and a half; I'm also the daughter and wife of plumbers. I believe that all trades have been unfairly labeled as offering jobs, not careers. Overlay the "plumber's crack" icon, and it's easy to appreciate why parents and guidance counselors do not steer kids toward plumbing.

Look at the middle school honor roll in your local newspaper. Those students are disciplined and determined to succeed. This is the age where they need to learn that trades are critical to America's future.

For example, industries including health care, the military and the space program require fail-safe plumbing; it's not just about toilets.

Guidance counselors also need to point out that hands-on work cannot be outsourced to India.

Trade industry and educational associations are addressing these societal trends. One leverage point is the projected shortage of reliable tradesmen. For example, the national magazine Parade listed plumbers among the "Hot Jobs" of 2005.

At the same time, every contractor owes it to himself to look past a face piercing, a shuffle or a hat on backwards. Ask yourself, "Is it possible that this creature can turn into a valued employee?" The following employment practices can help you answer that question:

  • Follow the same advice we give to people looking for a job: Tell everyone you are always in the market for good help. This includes your dentist, accountant and the people in the coffee shop. Even if you do not have an opening, you can spend a few minutes with an applicant and make a referral to other contractors. What goes around, comes around. Hand out statements of what you offer. This is your marketing pitch. List every benefit you provide, such as insurance, uniforms, apprenticeship hours, continuing education, 401(k), etc. Maintain a professional image for your company, including clean trucks and a solid reputation.

Once you have attracted potential talent, conduct a three-part inter-view process:

1. Demonstrate your professionalism by only asking questions that relate to the job. Not only is it illegal to ask about age, disability or community affiliations, it diffuses the focus on what the job requires.

If the applicant shows promise, provide materials about your trade. For example, the History Channel has an excellent Modern Marvel series covering plumbing, city water, hydraulics and sewers. Sending applicants home with a DVD appeals to the way they learn and will impress their family.

2. During the second interview, ask applicants to discuss what they learned from the material. Explain your personnel policies.

You may want to say: "It is important that our customers feel secure when we enter their homes. Our policies prohibit facial piercings, swearing or personal calls on the job. Can you live with that?"

Structured interviews, with written questions, will help you stay on track. Make sure to document the applicant's responses.

3. If you are impressed with the applicant so far, you may want to make a job offer, pending the outcome of a background investigation. You can locate a vendor on the Internet to check driving, criminal and/or credit histories, with the applicant's written permission. Follow up any job offer in writing; state the job title, rate of pay and any other key facts.

Consider hiring someone as a helper before registering him as an apprentice. Even a three-month period will tell you a lot about the person's work maturity. The ability to follow directions, to ask good questions and to show up on time will all come out in the first 90 days. Create a separate position description for that entry level to help clarify expectations.

If you want to reap your investment in the interview process, remember to praise often and be patient with mistakes. No one likes to be the new kid on the block. Abusive bosses make good TV material, but this new generation does not respond to screaming.

In one of my classes, a plumbing contractor said he does not praise too often because he is afraid it will be followed by a demand for a raise.

Everyone thrives under encouragement — that's how cygnets become swans.

Georgian Lussier is the principal of G.F. Lussier & Associates, which provides management consulting and training to a variety of industries. She teaches the Business Review continuing education classes throughout the state of Connecticut for the Center for Occupational Development and Education, which was founded by the Connecticut Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors. She can be reached by phone at 203/265-1977, via e-mail at [email protected] or on her Website at www.practicalhr.com