Global labor shortage requires new hiring tactics

Anaheim - Contractors are facing a global competition for workers that will only exacerbate a growing workforce shortage in the U.S., Purdue University Associate Professor Kirk Alter told contractors meeting here in late October. Alter cited statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor indicating there will be 930,000 new job openings in the construction industry from now until 2014. The plumbing

Anaheim - Contractors are facing a global competition for workers that will only exacerbate a growing workforce shortage in the U.S., Purdue University Associate Professor Kirk Alter told contractors meeting here in late October.

Alter cited statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor indicating there will be 930,000 new job openings in the construction industry from now until 2014. The plumbing workforce will need to increase by 17%, while the HVACR workforce will need to grow by 29%, he said.

Alter addressed those attending the Network '07 conference hosted by Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association and American Supply Association.

Compounding the U.S. workforce shortage problem is a dramatic decline in the working age populations of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and China, Alter said.

“Contractors all over the world are facing manpower shortages,” he said. “It's a global problem that is only going to get worse.”

In order to combat the problem, Alter suggested contractors find, train and motivate a workforce that thinks differently than they do.

Alter named four labor pools that make up a 21st century workforce - mature, mid-career, young and immigrant workers. He said contractors need to identify their current workforce situation, including what shortages they will face and when.

Alter also challenged contractors to overcome their preconceived biases about each of the four labor pools. He said some of the biases contractors may have toward young workers are that they don't have the right work ethic, lack loyalty to the company or that they want to be in charge without having earned their stripes.

Yet industry employers need to encourage feedback from their younger workers, Alter said. Among the top 10 things young employees expect from work, he said, are individual responsibility and the freedom to make decisions as well as opportunities to learn and grow. To that end, Alter encouraged the involvement of upper management in meeting with, teaching and listening to young workers.

“They hold your wallet on every single job,” he said. “Treat them as if they are equals.”

In order to keep young workers, Alter said contractors should make employee retention a real process by designing performance and improvement methods. He advocated talking to young workers regularly and asking them to evaluate the company.

“I want all of my employees to tell me when I'm wrong all the time,” Alter said. “Why? Because I make more money that way.”

When it comes to mature workers, contractors may sometimes believe their more experienced employees cannot produce at sufficient rates or that “they're just counting the days until they retire,” Alter said.

But contractors should build a reputation as an active recruiter and a good employer of mature workers and assess the workers' interest in flexible retirement, Alter said. He also recommended companies develop a strategy to retain mature workers who can transfer valuable skills and knowledge from one generation to the next.

Organizations also should determine what older employees want to do when they retire and under what circumstances those employees might still want to work, he said. In a tight labor market, employers must be more flexible and provide more options regarding work arrangement, learning and benefits.

Alter said some of the biases contractors may have toward mid-career workers are that they seem unfocused because they have too many outside activities or that “they want my job but haven't paid their dues.”

Rather, Alter said contractors should remove impediments to employee mobility by encouraging movement within a company. He advocated the expansion and acceleration of leadership development for mid-career workers.

Alter also encouraged contractors to overcome their biases toward immigrant workers, such as the notion that they don't know anything or that they have a poor work ethic. He cited the top 50 companies that employed Hispanic workers in 2006, which predominantly included service industries that pay low wages. Alter pointed out that the 2005 average construction wage was $19.46 per hour.

“You know you have something better to offer, the problem is they don't,” he said.

In order to reach out to immigrant workers, Alter recommended contractors use a job search engine targeting diverse job candidates in the U.S., such as www.hirediversity.com.

Alter added that knowing or not knowing the language isn't the most important element in successfully employing a talented and instantly accessible immigrant workforce. Instead, Alter advised contractors to familiarize themselves with the cultures of immigrant workers by reading publications such as Hispanic Business online at www.hispanicbusiness.com.

A handful of contractors who attended Alter's seminar later said they would reconsider the way they currently hire and retain new employees.

Steve Heidler, owner of Heidler Inc., Annapolis, Md., said the incoming workforce is changing substantially, and he plans to research Hispanic Websites in order to advertise for potential employees.

“It looks like our companies are really going to have to start embracing more immigrant workers,” he said. “I think there is an enormous pool of workers that we're just not getting to. A lot of those people are working, but they're working in the landscape industry or in hotels. We have a lot more things to offer, and we're just missing the boat.”

Julio Jaime, sales manager of Roto-Rooter Plumbing and Drain Service in Los Angeles, said the industry could do a better job of promoting itself by reaching out to immigrant communities in certain markets.

“We have to change the way that we're going to go after our workforce,” he said. “We steal from people in our own industry instead of broadening the type of employee we want to get.”

Mark Larkin, owner of Larkin Plumbing and Heating Inc., Las Vegas, said he intends to be more proactive in hiring immigrant workers and other employees that he may not previously envisioned as “the perfect plumber.”

“I think I'll have to open up my own mind just a little bit more and accept the fact that that is where our next workforce is and learn that it is easier for me to accept it and get on with running my business,” he said.