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Adapting in small shops, small towns

Many trade publications, including this one, tailor their content to a broad trade audience. . What is sometimes lacking in these publications is the perspective that most of the trade is embodied in small shops across the country.

Many trade publications, including this one, tailor their content to a broad trade audience. Advertisers are looking for the most “bang for their advertising buck” and place ads in magazines and on media where the largest audience is to be found. It makes sense that the media position themselves to provide that audience. Articles and interviews, generally but not always, revolve around the flagship leaders in the industry, with ancillary nods to regional heavyweights and manufacturers who affect the trade nation wide. This is as it should be. What is sometimes lacking in these publications is the perspective that most of the trade is embodied in small shops across the country.

It’s good that the trade media showcase these successful large and medium-sized companies, because they are what many, but certainly not all, smaller shops would like to become somewhere down the road. Much can be learned from following the “big guys” lead, and adopting or adapting their successful strategies. The thing is, many of those methods do not translate to the average small shop.

As an example, recent articles in this and other trade publications outlined what and how these companies were doing to attract and retain new hires. While their programs and strategies are being applied to entice new hires into the trades, and to keep them, those programs do not relate to the average small shop. Let me explain.

First, most large, and many mid-sized, companies are located either in or in close proximity to large populations centers. Therefore, they have access to a greater pool from which to draw prospective employees.

Second, providing “strong benefit packages and creative perks” in order to retain new trainees is beyond the financial capabilities of most small shops. While profit sharing and medical insurance are offered, or mandated by government, by some smaller companies, those benefits are about all that most can afford to provide. In fact, during slow times, funding profit sharing can become a real test of resolve on the part of the company.

Genuinely liking your employees, and having them like you, is more important in a small company than it is in a large one.

Third, and perhaps most important, small shops are finding it difficult to adapt to the work attitudes of the new hires. Time is money, and training apprentices who need constant tending and time-consuming explanations of everything does not a profitable job make.

With those parameters in mind, what does the small guy in “small town U.S.A.” do to keep himself in business? Scaling down expectations is not a good way to start, in my humble opinion. Looking ahead and planning for growth should always be a part of the plan, even when you are scrambling for work. Parlaying successes and mitigating failures is universal in most industries, but in small shops across the nation those items are much more critical.

Finding people interested in the trade is much harder in small towns than it is in cities. Offering perks and benefit packages to sign up is almost unheard of, although that may be changing due to the absolute dearth of available manpower in those areas. In the small shop, it is more than likely that expanding your employee base by hiring apprentices is going to be done one at a time and very carefully. Finding and cultivating interest in the trades and, by extension, working for your shop is not an easy task today. Retaining new hires is even more difficult due to the changing work ethos of our younger people. It’s a balancing act across the board.

Adapting the successful programs of the large companies to the small shop can be a way forward, but it will not be a “cut and paste” deal. Training methods will need to be adapted, for sure. “Because I said so,” may not be the best way to get a new hire’s cooperation. Neither, however, is engaging them is long, descriptive discussions when you need to get the job done. Small shops are not going to have the “team” concept going for them either, primarily because in many instances the “team” consists of one or two people.

Providing glittering benefit plans is also a difficult transition to most small shops, but when we take into consideration the social context of small town versus city, we can see that offering benefits to prospective and current employees, within the limited capabilities of the company is a good idea. These benefits might not need to be monetary, strictly speaking. Taking your employees on a fishing trip, white water rafting, camping or other activity that appeals to the group is an excellent way to create company loyalty and is a team-building experience. Genuinely liking your employees, and having them like you, is more important in a small company than it is in a large one.

For small shops across the country the struggle is real. They might not be on the cutting edge of industry trends, but they certainly are much closer to that edge when it comes to keeping the trade alive and well.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

TAGS: Management
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