THE STAKES HAVE never been higher for construction industry contractors when it comes to finding the right employees.
Not only do they face the traditional challenges associated with hiring and keeping dependable workers, but they also have to deal with the threat that a single poor hiring decision can ruin their company's reputation and bog them down in costly litigation.
Kent Dagg, CEO of the 800-strong Shasta Builders' Exchange in Northern California, has for years encouraged his members to conduct drug screenings and to check driving and criminal history records of job applicants.
"When a contractor is desperate for help and bypasses the pre-employment screening process, inevitably, he or she ends up getting bitten," Dagg says. "Most of our large contractors doing commercial, industrial and residential work are taking the prudent route to avoid a bad hire. When you're working on school projects and the like, you've got to get the right people on the job."
Dagg, who also serves on the fivemember board of directors for the California's State Compensation Insurance Fund, adds: "Employers have much to lose by making a bad hiring choice. It can affect them in a number of negative ways, including their workers' compensation rates."
Dagg's exchange is in the process of completing a 15,000-sq.-ft. facility where construction-related courses (ranging from entry-level to advanced management) will be taught. One of the programs to be housed at the new site is the exchange's Construction Boot Camp — a two-week course that prepares applicants for their first job in the building industry.
"We check out everyone who wants to enter the Boot Camp program," Dagg notes, "and we reject three out of four of them, usually because they fail either the drug or driving record screenings. But, once participants have graduated, employers know that they are getting someone who wants to work, doesn't take drugs, is responsible behind the wheel and will show up on time. For people like that, there are plenty of jobs out there."
Finding qualified workers for laborintensive jobs, such as most of those found in the construction industry, has always been a difficult task. Nevertheless, more employers are recognizing the necessity of avoiding bad hires.
Patrick Wallner, an exchange member and president of Wallner Plumbing Co. in Redding, Calif., conducts criminal history, drug, Social Security number and driving record checks, in addition to a three-tiered interview process.
"It's just not worth taking the chance," Wallner says. "Our  employees go into people's homes and have virtually free rein.
"We always do reference checks — and the more expensive ones. It's worth the money. Even if we needed someone on the spur of the moment, I wouldn't hire them without a thorough screening."
Wallner says his family-owned business has spent 38 years building its reputation, and, "It's something you can't afford to lose."
Other contractors complain that if they "are too picky" they simply won't be able to find employees. As one business owner laments: "Sometimes, I kick myself for not being more careful. So far, we've been pretty fortunate."
It is estimated that less than half of construction contractors conduct detailed background checks for their job applicants. Daniel Haskins, general counsel and executive vice president of Pre-employ.com, the company Wallner Plumbing uses for portions of its background checks, says the trend is definitely moving in the direction of more background screening.
"Courts have ruled employers have a general duty to investigate the background of workers who will interface with the public, or who could have a foreseeable opportunity to commit a violent crime against someone in the course of their employment," Haskins says.
Furthermore, employers lose almost four out of every five negligent hiring cases, with the average jury plaintiff award being in excess of $1.6 million.
"Damages are awarded against employers because of the employer's negligence and failure to perform a reasonable search into the employee's background prior to hiring," Haskins says.
One group that virtually all contractors agree they have to avoid is the nation's estimated 4 million pedophiles.
Convicted sexual offenders can look like anyone. They're able to blend into the neighborhood once they've done their time in prison, and, odds are, a good percentage will re-offend.
Many of these criminals will seek employment where they will be in contact with children. Any worker with direct access to minors should undergo a thorough background check.
Employers can, of course, do their own pre-employment screening or outsource the work to numerous background search companies. Employers should check whether the vendor they are considering gathers its criminal search information directly from court records or whether they use databases that could be outdated.
Employers also have a wide choice of companies and methods when it comes to drug testing.
While the United States has made progress during the past decade in its fight against substance abuse, the 2005 National Survey of Drug Use and Health shows that 12.8% of construction laborers, 17.2% of construction supervisors and 17.3% of other construction workers currently use illicit drugs. The report reveals that 19.9% of construction laborers, 12.7% of construction supervisors and 20.6% of other construction workers are heavy consumers of alcohol.