The title of this column refers to the old adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” There is another old saw that factors into this topic, “It is an ill wind that blows no good.” Those two adages pretty well sum up our national economic situation. Those two old sayings both have optimism at their cores; the ability to find some good or to try to make the best of a bad situation.
Having live through COVID and all the fallout from that fiasco, it isn’t much of a stretch to predict either the depth, or longevity, of our current economic woes. Even the most pessimistic forecasters could not envision the housing crisis, mortgage rate explosion, credit crunch or the inability to find viable employees. Even so there are those who, although struggling, are making it in the current business climate.
The businesses that are still standing are doing it by combining good old-fashioned perseverance and modern day innovation. By thinking “outside the box” these companies are able to survive, if not necessarily thrive.
Looking for an edge
The “ill wind” analogy describes the current labor pool situation. We may be “waiting for the other shoe to drop” on our economy and no one knows if the economy has contracted as far as it is going to... or not. Our inability to get trainable people is something few if any could have predicted. Not only do we not have qualified candidates, we can’t findany viable candidates. Suggesting that you might be able to raise the level of craftsmanship in your shop with newer, better trained people has become a joke. One that none of us is laughing at. So, a suggestion, how about up-training your existing people? Taking the rough edges off your peoples’ skills—providing intensive technical training to make your crews better able to work with the newer technologies—might give you an edge to exploit in the marketplace.
In times past, when the economy was booming and the trades were a desirable means of making a living, the available labor pool was so narrow that most companies would simply place want ads and begin the hiring/firing cycle until they had culled the best people available. This was not only time consuming and frustrating, but expensive as well. Many times, new hires were less than qualified, but they were available! Today, new hires are a liability to the company. Many times, new hires, if you can find one, is so bad that it would have been better to under man a project or walk away from one, rather than man it with some of the people represented in our current labor pool. My how the times have changed.
So, do you sit around wringing your hands crying, woe is me!? I don’t think so! As I have said many times over the years, ours is a tough industry. If you are in it and have survived more than a few years in the business, you’re in the best position to make it over the top to the new day that is just over the horizon... or at least that’s what it says in the fine print, anyway.
Here’s an aphorism for you: Advice is something that is given by the pound, but taken by the grain. So, here’s my pound of advice: do whatever you have to in order to survive. If that means becoming a one-man shop because you can’t find anyone to train, then do it. If it means not taking that proffered project because you can’t properly man it, pass on it. Stick with what it was that made you successful in business in the first place. Change where you have to but stick to your guns when that change threatens to overwhelm you. Modify, adapt... overcome.
I heard a story through the grapevine about one large plumbing/HVAC company that was fortunate enough to have landed a good sized project. They found themselves in the position of needing to hire new people.
Now this particular company was pretty large to begin with. They had a long history of working with their employees to educate, train and advance from within. They placed a high value on training and retaining qualified people.
When the economy slowed, this firm was hit as hard as the rest, but they had a bigger footprint. Because the company was large, they were able to contract rather than go out of business. They laid off a lot of people, but they stayed afloat.
Once they got the job, the company made the conscious decision to aggressively recruit only the most qualified people that they could find. As crazy as this sounds, they set the criteria for new hires very high: new hires must hold valid plumbing licenses, and have at least 15 years of trade craft experience before they would even review the applications.
By adhering to these strict guidelines, and offering signing bonuses as well, the company was able to hire only the most qualified people, eliminating many, if not all, of the employment pitfalls that have haunted the industry for so many years. They did credit, criminal and other background checks and generally vetted prospective new hires about as thoroughly as present technology would allow. The end result, according to one trade source, is that the company now has the best crew in the state.
It is obviously not possible to say that they won’t have some related labor issues with the new hires, but by setting their hiring criteria so high, they have effectively eliminated the vast majority of typical new hire problems. Assuming that everything flows the way it should, labor management and related cost control on the project will be greatly improved. This will save a lot of money and aggravation for the company. And also, the project owner will be getting a first rate job in the bargain.
Building on this assumed success, the company is positioning itself to be selected to bid on more projects of this type in the future based upon superlative performance and quality craftsmanship. A great way to push-off of the bottom and head for daylight.
The Brooklyn, NY-born author is a retired 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].