Do any of the following 10 statements apply to you?

  • I don’t have enough time for training people.

  • I have no on-going training programs for current staff.

  • I don’t have the money to invest in training programs.

  • I don’t know how to train.

  • I can’t fire any of my poor performers because I am so understaffed.

  • I don’t know where to find replacements.

  • I don’t have a program to train apprentices.

  • I find most new workers by stealing them from competitors.

  • I have constant employee turnover.

If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, read on. (If you answer no to all of them, then you should be the one writing this article!)

For the next three months, I’m going to tackle this issue, drawing from advice from some of the foremost experts I know who are experienced at trade recruitment, training and retention. In particular, I’m going to lean on my friend Al Levi, who heads Appleseed Business Inc.

I first became impressed with Al’s expertise about a decade ago when I covered a story on his family’s oil heat and plumbing-heating-cooling (PHC) service business on Long Island. He had a systematic approach to every phase of operations. Everything from recruiting and hiring service technicians to the steps required to perform repair and maintenance tasks were detailed in a “how-to” manual.

Al has since sold his interest in the business to his brothers, and now works as a consultant to scores of contractors in the plumbing-heating-cooling and electrical service industries. He also puts on a dynamic seminar titled “Staffing Power,” from which most of the advice you’ll read here is drawn. Although Al specializes in the PHC and electrical service field, most of his advice is applicable to anyone in the construction trades.

Al Levi can be reached at, and at 480-205-5164. Here, in a nutshell, are some of his key ideas.

To be a chief, you have to make new Indians.

When you first went into business for yourself, you probably continued working with the tools, at least for a while. At some point, maybe you put down the tools, but still ended up spending most of your time in the field running jobs.

Many contractors never get beyond these stages. In some cases, it’s intentional. They wish to remain small and self-sufficient as a one- or two-person shop. If that’s your goal, fine. Some people earn a good living within those confines.

Just understand that if you have ambitions to grow beyond that point, you cannot run a business while still working in the field. You won’t have enough time to do the marketing, selling, financial tracking and planning that it takes to succeed. You’ll need to find others to do the work while you act like a businessman in rounding up and organizing the jobs they do.

Hire on attitude, not skill.

Which is easier – training someone to be enthusiastic and willing, or teaching someone the technical skills of your trade?

The people you recruit are adults with distinctly forged personalities and attitudes. Getting them to change their work habits at this stage of life is something better left to clergy or a psychiatrist. Even then, the transition may take years or decades – if it happens at all. However, you can teach someone how to operate a drilling rig in a lot less time.

Who you are able to hire directly relates to the type of training you are able to provide. If you don’t have time to train, or all you have to offer is a little on-the-job training, then you have to recruit people with a lot of experience, who already have been trained in the technical details of your trade by someone else. With them comes a lot of baggage.

The specific experience they’ve had with other contractors may not have been good experience. The culture in the previous business they worked may have been a lazy one, so they may be accustomed to taking frequent and leisurely breaks. They may be habitual job-hoppers. Then there are those trade workers who settled into their own way of doing things a long time ago, and their minds are closed when you try to teach them a better way. There also are those who never learned to talk to a customer or can’t get along with co-workers.

Think those guys might be costing you more than someone without experience? Think they might be more difficult to deal with? You bet. They’re only talking to you because they want a raise. You end up with a potential stable full of prima donnas who will leave you in the lurch as soon as someone else offers them a buck an hour more.

Suppose you pump up your training into a comprehensive program that covers your company’s business operations – the way you prefer to do things – as well as the technical skills required. Now you have some real choice.

You can hire people with minimal experience and train them the way you want them to work. Or better yet, you could hire apprentices and train them your way from scratch. There are a lot more prospective apprentices out there than there are experienced drillers. The better your training, the more choice you have.

Yes, training costs time and money. And there’s always the possibility that someone may pack up and leave before you get a return on that investment.

But ask yourself, which really ends up costing you more and draining the life out of you on a daily basis – people you train who leave, or people you don’t train who stay?

Once you stop trying to find people with the “right” skills, you dramatically increase the number of potential recruits. You even can look outside of your industry for quality job applicants.

It’s not hard to find good people – it’s only hard to find them in a hurry.

The vast majority of contractors hire people only when they have more work than they can handle. This might seem to make perfect sense from a financial standpoint, but in reality, it is a dangerous and painful way to recruit, because it’s an act of desperation.

When you need them in a hurry, you are not in a position to make wise decisions about whom you hire, nor to negotiate the terms of employment. Nine times out of 10, you’ll end up hiring any warm body with experience and put little, if any, effort into background checking.

If you have an effective training program in place, you can be recruiting all the time. Then you can focus on quality, rather than, “How soon can you start?” It affords you time to build your skilled work force from apprentices rather than having to buy them.

Oh, but you don’t have a job for them right now, and you can’t afford to keep unproductive people on the payroll.

On the other hand, can you afford to hire experienced workers who cause more trouble than they’re worth or who may not want to do things your way? Who are apt to quit or get fired after a few weeks or months on your payroll?

A training program needs to be built into your labor budget and passed along in the prices you charge for your work. It will pay off in the long run, because it will generate happier, more productive workers in tune with the way you like to do things. Some will stay with you a long time and turn into foremen and project managers. And when work picks up and you need to ramp up your work force in a hurry, you’ll have them right there. You won’t need to hire out of desperation. You won’t have to pay the hidden expenses of constant turnover.

Constant recruiting enables you to tap a variety of sources for top-notch applicants. These include:

  • Help wanted ads, just as you do when you need to hire someone in a hurry. Except now you can be choosier about whom to interview and whom to hire.

  • Current employees. Offer a re-cruiting bonus to anyone who recommends someone who passes muster, gets hired and stays with you long enough to be productive. Make the amount worthwhile; say $500 or $1,000. You’d normally spend at least that much in classified advertising to land a good person.

  • Keep in touch with former employees who were good workers, but left for greener pastures or otherwise on amiable terms. A new commitment to training and retention might lure them back.

  • Print a message on the back of your business card to the effect that you’re always looking to hire good people, and invite the recipient to contact you or an HR person to find out more about employment opportunities. Be prepared to pass these out to students, recent graduates, neighbors, restaurant serv-ers or anyone else you encounter in any walk of life who strikes you with the potential for being a top-notch worker in your trade.

  • Work with trade schools. Get to know their counselors and instructors; get on their recruitment list; support their programs with materials, equipment and instruction.

  • Include a recruiting statement in all of your advertisements. This could be something to the effect that “we’re always looking for talented people interested in a good job and well-paying career.”
We’ll continue next month with tips on the actual hiring process.