Home improvement companies across the U.S. have a problem, but it’s a good problem. They can’t find enough people to install all the work they’re selling. Owners of companies that specialize in short-cycle replacement or repair jobs—roofing, siding, windows, kitchen refacing, handyman—are posting double-digit sales increases. And what they say about how well they’re doing is seconded by economists at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The Center’s report, State of the Nation’s Housing says that 2015 will be the biggest year for sales of home improvement products, topping 2007, the highpoint of the boom. Joint Center spokesman Kermit Baker notes that the industry will be “fully recovered” this year.
That’s a challenge for people such as Anthony Cogliani, third-generation owner of Newpro, a window replacement company in Woburn, Mass., that three months ago hired a full-time recruiter to find both subcontractor installation crews and full-time Newpro employees. “Primarily what we are looking for aggressively is production and installation [people],” Cogliani says. “We put on three crews, but we need about five or six,” he says, to meet demand and catch up with a backlog swelled by pent-up demand and delays bought on by the blizzards that buried southern New England this past winter.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as recently as 2012, the unemployment rate in the U.S. was 8.1 percent, and more than double that, at 17 percent, in the construction industry. Today, with unemployment at 5.5 percent in March and construction a surging growth segment in many regions, those with mechanical skills are in high demand. Steven Jones, owner of Tulsa Renew, an Oklahoma siding company, now spends a portion of his time scouting neighborhoods for fiber-cement siding jobs. When he spots one, Jones parks his truck to watch the crew in action. If they’re good, he will approach. Newpro has gone so far as to station its recruiter in the parking lots of big-box home improvement stores, hoping to interest the independent contractors who get supplies there.
Many home improvement companies, accustomed to continuously hiring for new reps, now apply that formula to their search for installers, whether subs or payroll employees.
“We run ads constantly, we interview constantly,” says Frank Mumford, owner of SIR Home Improvements, in Kalamazoo, Mich. “You have to look for installers like you look for salespeople.”
Other companies have created systems to reach out, recruit, and train a pool of technicians as a way to ensure availability and growth. For The Brothers That Just Do Gutters, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., there is little choice. When people call the company, it’s because they have a problem with water on the roof or at the foundation level. Now recruiting and training new gutter installers has become the company’s priority, says Ryan Parsons, co-owner with his brother, Ken. During the recession, The Brothers That Just Do Gutters sometimes allowed a four-to-six-week lead time on a gutter job. Now, “if you’re more than two weeks booked, we authorize overtime,” Parsons says.
To pull that off, the company puts 14 guys on the street—seven trucks with two-man crews. Three years ago, The Brothers put together a “skills ladder” consisting of five separate rungs, complete with a written manual and ongoing training. The rungs go from apprentice to crew leader. “We’re always looking for someone who can lead,” Parsons says, that is, someone who can get to the fifth rung.
Craftsmen in Short Supply
Beyond maintaining competitive pay scales, home improvement companies are:
- Improvising apprentice programs and recruiting for them from high schools, community colleges, or just through ads targeted to high school graduates. Parsons says that Papa John’s pizza delivery guys have made excellent gutter installers, and current technicians are an excellent source of referrals in the company’s search for “green” potential hires, that is, young people with no previous experience.
- Creating bonuses that reward installers for referring other installers or recruits to train. SIR Home Improvements, for instance, now pays a veteran installer 30 percent of the wages of his newly recruited helper, plus $50 for every job the helper installs, banking on the idea that that helper will come on as a company employee at some point.
- Making use of associations and other networks to reach out to other contractors. Dave Cerami, owner of Let’s Face It, a kitchen and bath company in Fort Washington, Pa., recruits through the local National Association of the Remodeling Industry, the National Kitchen & Bath Association, Business Networks International, and various local suppliers. Darryl Rose, owner of Get Dwell, a Chicago-area home repair and handyman company, first posted ads on Craigslist in 2008 and drew hundreds of resumes. His most recent ad brought in three candidates. “It’s much harder now,” Rose notes. Recent hires have been friends or relatives of current employees who like working at Get Dwell. Rose lets employees know that he’s looking to hire.
- Building the culture around hiring, training, and leadership as a best practice, which means acknowledging the value of installers to the company. “We used to think in terms of the ‘cost’ of employees and machinery,” says Parsons, “rather than the fact that [employees are] making us $2,000 a day.”
Best of the Best
Some contractors prefer not to scramble, Cerami among them. While many home improvement companies cut back on benefits during the recession, Let’s Face It actually boosted its benefits package, adding a 401(k) plan.
‘’I’ve always maintained a core of installation employees who work directly for me,” Cerami says. “What I want is retention, to provide a holistic, well-organized company where people want to stay because you treat them right and provide good benefits and a steady source of income.”
And as the number of installers shrinks and companies seek the best of the best, rewards, incentives, and retention may be the approach that more home improvement companies take. “A few years ago we were so focused on investing in customer service, we were missing it,” Parsons says. “Now we invest in our people, showing them a career path, showing them that we care, giving them more and more money based on their level of production. It’s all in their hands. Customer service is a byproduct of that.” PR