Finding Good Employees

Cabinetmakers lament the lack of qualified workers in the market, and share thoughts on how to find good help. April 19, 2015

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
I am a two man shop and Iím having a lot of problems with finding good employees. The first half of 2013 was busy but nothing I couldn't handle. Jobs were coming in one after another and things were rolling along very nice. Then I decided I was going to put myself out there a little more and things have gone crazy. I landed a contract with a reno company that does about 4 million in sales every year and I am doing all of their finish carpentry and some of their cabinet work (kitchens, etc.). I also have two other contracts with a small builder and another smaller reno company plus other work that rolls in all the time on referrals.

I am at the point where I have way too much work and not enough man power. I have tried to hire guys whether it be on piece work or by the hour but nobody has worked out. There is so much work in the city that guys on piece work are jumping around to the highest bidder and the guys by the hour want huge money but don't produce enough product and I end up losing money. Iím not sure what I should do because I want to build my company but I canít seem to get guys. What have you guys done to find good guys? I feel lucky to have one guy but he is still pretty green so itís not like I can just let him work by himself all the time.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
Since taking over a five man shop a few years ago I'm down to just two guys. One is 55 and the other is 66. I've tried out four new younger guys in their early 20's. One was perfect but left for a job with better pay/benefits. And the other three weren't even close to cutting it. It has been frustrating investing the time to teach these people only to have to cut my losses a few months later, but that's just how it goes.

From contributor H:
Do you have a competitor in the area with any good help that might be a good fit to your operations? Maybe time to have a sit down with them and discuss moving over to your base of operations. It boosts your output while simultaneously crippling your competition.

From contributor C:
As a group of business owners I think we invest more time lamenting the lack of skilled workers than we do developing training systems. I've read about a Woodlinks initiative that envisions a program for certification of woodworking skills. In much the same way as Microsoft offers computer programmers a certificate they can show potential employers the Woodlinks certificate would be proof positive that you know how to flatten a board on a jointer, etc.

I think the certification part is great but Iím more curious about how you get the information into the protťgťís head? What are your exact mechanisms to train someone to build a door or make a drawer box? Do they learn this by standing next to the master mechanic? Does their first time up to bat involve something that belongs to a customer or do they get a few practice swings first? How do they learn to run your slide saw? Do you give them some MDF to practice on or is this trial by fire in your shop?

A lot of times we rationalize the learning curve by saying it's an "investment". It's not an investment. This kid has legs and training is an expense. If you are willing to make an investment then invest in your training systems, not in the kid that may or may not be here next month. Start with making a list of all the processes it takes to build one of your widgets. Have the guy you are trying to augment take a yellow hi-liter and mark out all of the steps he thinks the kid could learn in a couple of days. If you do this you will see that maybe 25% of your page is yellow. If you hi-light all of the things the kid could be taught in two or three weeks your page of processes will probably be half-yellow.

Give the kid this list. To expect him to memorize the steps and/or proper sequences is more optimistic than an accordion player with an agent. If he has a list he can cross things off and you can certify that he knows things. Break your door orders down to batch sizes of two or three doors. Have him build two or three doors at a time. If you give a batch size of 20 it's going to take him months to learn how to make a door properly and you will likely have to mop up a lot of bad doors. If you give him that pile of 20 doors in batches of two or three he will been up to bat ten times before the week is over an next week he will be as good as Jesus. Put the burden of management on him. Have the kid bring each door to you to inspect after it is clamped up. Have him keep doing this until every door is perfect and he is bringing you a door every 20 minutes. When he's bringing you three doors an hour that are perfect move him over to the drawer box department and repeat the process.

The point is that you need to be proactive about this and you need to have a way to certify that he is doing it the way you want it done. If all your training is ad hoc and the kid's knowledge depends on what he can divine from powers of observation or dependent on who is teaching him your training (or lack thereof) will cost you money. The biggest part of this training is to teach yourself how to train. If you can do this you will have a durable advantage.

From contributor V:
Here are a couple suggestions that worked for me. Do any of you work with your local Community Colleges? Here in NC for the past 8-10 years the CCís have run programs where they train for the specific skillsets that manufacturing employers actually need, usually in partnership with a larger employer. They often have more students that go through the program than jobs and those candidates are often worth talking to for the smaller employers. Granted it was pre-apocalypse that I ran my business but it worked for me picking up guys that were training for a large RTA manufacturer. At a minimum its worth talking to the people training trade-work and letting them know you are looking. Anyone with the gumption to complete a training program like this is at least a couple standard deviations beyond your average craigslist candidate.

Second process: We also staffed through a temp firm where they found us people with manufacturing skills (not necessarily wood products) day one we sat them down and told them "Here is how you get from temp to perm, this is what that means in terms of hourly rate/benefits, and this is the list of things we expect you to do during the 90 day trial period and the things you must be able to demonstrate mastery of at the end of 90 days." We put it on our senior guys and shop foreman to get the newbies up to speed and paid bonuses to them for every hire that made it through the probationary period.

From this experiment I learned the following: Even total screw ups (functioning alcoholics, drug addicts, the chronically lazy, and total personal drama cases) can hold it together for a month or two, by day 70-80 they show their true colors and they are shown the door. The motivated guys will be at your office door at 6 a.m. on day thirty with a prepared speech on how they've mastered everything you asked them too, and demanding to go full time, you tell them to work the program and then take them permanent day 90 and pay them more than you had originally committed to (even if itís only a few cents more per hour). Then you've got the guys who make it through the 90 days without incident but also without differentiating themselves. In my experience these guys are 50/50, you've got to watch them like a hawk and drop the hammer the second they look like they won't work out. Once we moved to this model we only had one hire (out of 15 plus) that ended up not working out.

From Contributor E:
Great suggestions. I would just add a few things. All those applicants can be overwhelming. Take your time and don't rush through the reviewing of resumes or the interviewing of people. Use your instincts - you know your business. Skills can be learned - whether a person is the right "fit" for your business can be more important sometimes. Write out a job description before you place your first ad. Clearly state the job duties, any critical expectations and whatever skill level you are seeking in an employee. Always, always, always check references! Make sure you check both business and personal.

Don't be hesitant to test for skills. "Hire Slow and Fire Fast". There's a really good chance you aren't going to find the right one right away and you want to be very careful about who you do hire. There's also a really good chance you may think you did find the right person and a few hours, days, weeks, months into it - you discover that it just isn't going to work out.

From the original questioner:
Well itís been a long week of interviews and four hires with only two left. I put an ad on Kijiji and received over 200 responses. I was very up front with what I wanted and asked each person who applied to take a minute to introduce themselves to me. Only about 20 people took that time so it made it a lot easier to narrow the search down. I went through the 20 of them one at a time and choose six of them to interview. Out of the six I asked four of them to come and work one day to get a feel of what they really know. (I find a lot of people can talk the talk but few can walk the walk). In the end the first guy didn't show, the second guy worked a great day and will be starting on Monday, the third guy made it about four hours before he thought the work was too hard and it wasn't for him and the fourth guy also worked great and will be back Monday for a very busy week. I want to thank everyone who took time to let me know their thoughts on this it helped a lot.

From contributor L:
It is really pretty straight forward. Locate your next employee at your competitions shop. First you have a trained employee who has passed the test of can he show up every day. Second now he is your employee and you have his skill sets. The down/upside is you have to entice him/her away with better wages/benefits which can be cheaper than the new hire training curve. In other words your next employee already has a job and is working daily it is your job to get him. Remember you get what you pay for. White collar companies use head hunters for this.

From contributor O:
Contributor L, What makes you think the employee from your competition's shop is actually trained? That shop probably has a training system that is no more robust than the Original Questionerís shop. If any of these shops had a viable training system we wouldn't be complaining about the lack of qualified talent. There aren't any barriers to entry in the entire construction industry. You can come right out of high school and make yourself useful on a job site and end up spending an entire career without 15 minutes of proactive training curriculum. Training by hanging around tribal elders (who also learned by osmosis) is not training.