By: Jon Goodman

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The dreams of young children are not populated with the heroic exploits of plumbers or painters. You will not find Ralph or Rhonda the Roofer action figures stocking toy store shelves. Certainly early in life most children have been asked many times, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Roofer, plumber, painter, and other trades get no airplay. My son’s answer to this question years ago was a Ninja Turtle. His backup plan was simply “to work on the 99th floor and have a clipboard”.

Perhaps the trades will never achieve Buzz Light Year status. But I posit that the trades represent people with the unique combination of sharp minds, skilled hands, and strong bodies. They are those who build, maintain, and repair just about every significant element of infrastructure in the land. With such great demand, it is no wonder these highly talented people are in short supply.

So why are our good paying, secure, and rewarding career opportunities in the trades so often overlooked by educators, counselors, parents, and people coming into the job market? Why are high school students so often pointed only at college? Could it be society sees no dignity in this work? Perhaps carrying your lunch to work with calloused hands is tagged as low-brow.

This great shortage certainly should not be blamed on financial matters. Compare the first 4 years in the trades against the conclusion of a 4 year degree (the comparison is even starker when you factor that many 4 year programs take 5-6 years to complete). Here is an example. A person could easily be earning $50K a year. This same person could have feasibly socked away $30k in a 401(k) account. This potentially amounts to $250K in income and savings. When you factor in avoiding suffocating student loan debt the career decision from college to trades could swing $350k or more in favor of the trade’s person.

Consider that the single greatest need cited by most trade contractors is good people. So when all of us contractors get together at our annual national conventions we commiserate that the public just doesn’t know what great jobs are available in the trades.

So it was at the International Roofing Exposition in New Orleans last February 2015. Riccardo González, founder and CEO of Bilingual America, spoke to a small group of about 200 roofers in an early morning seminar on breaking through this veil of ignorance and snobbery about careers in the trades. He asked us business owners’ three questions. Almost every hand in the room was lifted affirmatively in answer of the first two questions. But for the third, not an honest hand was raised. The first question was simply asking if each of us new our basic business ratios. The second question asked if we knew the size of our marketing budget. (Certainly business owner watched those numbers carefully.)

It was the third question that stumped us. González asked how many of us knew the size of our employee recruitment budget. The reason we didn’t know its size is because we had none. Most of us usually just complained about the problem. Oh sure, we’d, throw some advertisements in the classifieds, buy a pad of employment applications from Office Depot, and hope the phone would ring.

Of course González knew the answer before he asked. He pounced on us. Allow me to paraphrase his rapid fire response.

You say you need good people. You say you turn away work. You continue to spend money on advertising for more work you cannot do. You spend big money on sales, but yet you allocate nothing to recruit, train, and retain the very people you say are most important and scarce. Something is wrong. Perhaps it is the size of the hole in your head!

At that point we felt as though he had dope-slapped us across the back of the head. He was spot on. For my partners and me, we took that challenge and turned it into our charge for 2015 and beyond. We would pursue talent and trainees with the same vigor as we do sales. Here are some of our actions.

First we made sure that we offer the best of our trade so we immediately carved out a budget as a percent of revenue. We may not be able to offer flex hours, personalized work cubicles, or baristas in the atrium, but we want to be leaders.

  • We raised our in hire rate.
  • We instituted a new 401(k) Safe Harbor program.
  • We improved our health insurance to a 90% employer paid.
  • We now provide free vision and dental.
  • We give new employees a track to learn more skills and higher wages

Second we started to spread the word.

  • We speak to career classes about the great jobs and careers available through the trades.
  • We participate in high school career days.
  • We are now providing materiel support and skilled trainers to local high school construction programs.
  • We take our message to sites and places where our prospective employees go.

Some may question the affordability of this commitment. This is the same question always asked of any marketing budget. If it works it pays for itself. It works. Our proof is in our productivity, our revenue, and our profit margin. It is the best investment we’ve ever made.

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