Finding and keeping good help

Good tools and durable machines are valuable assets in the building trade, but they don’t replace the need for good employees with the skills and strength to get the job done. So at a time when construction starts are low, and unemployment in and out of the industry is high, how are companies coping with their employment needs? Rural Builder delved into the issue by interviewing three contractors of varying size, all members of the National Frame Building Association.

Kistler Pole Building Co. employees on the job. -Kistler photo

Kistler Pole Building Company, Fogelsville, Pennsylvania
At Kistler Pole Building Company, serving the Northeast from its headquarters in the Allentown suburb of Fogelsville, Pa., co-owners Thomas Golden and Roland Kern employ 60 full-time employees. Work has been steady despite the economy, and they don’t see any fluctuation in the foreseeable future.

“We’re actually getting a little busier than we were,” Golden explained, noting that 2008, the year of the building bust, was actually their biggest sales year. “Residential is coming back, it’s coming alive again,” he noted, adding: “Some of the high-end large garages and light commercial has been fairly steady. The equestrian market is pretty much a constant, steady-as-she-goes, never really jumping off the charts one way or the other.”

As with each of the companies interviewed, on-the-job training was the norm, yet previous experience was typical at Kistler. “We try to hire people who are diverse and who come from other types of construction background,” Golden said. “It’s not common to hire somebody with post frame experience. They might have had residential or commercial or structural steel or welding or roofing or concrete experience, but I think the diversity brings a lot to the table. We like that.”

Once hired, a worker is typically assigned to a crew with a veteran foreman and assistant foreman. “Then it’s basically working alongside of the experienced worker and learning the skills — the way we do it — all the little details,” Golden said. “We have a lot of long-term employees even in the field.  We had more but as we grew we promoted people to supervisory and managerial positions. We’ve got foremen in the field who have been with us for 15, 20 years.”

Not surprisingly, finding help is not particularly difficult in the current job market. “It’s not too competitive out there from a hiring standpoint,” Golden said, but added that competitive pay is still an important element to keeping good, experienced help. “We do pay them competitively, we do provide benefits to them, we have vacations and holiday pay, we have good health insurance; there’s some meat behind what we offer. As much as we appreciate them, I think they appreciate what we’re able to provide them.”

Kistler was started in 1981 and subsequently sold to Golden and Kern, and the two current owners have worked hard to maintain the company’s culture of professionalism. “We let the guys know that just because they’re out there getting hot, getting cold, getting dirty, they’re still professionals. As owners who came from that background, we appreciate it, and we are able to relate to them from that standpoint and show our appreciation,” Golden said.

Golden also noted that the company counts on an experienced workforce and culture of professionalism to help them sell their services to the customer.  An experienced workforce, Golden believes, is “cost effective from a productively standpoint and a troubleshooting standpoint with the customer,” making a better impression for the company overall.

Golden doesn’t see any particular problems looming on the horizon when employment starts to rise and employees have more choices to pursue. “If the economy starts taking off again, some of the guys may go into business for themselves,” Golden realizes. “They might want to venture out on their own, feel like its safe again rather than work under the umbrella of a company that takes care of finding new business for them and has a paycheck for them every Thursday. But we’ve always been able to compete with that. Our reputation speaks for itself, not just with the customers, but with our employees.”

Esh Quality Structures, Richmond, Kansas
West into Kansas, Esh Quality Structures, headquartered in Richmond, has its own interesting history and employee culture that serves it uniquely well. Established in an area heavily populated with Amish and related settlements, approximately 70 percent of its construction crew workforce of 40 comes from those communities. Most bring with them some prior construction experience.

“A lot of our construction guys are Amish” said owner Rob Pearce, “Amish and Amish-related, Mennonite or German Baptists. That brings a different flavor to the individuals we work with. Amish individuals are very pleasant, they’re trustworthy, very prompt; they’re just good, hard workers with outstanding reputations for quality workmanship.”

On the cover: The new 400-foot long equipment storage building for Kiowa County, Greensburg, Kan., is part of the rebuilding process needed after a tornado destroyed a large part of the community. Esh crew members in the foreground are Jerry Yoder (foreman) on the left and Faron Miller on the right. Esh Quality Structures photo

Pearce has only owned the company since Sept. 1, but has been general manager for the past two years, so he knows the company well. “I think we’ve been extremely successful,” he said, a point well taken when you realize that the 7-year-old company has offices in three locations (all within Amish communities) to serve all of Kansas and the western half of Missouri. The company also works with several subcontractors.

The work they do is diverse: about 60 percent comes from the suburban sector (garages, workshops), another 20 percent is agricultural-based and the remaining 20 percent is a mixture of commercial, residential and equestrian.

Employee turnover is exceptionally low, less than 3 percent, and that turnover rate is common across the entire company.

What’s the secret to the company’s success? The Amish influence has a lot to do with it, Pearce believes, but certainly those valued employees would not likely stay if not for the values of the company itself. Established in 2003 by Reuben Esh, an ordained minister with an Amish upbringing, there is a strong sense about Esh Quality Structures that there is something more at work than simply a focus on profit.

“We’ve got a very strong sense of unity, just a really outstanding team atmosphere,” Pearce said. “I think a lot of our employee stability is due to the culture of the company. I’m much more focused on catching somebody doing something right than on doing something wrong. We view mistakes as learning opportunities.”

To further create that sense of unity, the company hosts group gatherings. It included a 2-day fishing trip to Lake Texoma this past spring for all the crewmembers.

On a day-to-day basis, one of Pearce’s priorities is staying in touch with the work at hand. “One of my primary functions as production manager is to talk to all of our crews every day, go out and do a lot of site visits,” he said.

That personal touch extends beyond Pearce to the sales team. “We encourage our sales individuals to go out to the buildings they sold and visit with the crew, take them to lunch, do some things to make sure they feel like they are appreciated. I think all those small things added up makes for a good place to work. I think that’s a lot of what sets us a part from the competition,” he said.

Although Esh Quality Structures hires experienced help, safety training is an ongoing effort, and performance evaluations are conducted on a regular basis. “We have a fairly well defined performance evaluation program in place,” Pearce said, “so when a person comes onboard with us they go through a performance evaluation after 90 days, six months, then the annual date comes up, and its annually after that.  We do the evaluation to identify where their strengths and weaknesses are at, where their skill levels are at, and what we need to improve.”

It isn’t just people who get evaluated, though. “We have a fairly comprehensive quality evaluation program in place for each building, with the sales person actually evaluating the quality of the construction process,” Pearce said. “Once they do a final walk-through, the evaluation form provides feedback to our construction crews and lets them know when they did a good job and when there’s been an issue that needs to be addressed.”

Happy, well-trained and motivated workers, Pearce believes, leads to quality workmanship and happy, satisfied customers. “We’ve just got a real strong sense of being customer oriented throughout the company,” he said, “and our crews are a huge part of that because of their professionalism and the speed with which they do their jobs. We do get a lot of testimonials from customers about their satisfaction levels and with how impressed they are with the crews we’ve got out there.”

As a final word Pearce said, “I’ve been in construction a lot of years.  Anybody can sell you a piece of metal and a few 2x4s, but what you do with them and the quality of the product that comes out is what counts.”

Overbeek Construction,  Hamilton, Mich.

Things are different for a small business owner like Shannon Overbeek of Overbeek Construction, who manages to keep a small light of progress lit in the hard-hit state of Michigan. He now owns the business started by his father Ronald J., and reports that his work has remained fairly steady despite the state’s struggling economy.

“My business has actually done quite well throughout all this,” he said. “I had my slowest winter this last winter and I had to lay the guys off for a couple of months, otherwise we’ve worked right through all the winters.”

From 90-95 percent of his work in post frame construction is for the agricultural industry in southwest Michigan. As a small business, he can’t afford the luxury of a full-time, fully trained crew. He has two experienced, full-time carpenters and fills in with up to four part-time or temporary workers as needed.

“I’ve got to keep some of my experienced guys on,” he said, “but for the size of my company I cannot have five guys with 6, 7, 8, 10 years experience unless I’m growing my business bigger.”

His part-time help is typically guys who can “carry 2x4s and do the simple stuff that doesn’t take a lot of knowledge.” In summers, that often means older college students. At the end of the busy summer season they’re gone sometimes sooner than he’d like, but this year one of his college workers will be staying on through the winter, working part-time and studying part-time.

A local ministry also has been a good source for temporary workers. “In the last couple of weeks I’ve hired three, maybe four guys who’ve come as references from the ministry I work with,” he said. It is not without its challenges. “These guys haven’t had a job in awhile,” he explained. “One guy worked for six hours and he couldn’t take it, couldn’t take the heat. He worked for six hours and never came back.  Even the guy I have right now, he came by our church looking for some help. He’s only worked six hours a day for the past several days because he just can’t handle it physically.”

Overbeek has learned to adjust to the limitations. “Some of these guys, they work out, and then they don’t. And if it’s winter and they don’t, well, that’s fine too.”

As for his skilled workers, Overbeek tries to pay them a higher wage in efforts to keep them, “which is probably about $4 more per hour than you can get anywhere else these days,” he said, adding, “I can only keep two guys at a decent wage, or what I consider a real decent wage. The one has been with me going on seven years and the other one for four years.” In addition to having the skill to do the actual construction work, they need to be able to take charge when unskilled workers need instruction.

When he does need more experienced help than he has on hand, sometimes he networks with others in the industry.  “If I need more experienced help, I’ll just call in my fellow builders for a day or two, guys I’ve worked with in the past,” he said. “I had a couple of experienced guys who came in and helped for a full week this past week. And that works out pretty good.”

Overbeek says he doesn’t have many problems finding good help. “It’s been fairly easy,” he said. “Yeh, there are some guys who are all-of-that-and-a-bag-of-chips, and it turns out they’re not, but there’s help out there.”

While business is steady for Overbeek in the present economy, he realizes that when work does pick up elsewhere it will likely mean a wavering workforce for him as employees leave in search for greener pastures. He ponders: “If the economy was booming would they still be here or would they move on? I don’t know. The work we do isn’t the easiest in the world.”

Other articles in the October 2010 issue of Rural Builder

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