How To Hire The Right People

Published: May 28, 2009 - by John Cataneo

Categories: The Business of Heating

plumber home

As with any company in this field, you’ve always got your eyes open for a qualified technician or a trainable apprentice. You’ve tried everything, including ads in the local paper, flyers in the supply houses, asking current employees to keep their eyes and ears open and maybe you've even offered incentives for bringing in a new applicant.

I have to admit that since the fall of Wall Street’s million-dollar promises, more career-minded young applicants are answering my ads. I now have people showing up for job interviews that are actually wearing real black shoes and buttoned shirts. I’m fielding questions about medical benefits, family plans and retirement instead of just, “What day do we get paid?” and, “What time do we go home?” My applicants are now more likely to speak in complete sentences.

Could it be that the trades are now becoming attractive again? Is there a light at the end of the hiring tunnel? And if so, why the change?

Perhaps the little brothers out there are learning something as they watch their big brothers struggle through the IT workforce’s options. Maybe the thought of more school and more student loans for less money and no job security has finally sunk in.

Don’t get me wrong, the hiring process still has its peaks and valleys. I typically place a well-worded ad in the local newspaper: “Plumbing and Heating Mechanics and helpers sought by busy and growing service shop. Full benefits, top salary” and so on. That ad will garner 30-40 responses each of the two times per year it runs. This year, however, I added a line, “Applicants must submit to drug test and background check.” After that, those 30-40 responses dwindled to a scant four to eight.

I added that line after interviewing what seemed like a real nice young helper who had two years in the trade. The interview was going well enough,but then I asked a standard question (almost as an afterthought in this case). I asked if a background check might reveal anything unfavorable.

He confided that he had just been released after spending two years in prison for assault and robbery charges. This wasn’t the deal breaker, but it could have been, and I guess it’s true what they say: There are no stupid questions. Especially if you want answers.

And if you find that disheartening, I agree, it is disheartening. We’re still sorting through habitual drug users and convicted criminals to find the help we need in this trade.

My wife is well-established in her career as a Human Resources Professional and I’m lucky that she is able to sort through and interview our office staff applications. Hiring and firing is ultimately up to my brother and me, but we get to learn something by watching her finesse the right words out of her interviewees. She puts them at ease with her professional but unintimidating demeanor. She speaks with them casually and she asks lots of questions about themselves. She crafts each question to get the applicant to talk. And this is where people talk themselves into or out of the job. We know very little about people until they choose to fill us in about who they are and what they do.

When interviewing tradesmen, the process can be similar (we’ve all got our methods) but there are always applicants who interview very well, but when put in the field, are either unable or unwilling to put forth an adequate effort to get a day’s work done.

You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you?

Again, we know very little about people until we give them the chance to prove themselves.

I think there will always be episodes of bleakness and disappointment as we hire techs for our businesses. A fellow tradesman told me this story about a conversation he recently had with a client. The client wanted to know why the contractor’s workers often needed to be reminded to take everything away from the job that they brought with them, and why an 8:00am start time sometimes meant 8:10 or 8:15.

The contractor had an easy rapport with the client so he asked the client what he did for a living and learned that the client was an attorney.

“So you work in an office with a bunch of people who have the self-discipline required to earn a degree from a reputable school," said the contractor. "These people live in fine homes and take twice-yearly vacations with their families. You regularly arrange meetings in your conference room, where all critical staff shows up well-rested and well-dressed, ready to share ideas that benefit both the company and client, and each day goes on like this throughout the entire year.”

"Yes," the attorney said.

"Well, please understand this. I’m not drawing from that same labor pool.”

Point being that getting plumbers, who do some of the toughest work in the world, to act like business professionals is never going to be easy. It takes a strong base, a well-qualified candidate for hire, and lots of patience on the part of the company's owners.

Fortunately, a stronger base of qualified candidates is beginning to show up nowadays, and they’re looking for something we can provide. It’s now up to us to not disappoint these new applicants because if we do, it will be the industry that suffers.

So take advantage of this opportunity to promote this trade for what it has to offer. And do your fair share of the offering. Treat employees as well as you can possibly treat them. Pay them a good living wage and allow them some time off during the year so that they can unwind and spend time with their families. They and their families will benefit from the good will, and they will see you as the source of what’s going right in their lives. Ultimately, when an employee sees where his or her bread is being buttered, that employee is much more likely to treat both you and the job with respect.

In the short term, it is a self-serving endeavor. In the long term, however, it may answer some of the personnel problems that my father dealt with in the '70s and that continue to visit the plumbing & heatinghelp industry to this day.

(John Cataneo is Vice President of Gateway Plumbing and Heating in New York City, NY)