Finding the Unicorn

Nov. 4, 2016
Creating a framework to find the perfect hire

About the author: Greg Reyneke is managing director for Red Fox Advisors. Reyneke can be reached at [email protected].

“I can’t find good help,” complains the water treatment dealer with a tired sigh. He laments the lackluster motivation and performance of current prospects and says, “Help me! Where can I find good people?” 

This is a frequently heard question from plumbers and water treatment dealers around the country. It is the second-most frequently asked question after, “How can I make more money?” In the volatile economic and business climate of the 21st century, owners and managers are having to achieve more with less and generate significantly more productivity per labor-hour than ever before. 

As a career choice, the skilled trades have seen a continuing decline over the past 20 years due to successful marketing by colleges and the notion that one cannot be successful without a college degree. The tide is slowly turning, though, as millennials are realizing that the earnings value offered by universities is no longer proportionate to the cost of tuition. Many recent college graduates, as well others, are looking toward alternative career paths outside of the “white-collar” world. 

Older adults also are leaving the corporate world to find alternative employment, so there is a large pool of potential hires out there. These prospective employees are different from the “techie” or “gear head” we used to look for, and can present a great opportunity for you and your business.

Know What You Want

Employees are the lifeblood of your business. A good employee can be the difference between your business surviving and thriving. If you are trying to find a technician who always arrives on time, up-sells 90% of the jobs, has an encyclopedic knowledge of water quality issues, keeps a clean truck, and will keep his nose to the grindstone for the next 10 years, you are chasing a unicorn. 

Do not look for this kind of employee. Look instead for smart, genuine, honest people who are willing to learn new skills, enjoy talking to people and are not afraid to get their hands dirty. 

Create Reasonable Expectations

Now that you have (hopefully) realized there are no unicorns out there, you can reflect on what you want your new technician to do and the skills he or she needs to have before training. A frequently overlooked skill set is the “soft skills” that are difficult to teach. While there are many important soft skills that make employees great, the following are extremely valuable: 

  • Self motivation: The employee does not require constant close supervision and has a positive attitude, even when things get tough.
  • Decision-making: The employee is not afraid to make a decision, even if it might not be the right one.  
  • Time management: The employee is able to prioritize assignments and stay on task.
  • Organization: The employee keeps tools and inventory neat, and cleans up after him or herself.
  • Communication: The employee can articulate him or herself clearly to you, coworkers and customers. 

Hard skills such as mechanical expertise are good to have, but experience shows that hiring someone only for his or her hard skills inevitably exposes a deficit in communication or other soft skills and frequently brings emotional baggage or bad habits and training into your organization. Remember that you have an upstream network of trade associations, dealer networks and equipment vendors that can help train hard skills into your employees.

Just as your best customers usually come from referrals, your best employees also can come from referrals. Talk to your existing employees about people they recommend for the vacancy. The old days of posting a position in the classifieds of the local newspaper are outdated. Think instead of posting on internet job boards, social media sites and industry-specific sites like the new Water Quality Assn. Career Center. 

Do not be afraid to post “help wanted” advertisements, even when you do not have an immediate vacancy. You always need a ready pool of pre-screened candidates to draw from as your business grows or when existing employees separate. 

Compensation & Benefits

Good help costs money, and your new employee deserves to be fairly compensated. If you do not already do so, set 12-month goals for work volume, revenue generated and projected profit. Write down what you expect this prospective employee to do, define his or her place in your company’s organizational chart, and list your benefits and compensation plan. Your written description of the job should define knowledge, skills and abilities that are needed to start, as well as those to be learned as an employee. All prospective candidates should be pre-screened to the minimum job requirements as well as drug tested and background checked before ever scheduling an employment interview.

To determine the prospective employee’s pay, forecast your gross profit for labor, parts and consumables to ensure that your pay plan is in line with your corporate profitability and personal income requirements. 

You should always develop a basic salary-only compensation plan, but a good technician typically is motivated by additional incentives for excellence, so evaluate compensation options with your management team that will be mutually beneficial. With any pay plan, your technician should be projected to generate a gross profit margin of at least 70% for his or her labor to be viable to the company.

Two-Way Street

When I first entered the job market many years ago, prospective employees humbly sat through tiresome interviews, being asked to imagine inane situations and having to answer one-sided probing questions. Today’s employment candidate is likely to ask you more questions than you ask him or her; be ready to describe the working environment, your own goals and aspirations, your vision for the company’s future, and the corporate culture and management style.  

A well-structured interview includes a discussion about potential soft skills as well as technical questions to identify existing knowledge and experience. Most successful business owners never hire after the first interview, instead opting to send the candidate on a ride-along with their lead technician for a day to see how well the prospective employee fits into the corporate culture. If the candidate is a good fit, he or she then is offered a 30-day probationary period for further evaluation. 

Plan for Success

When you do hire that new employee, plan on helping him or her be the best he or she can be. Spend the necessary time and money to provide the training, mentoring and other resources required to help him or her excel. Many owners and managers overlook the new tools, additional fuel, insurance and inventory impact of a new employee. It is not uncommon for as many as 90 days of training and experience overhead to be required before the employee is keeping up with the other technicians in generating appropriate revenue. Plenty of good people are out there; it is your job to discover and develop them.

About the Author

Greg Reyneke

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