Hiring, training and keeping employees

by Kacey Larsen

Much like the remodeling industry as a whole has gone through changes over the years, so has the hiring process. Newspaper ads, Craigslist posts, LinkedIn and much more have made it difficult for employers to know what to expect from applicants or, as Ron Cowgill, MCR, CKBR, GCP, UDCP, owner of D/R Services Unlimited in Glenview, Ill., puts it, “it’s all just a crapshoot.” That said, Cowgill readily admits his company’s experience with hiring in recent years has mostly been comprised of people coming in to apply based on referrals.
“In the past five years, I haven’t really actively pursued trying to find anybody. [Applicants] have just walked in the door because somebody else working here brought them in,” he explains. With a number of long-term employees – Cowgill cites several in the 10 to 15 year range and even a few in the 20 year range – by his side, he shared that his employees are often the determining factor of whether a newcomer will work out or not. “It’s not me who makes the decision as to whether a guy will stay or not, that’s generally the guys. I’m not out there working on the jobs with them, so if somebody is annoying and doesn’t really shower that doesn’t really affect me too much, but it affects them every day because they have to deal with each other,” he says.
 So while showering does appear on Cowgill’s list of preferred qualifications, he seeks employees who show up on time, have a good work ethic and have personalities that will mesh with his existing crew. He is of the opinion that most other things can be taught. “Usually somebody comes in with basic carpentry skills, then we’ll expose them to the parts that maybe they’re weak in and bring them up to speed,” Cowgill says. “Once we find out where their weaknesses are, we can compensate with training, other people, subcontractors and stuff like that. It takes eight months to really get all of our systems and get exposed to everything.”
On the job training is the first step within D/R Services Unlimited, but “fine-tuning” in the form of NARI Certification Courses, like Certified Remodeling Project Manager (CRPM), comes after an employee has been around for a while. Cowgill finds that reinvesting in his employees with things like the certification courses, company trucks, company paid cell phones and splitting the cost of health insurance is just smart business. “You try and treat the people you want to keep as best you can, and they stay.” 
While Cowgill describes his employees and he “learning together” when it came to certain managerial styles and practices, he is a proponent of paid time off and it being an incentive for employees to stick around. “Very few remodelers do paid time off, and I think that’s one important thing that you need to do. Let employees go spend time with their families, go fishing or whatever they need to do. Even if you’re paying fair median wage for your area, people are usually working paycheck-to-paycheck and can’t afford to take time off, so being able to give someone a couple days off or a week is good,” he says. “We do one week after the first year, two weeks after five years and three weeks after 10 years. If they don’t use it by the end of the year, we reimburse the employee for whatever they didn’t you and then start clean the next year.”

Many D/R Services Unlimited employees have earned their share of vacation, as Cowgill puts it, considering the longevity of many. However, those years of experience are the exact thing that concerns him as he looks to the future. More specifically he wonders who is the future?

“Most of our guys are over 40 years old – we have two people that are under. Guys that just can’t do the work anymore, they don’t want to do it anymore or they are getting ready to retire are some of the things coming. So what does that do to your workforce?” Cowgill says. “If anything, that’s the problem we’re seeing: the age of the people we’re getting. Kids in their 20s don’t want to do this and don’t have the skills for it, so [in terms of hiring] there is nothing coming in underneath it to fill in the gaps.

“People complain we’re too expensive now, wait until then. There’s going to be very few who are truly experienced and know what they’re doing, and that’s just going to drive the price up,” he observes. “But maybe that’s what needs to happen to bring the younger generation into remodeling is the promise of at least a good paycheck.” 

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