Is It Time to Raise Your Starting Wage?

You ask a lot of septic service or portable sanitation technicians. Is it wrong for them to ask more of you?
Is It Time to Raise Your Starting Wage?
Contact Jim with your comments, questions and opinions at editor@pumper.com.

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Every now and then, I see an ad on a local Craigslist website recruiting for a septic service or portable sanitation technician. These ads contain a laundry list of skills and personal qualities you would want someone in the wastewater industry to possess. Here’s a recent example:

Be part of a winning team: We are currently looking for energetic, loyal, hardworking people to service, deliver and pick up portable restrooms.

Duties:

  • Responsible for designated route as assigned by route coordinator, maintaining time and production standards set for routes.
  • Responsible for the high quality consciousness as set by the company in order to maintain our “service oriented” goals that set us apart from other portable toilet businesses.
  • Responsible for the condition of equipment used, reporting specific problems via work orders and ensuring preventive maintenance by adhering to “due for service” schedules as is reasonable and as timely as possible.
  • Constantly strive to maintain safety standards as established and required by company policy.
  • Maintain a clean, stocked work vehicle.

Qualifications:

  • Valid driver’s license
  • Clean driving record for last 5 years
  • Good map reading skills
  • Good physical condition - able to lift 70-plus pounds, able to climb in and out of truck 60-plus times per day
  • Able to work in fast-paced environment and be self motivated
  • Drug- and alcohol-free work place
  • Able to pass DOT physical
  • Able to work flexible hours, days and weekends

Reviewing a list like that reminds me of all of the capabilities a pumper must have and the great responsibility that comes along with the job. These guys and gals hop into a $100,000-plus work truck every day and must follow countless safety procedures to complete a long list of tasks before returning to the shop. The work they do requires training, state certifications and often a CDL to operate the heavier equipment.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

These workers possess savvy customer service skills to communicate effectively with people all day. They need a certain physical prowess to dig holes, move restrooms, lug hoses and climb around a vacuum truck. They have to know the ins and outs of your trucks, trailers, jetters, and portable sanitation equipment and maintain everything in tiptop shape. And as they learn, they will diagnose problems with systems and make repairs.

And you know that good pumpers often aren’t hired, they’re developed.

You make a lot of investments once they join your team. There’s the many ride-alongs with your best workers. In time, you’ll send them to training with the National Association of Wastewater Technicians, the Portable Sanitation Association International, your state trade association or local health department. You know newbies will be a liability for a while before they become an asset.

In many respects, the success or failure of your company depends on the workers you seek through these local ads. Finding good people — and then building them into great technicians — is maybe your most important task in becoming the best pumping company you can be. Qualified and hardworking team members will bring in thousands of dollars in revenue every month for your business. And every year a good worker sticks with you boosts your profits and helps build a better reputation.

THE SIN OF WAGES

Knowing all of that, something I often see in these job postings and hear on pumper social media forums leaves me wondering. That’s the promised hourly rate attached to these jobs. There seems to be a disconnect between the list of skills and traits many pumping companies want in an employee and what they are willing to pay promising candidates.

I’m not referring to the ad quoted above, but I have seen some pumping company ads offering a $15 or $16 per hour starting wage, with no mention of other sought-after benefits of vacation time and health insurance assistance. I have seen online forum posts from pumpers who lament that they offer similar pay and can’t find anyone capable of doing the job … or that good workers leave just as soon as they’re trained to pump tanks.

Sometimes these business owners lash out at the worker who leaves the company rather than looking inward for the cause of hiring and retention woes. Simply, I have concerns that sometimes these wages and a lack of benefits offered by pumpers are not competitive with what is offered in other skilled trades.

In the strengthening economy, the demand for front-line, skilled and unskilled workers is growing, while the supply is certainly dwindling. Look at the lowest rung on the employment ladder — fast-food restaurants. A number of chains are offering starting wages of up to $15 per hour and HELP WANTED signs are hanging in windows on every street corner.

These unskilled jobs don’t require the same mental or physical stamina necessary to be a wastewater technician. They don’t carry with them the risks of handling pathogen-laden waste or working with high-power equipment and in excavation zones.

They don’t come with the great liability of protecting homeowners’ septic systems and your expensive trucks or driving a service vehicle weighted down with liquid loads. And flipping burgers doesn’t require the extensive safety and technician training necessary for any pumping job.

RAISE THE BAR

The bottom line is you can’t pay fast-food wages (or anywhere near it) and expect to wind up with a quality wastewater industry driver and technician. It’s certainly not every company, but I think some pumping businesses need to reset their expectations for pay and benefits in order to recruit and retain the type of workers who will become a long-term assets.

If you are currently looking for new technicians — and my hunch is that almost every pumping company would jump at a good worker walking through the door — ask yourself this question: Would you take the job you’re offering or advise a son or daughter to do so? Put yourself in any applicant’s shoes, and consider whether the wage and benefits package offered would entice you to join the team. If the answer is yes, then you’re on the right track.

The industry’s goal should be to attract workers who see pumping or portable sanitation as not just any old job but a stable, long-term career. We want young people who are dedicated to learning every aspect of the industry and eager to satisfy customers. We want them to grow along with your company and to never have a reason to look elsewhere for employment.

Of course, part of the successful equation for building your crew is creating a fun and inclusive work environment. Another part is running the best and safest equipment on the road. And it’s great when management promotes advancement and training opportunities. But in addition to all of those good things, we need to recognize the broad responsibilities of the job and pay accordingly through a bigger paycheck and the other benefits that quality people seek from their employer.



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