What’s the Secret to Hiring and Keeping Good Workers?

Pumping waste is demanding work. Make your pay and benefits package match the effort required and win big on the labor front!

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It’s a story I’m hearing a lot lately from pumpers. Well, I’ve been hearing it for years, frankly, but it’s becoming all too common.

“I can’t find anyone to work for me, so I’ve sold off the extra truck and I’m doing all the service calls by myself,” one of our small-business contractors told me in a recent phone call. “Unfortunately that means I have to work more hours and I rarely get to see the family.”

So he’s exchanged one labor headache — finding and retaining drivers; for another — 12-hour days and missing out on family time. 

For some guys, this is a fair trade. Maybe the kids are grown and out of the house and you might as well be working. Perhaps earlier experiences with employees proved such a nightmare that you’d rather be working nonstop than playing the role of supervisor and manager. Or it could be you are thinking of winding down anyway, so more customers and more money aren’t your highest priority. Still others take the term “mom and pop business” literally and really never wanted to expand.

But for most small-business entrepreneurs, the goal and the satisfaction comes from building a company up — to create something from nothing. The end game may be to hand a successful, growing concern on to the next generation, or to build something of value that can be sold to support a retirement.

Either way, these stories about losing workers and jumping back in the truck 60 hours a week probably won’t get you any closer to fulfilling your hopes and dreams for starting a pumping business in the first place. Instead of you controlling the business, the business starts controlling you. And honestly, doesn’t that seem a little too much like working for someone else, just the outcome you wanted to avoid by starting a business?


So that gets us back to the root cause of the issue so many pumpers face — finding and keeping good workers. The first thing to understand is that this problem isn’t hitting only the wastewater industry. It seems due to circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been the year of the missing worker. 

Employers everywhere have been putting out the “Help Wanted” signs and finding little interest. We can argue about why there appears to be an extreme labor shortage. Some will say extra unemployment benefits have been a disincentive to work. Others will argue that potential workers prefer to take a job where they don’t get dirty. Some observers say many blue-collar employers simply aren’t paying high enough wages to coax good hires in the front door.

Simply arguing about the current labor situation won’t do anything to eliminate the problem. We have to get our heads together and come up with solutions so pumpers can get back on the success track and off of the never-ending treadmill of service calls. 

The main objective, it seems to me, is to make a job in the wastewater industry look more attractive, which can be a tall order given the material pumpers have to work with on a daily basis. 

As I have worked with pumpers for nearly 20 years now, I would focus on the reliability of this industry. There will always be a consistent and high demand for the services you offer. Think about what folks have been through in the past few years. Tourism, retail and service industry jobs disappeared in the pandemic, leaving millions unemployed. But on the other hand, every pumper I’ve talked to remains busy, earning a paycheck and providing customers with an essential service. People will never stop creating waste, so pumpers will never be out of work.

Don’t underestimate the power of a skill with this type of rock-solid job security. You should be able to easily compete with other blue-collar employers, such as construction contractors and the energy sector, who frequently deal with booms and busts, letdowns and layoffs. The stability of our industry should be the biggest selling tool you have to hiring new workers.


That said, many strategies can be employed to make the cab of a vacuum truck look like a great workplace:

Pay more

You’ve heard the phrase “money talks,” and that’s true. Given the obstacle of getting used to working with wastewater every day, pumpers may have to pay a higher wage up front and hope new workers build a passion for helping customers as they get into the job. I’ll bet you’ve had new employees walk out after a few days or a few weeks because they are put off by the odors, the backbreaking work and the jokes from their friends and family for the type of work they do.

In time, I’ve seen many new pumpers start to appreciate the importance of their work in the daily lives of their customers. They overcome the odors and stop worrying about being back-splashed from the septic tank. They start to tune out the disrespectful jokes they might hear from their friends at the local watering hole. As the paychecks come in, they realize they’ve chosen a successful career path and start to take on more responsibility. 

The bottom-line question is, how many career pumpers have you potentially scared away by not offering a wage commensurate with the challenge and skills of a job in the wastewater industry?

Foster career development

You don’t want your crew looking at pumping as simply a job. You want them to consider the wastewater industry as a worthy pursuit for them for the next 20 to 40 years. So focus on developing your most important assets — the human capital in your company. 

Offer tuition reimbursement for all certifications that will make employees more valuable — both in their future career choices and to your company. Pay for all CDL training or safety courses for your drivers. If you see management potential in workers, offer to help them to obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree in business, environmental science or any curriculum related to the work your company performs. 

In the long run, you may not derive benefit from all of these financial investments in your crew. Someone might take advantage of all of the education benefits you offer and then leave for another job. But hopefully many of the employees you help will show their loyalty over the years and help you build the company. And the act of offering these benefits in the first place will show everyone on your team that you care not just about making money, but helping others grow.  

Share your profits

It’s nice when an employer gives a year-end bonus or surprises workers with a meal or an after-work party following a particularly challenging week on the job. No employee is going to scoff at a Thanksgiving turkey or an extra day off around the holidays. But real, organized sharing of the business profits is one important way to compete for the best people. 

It’s far too infrequent that I hear about a pumping company offering a formal retirement package of some kind. And I’m not surprised since many pumpers are still behind other trades employers in offering a good vacation, personal time off or health insurance benefits. With today’s technology and investment options, it may be easier than you think to offer and financially support a 401(k) or other retirement vehicle for your workers. 

With generous contributions and a program that vests workers in the payout over several years, you may be able to build a more consistent workforce — and you’ll certainly be helping families save for a better future.

Make it a lifestyle choice

Just like you don’t want to be chained to your truck day and night, today’s workers place a tremendous value on preserving time for their families and leisure pursuits. It may be a foreign concept to many hard-driving pumpers, but lots of folks want to cap their work week at 40 hours and look forward to weekends free. They won’t always choose extra pay over free time. Don’t confuse this lifestyle priority with laziness. 

If you find your team is putting in a lot of overtime, respond by hiring someone to lighten the load. Consider other ways to build an attractive work schedule, for example having drivers work four 10-hour days rather than five eight-hour days to create three-day weekends. Encourage flexible schedules, allowing workers to fashion their time on the job around transporting kids to school, their spouse’s employment hours and the like. Be clear that workers can take off for medical appointments or kids’ sports events during the day as long as they make up for the missed time. You can allow flexibility as long as the work gets done.


Your drivers pump waste for a living. They get dirty, they work hard, and some folks wouldn’t want to do this kind of work under any circumstances. Still, I would argue there are many ways to make the job and your company look attractive to new workers. And there are a good number of people ready and willing to put in the effort if the reward is equal. If you have tips for hiring and retaining great pumpers, send them with me at editor@pumper.com. We’ll share your ideas with the Pumper community.  


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