Beyond the Signing Bonus: Cultivating Genuine Interest in Trades

Not everyone on your team has to come in as an expert tradesperson with a ton of prior experience. Focus on hiring quality candidates above all else.

Beyond the Signing Bonus: Cultivating Genuine Interest in Trades

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Every employer in the country has a hard time finding and keeping employees.

The post-pandemic workforce is sluggishly crawling back to conventional employment. This rut has caused businesses to ramp up pay and incentive offerings to try and onboard as many employees as possible. You've seen the craze of “work today get paid tomorrow,” $2,000 signing bonuses to work at a fast-food restaurant, three-day work weeks with full medical benefits and 401K, and all sorts of other bait thrown to the public.

Most trade industry business operators either look at that and laugh or try to adapt and compete with them. I would argue that both are wrong. Do you think heavy benefit frontloading, high signing bonuses for minimum wage jobs, and continually overpaying wages above fair market values are sustainable?

It's not sustainable, and it's not designed to be a permanent fixture.

What's happening now

Depending on what industry you're talking about, most businesses with a historically high employee turnover, also known as seasonal employment, are the ones that are offering crazy things to try and attract employees. It works for them because they always operate on short-term employment strategies. They are grabbing their share of part-time employees as quickly as possible because there aren't that many people available in the workforce looking for that type of employment. It's why your local diner has a better track record of keeping employees than your large fast-food chain next door. Your locally owned restaurant understands that they need to retain employees to compete and be profitable. They don't have a couple of million dollars per month to throw at billboards, job postings, TV commercials, radio ads, YouTube SEO, clickbait trailers, headhunters and bait gimmicks like big fast-food chains do. They are just two separate companies with two different competing strategies that both work. That's what's happening.

On a macro level, you could argue that we as a trade are competing with these companies for entry-level workers, but I don't see it this way. The pandemic was a rude awakening to the workforce because it showed how vulnerable unskilled positions could be and their income without government assistance. There are more people here in our trade schools now than there were before the pandemic, regardless of age.

Even graduating high schoolers are going toward skilled work without college because they saw how scary it could be to be on fixed government income and have earth-shattering college debt payments. Most people understand that if the government didn't step up and pay people money, bad things would happen. And worse yet, they are smart enough to understand the long-term consequences because the government followed through and delivered the payloads to the masses.

Focus on quality and slot filling

The strategy as we advance should be hiring the person primarily for the quality of person they are instead of just their ability as an employee. Years ago, if you were a great person with no experience, you would get passed up by most employers, and understandably so. The risk-adjusted return for an owner or owner/operator was too low. You've heard the quote that goes something like, "I can't afford to train my guys because they'll just leave," the response being, "What happens if you don't train them, and they stay?"

This counter oversimplifies a complex issue and ventures into circular logic by assuming the first guy provided no training whatsoever for trainees who will never leave. Not everyone is going to be an ace plumber, drain cleaner or heavy equipment operator. The average company often requires a variety of expertise. People who specialize in excavation/heavy equipment operations, lining/bursting machines, service technicians, new construction plumbers, guys who excel at dropping off/picking up heavy equipment from job sites, job site foremen, sales people, coordinators, jetter/drain cleaning specialists, people who excel at troubleshooting, and the most productive of all — laborers.

Instead of looking at your employment screening process through the lens of who has relevant experience and who doesn't, look at it like filling positions on a football team. I don't need or want a lightning-fast 135-pound wideout to play nose tackle on Sunday. You are looking for someone who already knows how to pull permits, make site drawings and install a four-story venting system when you might only need to fill the slot of the guy who has truck driving and laborer experience. Someone who shows up every day willing to learn and work. Someone who can get heavy equipment delivered to the job, take care of the equipment and help the on-site master plumber by doing cleanup, cutting, and pipe preparation.

Reliability counts now more than ever. Hiring high-quality people in general first, and secondly who have qualifications specifically for the slot you're trying to fill is a solid employment strategy. When you give in and let people do what they are good at and allow them to be around your job sites, they will slowly become more interested and more valuable and see the career path in the trade develop in front of them.

High-quality, reliable people want to be around other high-quality people. High-quality people will run from an organization that has low-quality, unreliable people. Low-quality people always want to be around other low-quality people. It's that simple.

About the author: Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has over two decades of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College.


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