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Sep 14

Who’s Going To Fill Their Shoes

This post was published in the 2015 September issue of Doors & Hardware Magazine.

ShoeWho’s Going To Fill Their Shoes

Over the last 18 months as the construction market has been making a comeback many of the distributors in my territory, located in the southeast, are expressing a common concern. What has them troubled is the lack of experienced, qualified employees to fill the shoes of retiring veterans.

Door and hardware veterans are our experts. They have acquired decades of hands-on experience. After a few years spent in the trenches that knowledge becomes invaluable. The complexity of our industry, combined with its niche nature, has fostered long, rich employment histories.

The good side of that is feeling pretty confident that you will always have a job. Speaking from personal experience I remember several years ago planning a move to a new town. I did not worry about being able to find work. I simply talked to one of my manufacturer’s representatives and asked about the distributors in the town to which I was moving. I lined up three interviews in one day and had a job before the sun set.

The downside? Well, we have all joked that “once you’re in the door and hardware industry you can’t get out”! The knowledge you gain has a price tag attached, to both you and your employer. Employers don’t want you to go anywhere after they have invested time and resources in your training. You don’t want to make a move to another industry and have to start from scratch.

Retaining employees for decades left no reason to bring in new blood as the years went by. That, in combination with the effect the economic downturn had on the ability to fill positions left by retiring veterans, has left distributors with a serious gap of experienced employees. Some employers shared that in the recent past it was a relief to have an employee retire as opposed to having to lay them off. Now, however is a different story. With the rebounding construction market there are finally positions to fill. The problem is there is no one to fill them.

The 2012 U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey reports approximately 44 percent of the construction workforce is 45 or older, one in five is 55 or older.

Wanting to compare the above general statistics with those specific to our industry, I polled 10 distributors throughout my Florida and Georgia territory. These distributors ranged in size from 5 to 25 employees. I compiled the numbers they were generous enough to share and discovered that our industry faces a slightly tougher position than the overall construction workforce. 54% of the employees polled are over 45 years of age with two out of every five of those being over 55.

In a recent conversation with Jeff Hewett, Vice President of Quality Hardware in Jacksonville, he agreed there is a need to address this concern in current strategic plans. Out of his estimating/sales force of 5 employees, there is a probability that 2 will retire in less than five years and 2 more in less than 10.

Jeff is a third generation owner who started as a delivery driver for his family business in 1996.   If he thought that leaving to serve our country for 7 years would gain him any advancement when returning, he was mistaken. Back to delivery driver he went as he worked his way up through the ranks. This training has served him well as he positions himself at the helm to ensure that Quality Hardware thrives in upcoming decades.

Our industry is filled with stories like Jeff’s, spending years learning the trade and working up to new positions. A sales person that has worked in the shop sees a project from more than one perspective and is less likely to omit important details. This is how our veterans come to be, a continual work in progress!

In anticipation of the positions that will be left by his retiring veterans, Jeff is developing a training packet for new hires. He is hoping to shave some valuable miles off the long learning curve by having an efficient training program. He is including a list of “things I wish I’d known” based on his own learning experiences.   This proactive approach should serve him and Quality Hardware well.

Office personnel are not the only positions included in this concern. I hear frequent stories about how difficult it is to find reliable shop and labor employees. It appears to be an impossible task to keep anyone long term, much less an experienced candidate. I have repeatedly heard complaints like, “young guys just don’t want to work” and “this new generation is just not willing to put in the time”. Turn over seems to be a major problem.

Jim Sabella, VP of Cajun Installation, Inc. says he has been successful with building a loyal labor force. “I am willing to overlook past mistakes discovered during the application process and give someone a second chance”. He went on to explain that giving someone a second chance when others won’t builds respect and loyalty pretty quickly.   “I take care of my team” Jim stated earnestly.

After my many discussions and statistic gathering, I believe it is clear that this is a valid and serious concern that should be on the industry’s radar. Our veterans are an invaluable resource and vital part of our organizations. They will leave big shoes to fill.

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