Summer is the busy season in the pool and spa industry. That’s why managers and store owners turn to seasonal help, high school and college students in particular, to take ring up purchases, stock shelves, test water and help customers.
However, younger employees come with one steep challenge: inexperience. Someone who understands is Rob Dorf, store manager at The Great Escape in Algonquin, Ill.
“Some kids just don’t understand what work is yet,” he says. “It’s their first job. We try to teach as much as we can, but to succeed here, we need people who have a work ethic to begin with.”
Lauren Ball Khelif, director of business development at Genco Pools in Simpsonville, S.C., says the key to facilitating the summer staffing process is simply getting as many employees to return as possible.
“That is the ideal for our type of small business: to find kids who are seniors in high school who you can train and have come back for the next four years of college, if they’re nearby.”
From where to find candidates to how to train them, here’s a course on how to build a qualified staff of summer help that’ll come back season after season.
Where to Look
Dorf’s summer support staff numbers 13 people. Many are returning for their second and third year — there’s even an employee returning for a fourth year — and when he needs to hire new staff, he turns to them first.
“We actively try to get the younger brothers or friends,” he says. “We try to have about two or three kids who are juniors or maybe sophomores in high school to keep them coming along through the ranks.”
When starting from scratch, Dorf found there’s one pool of candidates that typically yields strong employees: high school athletes.
“They know how to work hard, they know how to work as a team,” Dorf says. “They know sacrifice, and they know ‘your role is your role’ and it helps the whole team. If you’re stocking shelves, that’s being part of the team.”
Khelif has also found luck with athletes:
“We found they have the most discipline,” she says.
This year, Khelif also tried a new approach: participating in the high school job fair. Of the four summer staff members she has on her team, three were recruited from that job fair.
When she arrived at the event, it was packed with both applicants and exhibitors, so Khelif says she asked all interested students to fill out applications and later contacted them with outlined job descriptions. Then, she tried a tactic to filter out unmotivated candidates: she did nothing.
“We waited for those who were really interested to contact us,” she said. “And we had the three that we hired and four others come in for interviews.”
In a similar spirit, Brad Schmoekel, sales manager at Ohio Pools and Spas, says he tries to find students who already have an entrepreneurial spirit.
“We talk with some teachers who are part of organizations like DECA or BPA — the career-oriented high school clubs,” he says.
“I am interested in their willingness to 1) Make money and 2) Learn something once and teach themselves the best way to do it for them,” he adds.
You can learn a lot about a person by simply engaging in conversation with him. That’s also the strategy Dorf encourages when meeting with a potential hire.
“When you’re having a conversation with a younger person in high school, you can tell if they’re confident. Once in awhile, I like to throw in a joke just to see how they react, if they get flustered. It’s a conversation just to gauge what kind of person they are.”
For Schmoekel, it’s especially important to see if a conversation with a candidate has a good back-and-forth, which would reveal how he or she might interact with customers on the floor. But it’s even more revealing if the candidate asks questions — and what questions he asks.
“I’m always interested in people asking me questions. In fact, one of my favorite questions to ask is, ‘What questions do you have for me?’ Sometimes they’ll say, ‘This is what I know about you, what else am I missing?’ Or, ‘This is what I know about the position, what else do I need to know?’ And if they straight up start asking about pay and how many days they get off a week, then I know this probably somebody we’re not interested in for summertime help,” he says.
Khelif makes it a priority to be straightforward about the realities of the position, such as stressful moments on the floor and hours that demand weekend time and limited vacations.
“I think it’s important to ask what their goals are in terms of a summer job. If they just want a few hours here and there and something easy, maybe we’re not the place to be,” she says.
At the same time, Khelif also makes sure to explain how such a position can benefit a candidate in future career moves.
“They can put it on their resume later and say, ‘I really took responsibility in this position,’ so we play up that part of it: You’re going to take on some responsibility, you’ll learn to test water, you’ll be helping customers and it’s scientific. That will take you up a notch in terms of how you sell yourself later to future internships and jobs.”
Of course, there’s one especially important aspect Khelif says everyone should ask: “Would you come back next summer?”
Once you have your team in place, the hardest part begins: training. It might be tempting to skimp on training for people who will only be in your store for a few months, but Schmoekel sees it differently:
“I’m not thinking of them being there for a few months. It’s just a few months out of the year when you’re going to do the majority of your business,” he says.
Along with a store manager, Schmoekel leads a training program for summer staff that covers water analysis, sales techniques and the in’s and out’s of chemicals — in classes aptly titled Chemicals 101 and Chemicals 202. While some classes are prescheduled, lessons are often taught whenever possible — on the spot when working with a customer or in a conference room on a rainy day, for example.
“To me, learning and training should be constant,” he says. “People don’t realize that if they spend the time now, it’ll save them time in the future.”
As a retail, construction and service business with 15 employees, four of whom are seasonal, time for training is limited for Khelif.
“We don’t have the resources to train as much or as long as we would like. Especially by the time we’re hiring on summer staff,” she says.
To help, she turned to the Xmente program, created by Larry Bloom. The program guides the user through the anatomy of a swimming pool and the basics of water chemistry. Users are tested on what they learn and receive a certificate upon completion. (To learn more about the program, read our interview with Larry Bloom.)
“It’s pretty basic, but it does cover all the bases, I would say. And for a high school student, I think it’s important to start at a basic level: This is a swimming pool, this is how it works, this is how filtration works, this is how chemicals are used to balance the water,” she says. “And I think it’s helped. We’ve been impressed by their ability to test water and recommend what’s needed without really coming to ask for a lot of help, even in sticky situations.”
Dorf’s strategy for training new staff: easing them into it and running drills.
“We try to start them as a cashier,” he says. “We bring them in when it’s not as busy and do some dry runs. I spend time going over the common questions: how to clear up a green pool, how to open a pool, who to call when they need service.”
Having returning summer staff to assist the new kids also helps, Dorf says. And if a staffer runs into a question she can’t answer?
“They all have notepads, so they write them down and we go over the questions at the end of the shift,” he says.
The Boomerang Effect
Ultimately, your goal is to keep your summer staff coming back, build upon what they already know and help them grow as pool professionals. One way Dorf accomplishes this is by offering promotions to returning staff members.
“We try to give them more leadership roles,” he says. “It’s a big perk with kids who are on the floor making sales and providing information. I think college kids get a great kick out of that.”
Schmoekel takes it a step further by incorporating his employees’ future career goals into their summer tenure. For example, one of his employees is a marketing major who worked the floor last summer. This summer, in addition to her usual duties, she’ll also serve as a marketing assistant, managing the company’s social media and attending company events.
“We try to do that for all of our employees,” he says. “One of the questions we initially ask is, ‘What can you bring to the table that nobody else can?’ And we draw from that. We try to make coming to work as enjoyable as possible, and you’ll enjoy it more if you’re doing something you really want to do, or you can convince yourself that it’s tailored to something you want to do in the future.”
In addition, Schmoekel fosters friendly competition by providing sales goals for the summer staff. For example, the person who sells the most 2-liter bottles of a particular chemical will receive a $100 gift card. As returning staff members have the product knowledge and sales experience, they have an advantage that doesn’t go unnoticed by the younger staff.
“They see the people who come back and how much more money they make that second year and third year,” he says. “We do pay commission for our employees, so every chemical that goes out, they’re getting paid commission. They don’t necessarily have to get an hourly rate raise to get a raise — all they have to do is put more effort into it and build upon the stuff they’ve already learned.”
The knowledge and expertise required to work in a pool and spa store is substantial enough for a seasoned employee, let alone for high school or college students. But if you hire strategically and train well, you might end up with a story like Khelif’s:
“One of my employees told me he saw a customer outside the store who came up to him and said, ‘You cleared my pool water. You did it.’ And he was very proud of himself.”
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