It's basic common sense: In a market where employees are hard to come by, retaining your existing workforce is crucial – but it’s no small challenge.
Making sure your employees stick around and are committed over the long haul is an all-encompassing issue that touches almost every aspect of the business. And make no mistake, today’s overheated labor market presents an almost unprecedented set of hurdles when it comes to securing and maintaining a qualified workforce.
“You have to keep the staff you have because there really aren’t a lot of choices to replace them,” says Nick Day, service manager for Golhke Pools, a full-service construction and maintenance firm in Denton, Texas. “They’re not exactly lining up at the door, so out of necessity you have to hold on to those good people on your payroll. In the service side of the business, it’s actually limiting us as far as the amount of work we can get to. We’re shorthanded, to say the least, so the labor shortage does affect the bottom line. Greatly.”
“It’s a tough environment right now for employers, anyone who wants a job can find one,” says David Hawes, president and owner of H&H Pool Services in Dublin, Calif. “These days you can practically fall out of bed in the morning and find five places to work without even trying. It’s a little disheartening because there’s so much work out there, but if you don’t have the people in place, you can’t come close to meeting the demand. People are flush with money and they’re looking for ways to upgrade their pool experience. We’re getting calls, but we’re maxed out, working overtime.
“All of that means you have to do what you can to retain your people, because without them, you’re not really in business,” he says.
MORE THAN MONEY
While employee wages and benefits are primary issues in terms of both hiring and retention, they’re only part of the picture. “Once you’re in the ballpark with what you’re paying, then it becomes more a matter of being a good place to work, and there’s a lot that goes into that,” Day says.
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The retention process is so ubiquitous it actually begins with the initial job interview. “A lot of retention depends on the vetting process and how well you inform people about the job from the get go,” Hawes says. “You have to try to find people who are capable and seem to have the right personality for the job.
“For service, they like independence more than anything. It’s a working environment that’s absolutely perfect for some people, but not for others. There are people who just can’t hang with the quiet and isolation and sometimes they can go a little crazy. Unfortunately, sometimes we’ve been so desperate for people that we’ll make a hire that we don’t feel good about, but you give it a try anyway. That’s not a formula for success.”
“We’re certainly honest about what the job entails, and there are going to be some people that are a good fit and others who aren’t, for whatever reason,” Day says. “Honestly, we haven’t found the magic formula for always hiring the hit and miss; sometimes a person might seem right for the position based on the interview and their background, but then they work for a day or two and you find out they’re not a good fit at all. Or they are well-suited but then they get another job offer for something they perceive as better and they take off. It’s a constant battle.”
A HABIT OF UNDERSTANDING
According to Dan Lenz, vice president of All Season Pools & Spas in Orland Park, Ill., maintaining a good staff retention rate requires managers to think about the job from the employee’s perspective, right from the very start.
“There are so many aspects to it — you need to consider their ambitions, their need for training, what their strengths are, what their emotional needs are and what they need to do to achieve their goals,” Lenz says. “As an example, many years ago we established a pay structure where our service techs can kind of write their own ticket. There are six different levels they can achieve, with each promoting their pay and more responsibility. They always know what they need to do to reach the next level.
“There are always different ways you can do it,” he adds, “but you have to give employees a path to advancement of some kind. It’s one of the biggest things involved in employee retention. No one wants to feel like they’re stuck in a dead end. When they start to feel that way, then they’re not going to be there very long. Showing your employees potential for growth and then living up to it is critical."
Gohlke Pools, another company known for its desirable company culture, takes the same employee-centered approach. “We get really involved with their personal goals,” Day says. “If it’s something we can help with, we try to provide that support, even if it’s outside of work. Personal money management is probably the biggest example. We really like the Dave Ramsey courses, which we make available. It’s not just about swimming pools, we want to educate our employees about managing their money more effectively and doing more with what you make so they have better and more satisfying lives away from work. We even get into saving for retirement.”
Day adds that taking the long view also means supporting young employees that will most likely not make pools and spas their career choice. “But you still want to do the best you can for those employees,” he says. “We are in a college town so we have a number of people who are going to school and in the process of figuring out what they want to do with their lives. Maybe they’ll move on to something else after they graduate, but we still try to make this the best work experience we can while they’re with us. We support their education with flexible hours so they can take the classes they need and still work for us. In the past, we’ve even offered scholarships.”
THE EDUCATION CONUNDRUM
One of the traditional points of employer-related frustration arises when a company invests in educating key employees, only to see them leave and start their own businesses, often in the same area vying for the same customers. While educating staff is without question a positive for employers, employees and clients, erstwhile staff becoming competitors can be a bitter pill to swallow.
“We want them to be as well trained and educated as possible, regardless if they eventually leave or not,” Day says. “We understand that we’ll lose someone every once in a while, and they might even wind up being our competition. But we’d rather have our competitors knowing what they’re doing than not. And we certainly want them to be as knowledgeable as possible when they’re with us.”
Hawes says he’s grown to accept the inevitability of employees leaving. He doesn’t worry about it; he even steps up and does what he can to help those stepping out on their own. “We always work to encourage education and personal growth. It’s part of our company culture. We do lose some employees, so sometimes I guess you could say it backfires. When you educate someone, it’s natural that they might go their own way, but that doesn’t ever mean you hesitate to help them advance their knowledge. Just the opposite: encourage employees and help them, always. In fact, I’ve helped 11 companies get started, all former employees. I don’t want incompetent techs out there.”
On the educational front, Hawes sees a much broader challenge on an industry-wide level, one that begins by defining the pool and spa industry as a viable career path. “One of the challenges for the industry is to define this field as a career and not just a job,” he says. “We need to have a paradigm change from thinking that this is a job that you do for the summer, or until you find something else, to a profession you can be proud of and that lasts a lifetime. We need to promote the idea that this is an industry where you can be what you want to be, to be as big or small as you want. It can provide a great living; it can produce a wonderful endgame. When employees see their work that way, it makes a huge difference in the way they approach their jobs. They become more invested.”
PRIDE AND POPSICLES
While the big issues of career direction and personal growth top the employee-retention list of priorities, Day points out that there are numerous, smaller, day-today perks and programs that contribute to a positive work environment and ultimately more satisfied employees.
“It’s not one thing, it’s a plethora of little things we do,” he says. “We try really hard to have a positive company culture, a fun work environment where people enjoy coming here. Sometimes it’s little inexpensive things, like we stock the freezer with popsicles in the summer. That sounds so small, but it’s something that makes our staff happy. We have friendly competitions; we have a basketball hoop, a pool table, darts and things like that to get employees interacting with each other. We do a monthly vendor-sponsored lunch where the employees all get together. Some of the individual departments will have breakfast as they see fit. Whatever it is, we’re always encouraging interaction and involvement.”
Among the many benefits, Days adds, is a full-time mechanic the company employs to provide auto-repair services to employees at cost. “Because we have a lot of young people, many of them drive old cars and constantly need them fixed,” he explains. “We sell them the parts and labor at cost, so something that might cost a thousand dollars will only set them back a couple hundred. We want our people to have reliable transportation and get to work safely and on time. We work on their cars while they’re at work, so they don’t have to worry about taking off to pick up their car. It makes things easier and more convenient, and they really appreciate it.”
Day adds that the company’s benefits also include doing good for others. For example, company employees are encouraged to “ring the bell” for the Salvation Army each year, and management is always on the lookout for charitable causes to support. “It’s a great way to get employees together, interacting with each other in a really positive way,” he says. “If someone on our staff is really passionate about a particular charity, we try to include that in our annual charitable contributions.”
That charitable spirit also extends to customers who find themselves in times of need. “When we have a customer that’s going through a crisis, a severe illness or somebody in their family passes away, we’ll provide free pool care for a couple months,” Day explains. “Our employees really like that because they can see directly how impactful helping out people in tough times can be. Employees really respond to this in a positive way. They take pride in helping.”
CULTURES OF CARING
Perhaps the most important aspect of employee retention is also the most difficult to define in specific terms: company culture. Fostering a welcoming, warm and appreciative work environment may be vague and even overly sensitive for some, but it’s also indispensable when it comes to keeping employees on board for the long run.
“If you want retention, you’re going to have to demonstrate genuine concern and that you are thankful for the work they do,” Hawes says. “Simply saying thank you, or taking the time to listen because you really do care about them makes all the difference. When I get a chance to express my appreciation, especially when I get a card, email or text message from a satisfied customer, I go out of my way to make sure our technician knows that their hard work is appreciated. It’s important that they know every day how important their work is to our success.”
In recent years, Lenz reports that giving employees the opportunity to experience enjoyable work-related activities in different settings has dramatically enhanced company culture. “For retaining employees, we’ve found that the social aspect of work may be more important than anything else,” he says. “I think it has to do with millennials, wanting to be part of a group, to be part of a family. Last year, we attended a training event in Milwaukee and brought a dozen employees who stayed all week and probably that many more who were there for part of the event. In all, we had 25 people together in a setting away from work and what it did for everyone on a social level was unbelievable. After that, it was a whole different vibe running through this place. All of a sudden, everyone was working together, supporting one another…they were all in it together.”
Lenz reports that in 2019, he amplified the good vibration and adapted an existing incentive program in which employees could earn a trip to the International Pool | Spa | Patio Expo in New Orleans. “We had a dozen people make the trip and it was an amazing experience. Not only did they bond with each other, they also got to know other people in the industry from outside the company. Now all of a sudden they feel like they’re part of a bigger family.”
Wherever it takes place, Hawes says that personal interaction and communications is how company culture, and solidarity, is built. “A lot of us get so wrapped up in the business we don’t take the time to sit down and talk directly with our people,” he says. “That’s where we start to go wrong, we’re just not aware because there’s always something that’s demanding our attention. I try to talk to everyone individually, at least once a month. It’s important to show concern for your employees and their future. If you can be a sounding board and the voice of common sense, that resonates and they feel comfortable talking to you about the future or other personal issues. It’s human nature to want to be appreciated, and to be heard. When you take the time to let your employees know how much you value them, they are far more likely to stick around and be part of your company’s success.”