It’s easy to find painting business owners who’ll tell you the biggest challenge they face is finding good people who can paint or who are willing to learn to paint.
I hear this complaint from owners of big companies that rely on teams of painters to operate, from owners of small businesses with just a few painters, and even from solo painters who might need to hire extra help for big jobs or tight schedules. But when it comes to life’s problems, the issue isn’t really about the difficulty itself, but rather what you do about it. The shortage of skilled labour in the building and renovation trades has been talked about for decades, and the talk will continue. The main thing to understand is that it’s almost certain there are things you could be doing better right now to get the kind of painters you need and to keep them. It all comes down to the three essentials: recruitment, training and retention.
Geez, I don’t know. Been trying to answer that question for years. Unless you want a lazy guy who smokes in the garage and checks Facebook for an hour at a time. That’s the kind of people you’re going to find these days.
Recruiting Good Painters
Imagine your painting business is a stage coach. The horses are the painters you’ve hired and the stage coach itself are the clients you serve. Is your stage coach running slowly or fast? Does it fail to roll sometimes because the horses don’t show up? Or worse, do some of the horses bite and kick at the clients climbing into the coach? The success of your business comes down to the quality of people you have pulling in the harness, and recruitment is the job of actively seeking high quality people to work for you.
Chances are pretty good that you’ve never actually pursued painters in the best way possible. Recruitment is sort of like finding and winning painting jobs, except the people you’re pursuing are painters, not clients with painting that needs doing. The crazy thing is, most painting business owners spend much more time inviting clients to ride in their stage coach, than they do finding strong, capable, experienced horses to pull it. But perhaps things will look different to you when you realize that each capable painter you have in your employ should add $15,000 to $35,000 to your gross profits each year. You may think you’re in the painting business, but you’re also in the business of buying paint labour in the wholesale market, then selling that labour for retail prices. So what are you doing to find and maintain good sources of supply for the thing you’re really selling, namely labour?
Brandon Lewis, founder of the Academy for Professional Painting Contractors (www.paintersacademy.com; 423-800-0520), is one of the biggest proponents of active recruitment to attract skilled painters. You probably haven’t heard anything like Lewis‘s message on the issue of finding good people.
“Many business owners tell me it’s impossible to find good painters” says Lewis, “and I always ask a question: How much time and money have you spent over the last 30 days trying to solve this problem?”
“Many business owners tell me it’s impossible to find good painters” says Lewis, “and I always ask a question: How much time and money have you spent over the last 30 days trying to solve this problem? Typically the answer I get is, ‘Well, I’ve asked my guys if they know of anybody and I posted an ad on Craigslist.’ So you’ve spent about 20 bucks and three minutes in the last 30 days to solve this major problem. What if you spent 20 bucks and three minutes on your last painting project. How much would you have gotten done?”
Lewis maintains that there’s no shortage of good painters for hire in the economy, it’s just that all the good ones are working. Chances are pretty slim that you’ll find a good painter among the ranks of the unemployed, yet this is exactly where almost all painting company owners look for help.
“Of the few painting business owners who do recruit” explains Lewis, “most use messaging something like this: ‘We’re hiring. Come grow with us. Experienced painters wanted.’ This is a terrible message, especially for people who already have a job. Instead, appeal to painters whose bosses don’t appreciate them. This is where a lot of painters can identify. Most people don’t quit their companies, they quit their bosses. When you write good, strong copy like that and you follow it up with solutions to the problems that most painters experience, letting them know that you’re different. It works.”
Training Good Painters
Developing your own painters with in-house training can be a worthwhile strategy, but it’s easy to do this job wrong. Start with the right person and put them in the right situation and you can end up with a loyal, skilled employee who is part of a solid foundation for your business. A certain amount of training is your responsibility to the trade, too. But do the training thing wrong and it can be a big waste of time and money. The trick is avoiding the typical training mistakes. One of the most common is hiring people who are too inexperienced.
“I do my best to earn loyalty and respect from my guys. I call them my team. They know some of the sacrifices I make to keep them working. Week before Christmas was a very slow. I paid each of them a full week’s pay, then I gave them pay for Christmas Day. Yeah, it was tough for me, but my guys wouldn’t leave me just to make a little more somewhere else. That’s just a few of the things I do.”
The less experienced a painter is, the less they cost per hour. That’s the attraction, but hiring a cheap, enthusiastic greenhorn can easily be too much of a gamble given the size and stability of your business. Beware of being penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to hiring. A capable journeyman earning $40 an hour can generate more profits for you than a help-dependent beginner earning minimum wage. And the smaller your business is, the more you need a stable base of journeymen painters who can perform reliably without supervision. The trainee painters in your company should never total more than 20% of the total labour pool. Any more than this and you run the risk of losing too much if the trainee doesn’t work out. You also need a critical mass of experienced painters to train your trainee without slowing jobs down.
Never hire a trainee who hasn’t first proven themselves in some way in a labour situation.
Another common error is hiring trainees who haven’t proven their interest and aptitude for being a professional painter. Painting is good old fashioned work, and it’s easy for a person to say they’d like to learn to paint professionally without knowing what that means. Never hire a trainee who hasn’t first proven themselves in some way in a labour situation. Community colleges and apprenticeship programs are the kinds of places you’ll find field-proven people who are good candidates for training. Talk to the people in charge and consider hiring a top candidate on a trial basis. Don’t do it to save money, do it to help someone get into a good trade and to build your business.
Keeping Good Painters
Monitor results, reward excellence and remove incompetence. This is how you retain a good painting team. “You have to build a culture around expectations and performance,” says Lewis, “and you have to reward it.”
So many owners only have a casual conversation with somebody new on the back of a tailgate, then set them loose. We don’t ever tell them what they’re supposed to do. We don’t ever write it down. We don’t ever measure it. We expect these people to be the quality of an owner. Well, if they were the quality of an owner, they would be owning a painting business. They wouldn’t be working for us in most cases. You’ve got to have clear, written goals and processes in place. You have to have paperwork and procedures and tools to sustain whatever it is you want them to do. People who are really good at performing – that are worth retaining – they like structure and they like clear directions.
I’ve learned over time that some of your best employees come from those that know nothing about the trade. A fresh guy that can be taught your ways always pays off in the long run and as a bonus they stay longer and show more loyalty.
Once you’ve got all that basic stuff, you need to give folks monetary incentives for making you money. If they save labor hours on a project, give your painters half of what they’ve saved you. You also need to do personal recognition from the boss. Not everybody is motivated by money, and it took me a long time to realize this. When I owned my own painting business I got in the habit of putting a handwritten note in each and every paycheck talking about something good they’d done. People don’t get a kind word and they especially don’t get it in writing.