Across the country, painting contractors large and small are making one consistent concern clear: There’s a critical shortage of talent coming into the industry.
Many trades enjoy a direct funnel of talent from vocational education programs and trade schools, which are experiencing a renaissance in the wake of America’s mounting college debt problem and the de-stigmatization of education in the trades. But in the painting industry, organized recruitment initiatives or formal educational programs are incredibly scarce. And that puts painting contractors at a severe disadvantage in connecting with new talent.
One of the country’s few painting programs can be found at Williamson College of the Trades in Media, PA. The school’s Paintings and Coatings Technology program is a three-year stint designed to train students on all aspects of residential, commercial and industrial painting, covering everything from the basics (surface prep and application) to advanced knowledge (paint chemistry and color mixing) to business tactics (job estimating, business ethics and purchasing).
Program director Glenn Tomlinson says when it comes to job opportunities, most people only think of house painting. “But there’s a whole line of possibilities,” he adds. “House painting, industrial painting, starting your own business, estimating for big projects within the commercial world, sandblast work, working as an inspector or at a paint store as a salesperson or a manager—just to name a few.”
And though Williamson’s program shows an impressive employment rate, with 92% of a total of 45 recent graduates working in the painting field, programs like this are too few to provide a solution for the country-wide need.
Some contractors have turned to solving the labor shortage on their own, rethinking where to look for new talent, what to look for in candidates and how to keep good workers on staff.
Kevin Nolan has been ahead of this curve. With 111 employees, his Philadelphia-based company, Nolan Painting, is one of the largest residential painting companies in the mid-Atlantic. Nolan started his operation 40 years ago but has seen his most successful growth over the last 20.
He says a small labor pool isn’t a new challenge; rather he’s grappled with it for years. Nolan Painting only began to realize success once he started focusing his efforts on growing his employee base, rather than increasing profit margins through subcontracted labor.
Today, Nolan Painting uses no subcontracted labor. That’s no small feat when you consider the company does $12 million in annual revenue. Nolan dedicates roughly $300,000 annually (about 3 percent of his budget) exclusively to hiring, which includes about $100,000 for recruiting and $200,000 for marketing.
Before you write off that kind of spending as an approach reserved for companies with large operating budgets, remember that big operations like Nolan Painting start as small ones. And the ones that successfully make the transition understand growth is a long game and that the best way to win is with a dedicated team of employees.
So what’s in their hiring playbook? Here are four tactics successful painting contractors use to grow their employee base—and their businesses.
Scale Up Gradually
It’s a common scene every spring: The phones start ringing, the work comes flooding in, and contractors often take on more jobs than they have staff to cover. In the short term, subcontracting helps cover the quick flow of seasonal work and revenue. But a long-term growth mindset relies on full-time employees who have skin in the game with your company. For most small- to medium-sized contractors, however, hiring a new full-time employee isn’t a quick budgetary decision. And scaling up gradually is, in most cases, the only realistic option. New employees need to be planned for, and to plan, you need to think and budget proactively. As you work through this year’s work and profit margins, look ahead to next year. Set a specific growth goal—a revenue number and how many painters it would take to get you there— and dedicate a portion of this year’s revenue to help cover the hiring process. Nolan’s 3 percent isn’t a bad number to aim for, although smaller operating budgets will benefit from a little more investment, even 5 to 7 percent. But think of the transitional periods as rebuilding years; the short-term hit to your profit will pay off in the long run. Don’t be afraid to start small. Even investing in one new full-time employee next year, one or two the following year and so on can make a big impact on your growth. You may need to tighten up other areas of the budget in the short term to get you there, but before long, you’ll be on your way to increasing the number of employees who are invested in your company’s success. And that positions you to dedicate efforts to longer-term business goals.
Stop Hunting for Unicorns
In today’s employment landscape, searching in your geographical market for potential employees with years of painting experience will reveal a very small batch of candidates, if any at all.
Instead, start looking outside the industry. Retail. Fast food. Cleaning services. Look for candidates who have work experience, are looking for change and opportunity and show a willingness to learn. Hire on character and train technique.
Even the most specialized painting skills can be taught and learned. What can’t be taught are work ethic, self-motivation, flexibility, a positive attitude and a collaborative spirit.
Nick Slavik, proprietor of Nick Slavik Painting & Restoration Co. in New Prague, MN, and host of weekly Facebook broadcast Ask a Painter Live, has developed his own hiring rubric. He calls it the “Decent Human Being Theory.”
“I find happy people looking for a job they can love,” Slavik explains. “I find them where they’re unappreciated, with no connection to the place they work. They seek satisfaction…Then I devote my life to giving them the chance to love the craft like I do.”
Meet Potential Employees Where They Are
Understanding what kind of employees to look for is one part of the strategy. Knowing where to find them is another.
The best possible reach will involve a strategic advertising approach, and there are many ways to advertise that you’re hiring across multiple media channels.
But let’s assume you’re starting small. To make the most out of your hiring budget, your best bet is to focus your advertising.
Social media is a good place to start. Facebook and Instagram are two of the most versatile, business-friendly and widely used social media platforms, and getting the word out about employment is fast and easy. Facebook has a dedicated business tool specifically for sharing job openings and reviewing and responding to applicants. And both platforms allow you to boost posts to reach your ideal geographic and demographic targets for a nominal fee. Even as little as $20-$50 can go a long way to get your name out there.
Radio is another strong option—sports talk radio, in particular, for this target audience. Kevin Nolan advertises on four different sports talk radio stations at various points throughout the day to maximize his reach: discounted help wanted ads between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. on two stations, one ad on another station during peak drivetime hours, and one Spanish language ad.
Print and digital help wanted ads with your local news media source also offer a good budget option that’s geographically targeted.
Empower Employees and Grow Culture
Once you catch the interest of a strong candidate, your next hurdle is getting them in the door and keeping them. Competitive pay and fringe benefits offer obvious appeal, but if you’re just beginning to grow, you may not be in the position to offer one or the other.
Culture is within any business’ reach, however. And a great work environment with respect, opportunity for advancement and a team-minded atmosphere can be just as attractive as competitive pay.
Culture starts with investing in your people. If you can’t yet do that financially, look to invest in their personal growth. A well-rounded training program and the opportunity to learn new skills can be a huge benefit to your employees and to you. It can also help instill a sense of ownership of their role in your company.
Both Nolan and Slavik have aggressive apprenticeship programs to arm their new employees with painting skills and opportunity for advancement within the company.
“My secret weapon is asking employees, ‘How can I help you get ahead?’” says Nolan. “And then, all of a sudden, we’re working on the same team. Employees don’t ask themselves, ‘How can I make Kevin Nolan rich today?’ They ask themselves how they can get ahead. You can achieve anything you want to do in the world if you help other people get what they want.”
Nolan Painting starts all new painters, regardless of skill or experience, at $15 per hour, and puts them on a progressive training track to grow skills and pay quickly. At 60 days, they evaluate behavior—punctuality, customer service, attitude, teamwork and the like. At 90 days they evaluate skill—painting a door or window. If employees are performing up to standards at 90 days, they automatically get a raise to $16 per hour and are on track to earn $20 per hour, which they can reasonably attain in one to two years.
“If you treat people with respect, you listen to what they have to say and you're out for their best interests, you're going to have a good culture,” says Nolan. “That’s going to limit turnover and it’s going to increase morale.”
Even with 111 employees, Nolan has no plans of slowing down. His five-year goal? Reach $25 million in revenue and—more importantly—get to a staff of 225 employees to help reach that goal.
“I can’t focus on how I’m going to get to $25 million or what $25 million is about,” says Nolan. “But I can focus on how I’m going to get 225 painters and how I would manage that.”
Understand that hiring and growth in general aren’t business practices that you will ever completely “solve.” As long as you’re in operation, you’ll be revisiting your approaches to meet the demands of your business climate. And your people will be your most significant challenge, though with the biggest possible reward.
But with a foundation of smart planning, a solid training program and a growth-based culture, you’ll find hiring and employee retention success.