Managing Your Crew
The life of a successful painting contractor is full of challenges. But perhaps the most crucial one is managing and maintaining work crews.
by Frederick Jerant
order paint by the barrelful, invest in a fleet of trucks and purchase the latest technology, but it’s the people that hold the brushes who ultimately determine whether the job will be profitable and done to the customer’s satisfaction.
Taking care of those crews is particularly important in light of the current — and increasing — shortage of qualified workers, says Dr. Ian Horen, CEO of the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America.
“It’s expected that there will be as many as 1 million jobs in the construction trades by 2010,” he says, “but there will not be 1 million people that will be qualified to fill those jobs.”
Here, painting contractors and other experts from across the country share their insights into some practical methods for managing your crews.
Although many contractors rely on classified advertising, job fairs and local employment assistance centers to find fresh help, Ed Waller, vice president of customer relationship management for CertaPro Painters, Oaks, Pa., suggests taking a more direct approach. “One of the best places to look for new workers is your current employees,” he says. “They often know someone who would be good for the job, and who would fit in well with your company.
“You can also talk to your paint suppliers,” Waller adds. “They can often tell you who is slowing down or know about employees who aren’t happy.”
An additional benefit is that a store manager can act as a discreet intermediary between painters and contractors.
Vern Lefson, a Los Angeles area counselor for SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, suggests awarding bonuses to employees for their successful referrals.
If you’re operating a union shop, finding new employees can be even simpler. “The first step is to call your local union’s business agent and ask who’s available for work at the skill level you need,” says Eddie Fugelsang, superintendent and project manager at LC Jergens Painting Co., Seattle, Wash.
When times are booming, the union’s out-of-work list might be empty ... but there’s always hope.
“The union hall will keep your request on file,” Fugelsang explains, “and contact you when someone’s available.”
When you think you’re ready to start expanding your crews, be sure to plan accordingly. That’s the advice offered by Ronald Layman Jr., president of Leeco Painting Inc., Frederick, Md.
Also, increase your marketing and sales efforts as you expand, he says. “If you bring on new workers, you need to be sure you will have a level of sales that will keep them busy.”
When possible, promote from within, says Harry Lande, a SCORE counselor in Fogelsville, Pa. It’s easier to find new semiqualified employees and train them than to find fully qualified workers, he says.
And when you do hire new painters, CertaPro’s Waller recommends that an experienced crew member participate in the interviewing process.
In a union shop, says Fugelsang of LC Jergens, training is a key part of the job. New members must first invest three to six months in a pre-apprentice program, during which they learn the basics of the trade and determine whether it’s the career they want.
The pre-apprentice program is followed by an extensive apprentice program that takes three years to complete. It includes five hours of schooling each week covering safety, products, application techniques and other areas. Because of the potential to move up through the ranks, there’s a lot of incentive for continuing education.
Leeco Painting dedicates nearly half of its 5,000-square-foot shop to a training area. “Our employees receive paid training in surface preparation application and proper cleanup techniques, among others,” Layman says. “We also teach a set of standardized procedures to guide them through all aspects of a job.” Leeco provides refresher training on various topics, too, he adds.
PDCA’s Dr. Horen also notes the growing diversity of the painting workforce. “Given the overall shortage of workers in this field, and the fact that the painting trade is open to people who have not undergone a specific training program, it’s the perfect place for an immigrant to get a job,” he says.
Because of that increasingly diverse pool, contractors will face a variety of challenges in dealing with religious practices, holidays and language barriers. Employers should strive — as much as possible — to properly deal with these differences. Adjust work schedules to accommodate holidays. Use bilingual team leaders. Study a new language yourself. (Dr. Horen cites a contractor in Toronto who found it “essential” that he learn to speak Spanish.)
Fugelsang of Jergens sums it up: “As a superintendent or manager, you need to maintain an open mind toward different cultures in the workplace.”
Finally, it’s important to keep your current employees happy. They represent a significant investment in training and experience that you don’t want to lose.
All of our experts agree that a good pay structure, solid benefits package, high-quality equipment, adequate training and other factors will help with employee retention.