Wanted: Hungry, Humble, and Smart

By Jim Cory

The ad on Craigslist seeks a window installer. Whoever placed it wants someone “with skill and experience.” Otherwise, the ad writer says, “don’t waste my time.”

A good ad is more than the sum total of its words, but a bad one really lets it all hang out. If you had experience and skill, would you work for this guy?

It raises a point. In today’s labor market, can the owner of a home improvement company realistically expect to cast the net and haul in skilled installers?

“Ten or 15 years ago, you put out an ad [for installers] and you’d have more than you could handle,” says Ryan Parsons, co-owner of The Brothers That Just Do Gutters, in Poughkeepsie, NY. Today, “most of the people we get resumes from don’t show up.” Which doesn’t bother him, since the company’s committed to training its own employee crews.


Made A Home For Them

The Skills Ladder training program that The Brothers launched in 2010 “focused on entry level guys immediately,” Parsons says. “We made a home for them and made them into installers.” They’ve trained more than 100. Raw recruits become apprentices for one month, installer assistants by month three or four, and “running a truck within 3-6 months.”

This commitment to in-house training was no small matter. It took two years to develop and another two to implement. But it proved “hands down the best decision we ever made.” Instead of looking for someone who could form metal and hang the result on a house at the proper angle, “we found guys with great attitude who were looking for a career path.”

It’s the career path carrot that Mike Kelly, owner of Kelly Window & Door, in Cary, North Carolina, plans to offer as he unveils his own in-house training program, months in preparation. The aim? To recruit people who are “hungry, humble and smart” and train them to install windows and doors. Kelly found that “top shelf” subcontractors are “harder and harder to find.” Part of it’s demographics. “We recognized that so many of the older guys are aging out. Even if they’re not retired, they have back, knee, hip and shoulder issues. We have to find a way to train young people to do these jobs.”

Recruits to the company’s “craftsmanship” program will begin as apprentices to a master craftsman before moving on to junior and senior levels in a process measured in years. Kelly says the perfect candidate is someone “willing to constantly learn.”


Slim Pickings

An industry accustomed to endlessly replenishing the ranks of skilled installers by dropping an ad online or hiring subs is up against the fact that there are fewer and fewer to go around. Why not find those who know a little, or maybe even nothing, and show them how it’s done, promising skills, structure and stability? In looking for new installers, Larry Closs, owner of MaxHome, a window, bath and sunroom business in Louisiana and Texas, is willing to take on the inexperienced, but “they need some construction knowledge, even if it’s around the house.” How long it takes before they’re capable of going out on their own “depends on their skill level.”

There are a lot of young people who’d love to learn how to do something and do it well but the government’s doing less and less to make that happen. Last year apprentices filled a little bit more than a half-million of the 146 million jobs in the U.S. Less than one percent. For decades public education has steadily scaled back vocational-technical programs that taught basic construction skills. Meanwhile roughly two/thirds of this year’s high school seniors will be in college come fall. And don’t expect this to change soon. Even while the Trump administration talks about reinvigorating apprenticeship programs, it’s cutting funding for the programs that exist.


Invest In Training

Home improvement companies find that when they make that promise to invest in training, they get a different kind of candidate. For instance when Steve Rennekamp’s Energy Swing Windows, in Murrysville, PA, looks for installers, the company’s ad specifies attitude as well as carpentry experience. That attracts candidates “looking for an environment where their jobs and trade are taken seriously.”

How seriously? Seriously enough that the company will spend some time and money training people. Energy Swing, which makes its own windows, sends new installers to AAMA certification classes in York, PA and to two-day door installation training at ProVia’s plant in Ohio. Suppliers can be key allies when it comes to training raw recruits. ProVia, Rennekamp says, “has training because they want their stuff installed properly.” This winter, when things weren’t as busy, Energy Swing sent its two newest installers to the manufacturer’s training sessions, paying for some of that out of co-op dollars. The trip included training, meals, and two nights in hotels. “ProVia treats them well,” Rennekamp says. And afterwards he can always see the difference.