The Labor Famine

How the deficiency of qualified talent impacts the window and door industry
Emily Kay Thompson
March 20, 2015
COLUMN : Strategy Session | Strategies & Practices, Management, Operations

It’s hard to find good help these days, especially in the window and door industry. It’s particularly challenging to find skilled labor or even simply to find applicants looking for work in this trade, according to industry professionals.

One of them, Jennifer Lawler, president of Fenessco Inc., a Californiabased window and door dealer, had a particularly interesting perspective. Here’s what she said:

“The lack of qualified staff is a result of vocational training being removed from high schools across the nation in earnest in 1980. Wood shop, metal shop, home economics, electrical training, and architectural drafting were all removed from the curriculum. The focus of our future turned to science, technology and higher education.”

She continues, “35 years later, we see the result: a lack of qualified tradesmen. The workforce is not trained properly for the demands of today’s construction needs and not prepared for the needs of America in rebuilding much-needed infrastructure.”

Mark Wright of The Wright Consulting Group agrees that there is a noted shortage of sufficient applicants. He shared that he used to give a tape measure test to potential hires, which more than 90 percent of the applicants could not pass. “In almost all cases, they could not even use deductive reasoning to determine that each inch was divided into 16ths,” he says.

Further complicating the issue is that there is simply a lack of motivation. Dana Partridge, vice president of internal operations for Hufcor, cites a December 2014 New York Times article, “The Vanishing Male Worker,” on the subject. “The writer explains that the number of unemployed working age males ages 25 to 54 in the U.S. has tripled to 16 percent since the 1960s,” he wrote in summation of the article. “Men in this group are choosing not to work for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is that they just don’t have to in today’s society.”

He and Lawler agree that the lack of technical training in America’s primary education system is certainly a gap as well. “Compare the U.S. system to Germany,” he offers, “where students are split into a two-track system early on—one a university track, the other a technical school track.”

The solution, according to Lawler, is to “turn the focus back to the needs of our current situation. The trades— construction, electrical, plumbing and engineering, for example—need to be respected as viable occupational and professional options.”

She says that, in order to fill the gap in the lack of qualified candidates, “there needs to be an immediate shift of available resources to provide training for the misdirected, unemployed, and uneducated workforce.” In the meantime, Lawler has turned to skilled trades staffing companies like CLP, www.clp.com, and Labor Ready, www.laborready.com.

THE WAGE FACTOR

Wright agrees with the sentiments that revisiting the vocational programs of the past would help, but argues that it doesn’t cure additional issues, such as “the ability to collect unemployment as well as the ability to collect worker compensation for a minor (or faked) injury, particularly in states that are pro-plaintiff in workers’ comp cases.” What’s more, he says, is that the help issue “also relates to the industry’s infatuation with continuing to pay low starting wages.”

When you source from the $8.50 to $10 end of the labor pool, he says, you have to have low expectations. “[That wage] leaves little to pay rent, car payment, car insurance and food. In many cases, young employees have to share an apartment and ride share,” Wright stresses. “The additional challenge is that most of these people can get a job at Burger King or McD’s for $8.50 per hour for 30 hours a week.”

Furthermore, going back to that NYT article, Partridge cites that the decline of marriage rates means many of today’s eligible candidates don’t have families to support, and thus are unwilling to take a job at all. “Supporting mechanisms like disability and unemployment payments leave them poor, but not broke. They’re not willing to take the $10 per hour job—if they can even find one.”

While it’s a bane to employers to try and find reliable help, the bigger issue is what it does to the reputation of the industry at large. “Too many companies focus on low cost labor to the detriment of quality, efficiency, and service,” says Partridge.

If you’re starting to feel hopeless, don’t. Turns out, there’s some redemption in that at least a portion of the industry recognizes the issue and is looking for solutions, starting with a paycheck. In fact, in a recent poll on www.windowanddoor.com, only about 7 percent of respondents said that they only offer minimum wage to new hires, while more than 50 percent offer all candidates more than $10 per hour with competitive benefits.

There’s a start. Window & Door will keep you posted on how it progresses.

Thompson is editor of Window & Door, WindowandDoor.com, and WDweekly. Write her at ethompson@glass.org.