How Do You Attract Workers to the End of a Shovel?

An upbeat message about working in the trades will help restock the industry with quality customer service-minded professionals

The phone is ringing again. It’s not the clang of the cash register, but the closest thing to it for an onsite installer. Like many in the excavation-related trades, you used to get pretty excited on spring days when the phone rings off the hook with customers looking to get on your job board.

But now that sound may trigger a little feeling of foreboding. Your first thought might be: How am I going to satisfy this customer’s construction timeline? Where am I going to come up with the technicians and equipment operators to get another job done?

You used to love it when the calls came rolling in as the construction industry woke from its winter slumber. But now it’s a constant reminder of your staffing shortcomings. The truth is many installing companies reflect a nationwide trend in the trades:

The owners, crew supervisors and work hands are aging out. Many installers are nearing retirement and they don’t have the good health and energy to tackle as many jobs. You used to jump in the trenches and move dirt with the best of them. You still have the skills and expertise, but you can’t do quite as much and might have to take a few mornings off to visit the doctor.

A surging economy means a plentiful workload, but you’re having trouble coming up with the staff to meet the demand. The thing about the construction industry is that when you are busy, so is every other subcontractor on a project. Competition for hard workers and skilled tradesmen and -women is fierce. You have to pay more and train a less-experienced workforce.

Generation next

We need a new generation of installers to carry the decentralized wastewater industry forward. We have to develop young leaders who want implement advanced technologies that will be demanded with new development in an environmentally conscious world. Older installers want to leave the industry in capable hands someday.

And you’d love to add another crew and build more revenue, but to do that, you need to recruit workers you can trust and sustain their interest in an installing career. But in a world of college-bound young adults, how do you make it look appealing to trade a suit and tie for overalls and work gloves? So many prefer Armani over Carhartt and a smartphone over a shovel handle.

It might seem easy to paint a pretty grim picture of the labor market for the trades. But I don’t believe the outlook is as dark as all of that. I think there are ways to promote the onsite industry as an attractive career choice for a broad spectrum of young people, from the high school graduate looking to start out at the bottom to the sharpest college graduates with science and business degrees. It’s just a matter of educating them about the potential we see for this industry.

Let’s say you advertise for new employees or you meet with undecided students at your local tech school. Here are a few talking points you can use to sway newcomers to our side:

There is good pay in the trades.

Many people equate a briefcase and a corner office with financial success. But we know you’re just as likely to earn a good living at the controls of a backhoe or assembling components of a wastewater system. More than 25 percent of people in the United States require a functioning septic system, and a limited number of people know how to build and maintain those systems. Onsite installers and maintainers provide a necessary service and earn a good living doing it. And to lure new, young professionals, you can pay a professional wage, offer incentives like sign-on and profit sharing bonuses and free continuing education. Corporations downsize, the demand for their products wax and wane, but there will always be a need for septic systems. That translates to high wages and job security.

The aging workforce creates immense opportunity.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of workers in the construction industry in 2018 was about 43 years old. But anecdotally, I know there are a vast number of business owners in the installing industry in their late 50s and 60s. I talk to them every week. These folks are looking to slow down and turn over their operations to younger people. Let job candidates know about the great potential to advance in this industry. With hard work and a will to learn, they can quickly move into supervisory positions and someday even own their own businesses. In fact, be open to providing project bonuses and options for part-ownership for your star workers and they may stick with you for many years to come.

You don’t have to dress to impress.

Hey, some folks might prefer to ditch the suits and the cubicle existence for a chance to get dirty and work in the great outdoors. In fact, it may be time for this trend to take root. You know the day goes fast when you’re moving from project to project in the onsite industry. If Americans are growing fat and old sitting behind a desk all day, what better antidote is there than getting outside and using all your muscles putting in a septic system? You’ll no longer need that expensive gym membership to manufacture exercise or a closet full of expensive clothes if you join the trade worker revolution. 

Be part of a helping profession — the solver of problems.

Talk to someone who works as a spoke in the wheel of a major corporation. Their day is consumed with raising widget sales 1.8 percent this quarter. Or they have to sit in soul-sucking meetings all day talking about a new human resources project or brainstorming ideas for a PowerPoint presentation on production efficiency at a plant they’ll never visit. So many people toil in work they feel is meaningless because they don’t see who they are benefitting. That’s not the onsite profession. When you design or repair a septic system, you know precisely who is benefitting. You work directly with the client, and they appreciate your expertise. You are helping families and small businesses. You are protecting groundwater and the environment. You see exactly how you make a difference and can feel good about it.

Staffing strategy

Does your messaging to attract and retain new workers cover some of these points? Do you have other ideas to share about promoting the wastewater industry to the next generation coming up? We need to think about the health of the industry moving forward so onsite installers will be prepared when the phone starts ringing. 


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