Shallow Labor Pool a Challenge for Cleaning Contractors

Despite good-paying jobs, contractors across North America have noted a decline in quality technicians to help feed the workforce.
Shallow Labor Pool a Challenge for Cleaning Contractors
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It’s difficult to find good help these days. But you are not alone.

Pat Brown, owner of Roto-Rooter of Sioux City, Iowa, is not the only one confounded by the lack of young men and women interested in finding work in the plumbing or drain cleaning industry. Even though these jobs tend to offer good wages and benefits, Brown says, it’s a challenge to find young people willing to learn and develop the necessary skills.

“We need to find new and creative ways to make these industries attractive,” he says.

Jerry Guildner, owner of Guildner Pipeline Maintenance in Commerce City, Colorado, agrees that because of the diminished labor pool it’s getting harder and harder to find good people to bring into the fold.

“I wish I knew what we can do,” Guildner says. “I’ve been in the business so long. I took over a business my dad started. There are not any training centers (for cleaners) and so people have to learn in the field. There are no sewer cleaning schools. Maybe I should start one.”

Dennis Young, president of Commercial Sewer Cleaning Co., which serves the Indianapolis metro area, says that it’s hard to find an answer to the situation when trying to find good employees for his company. Currently, he has 34 on the payroll.

Young says that most job applicants are high school graduates who are not necessarily looking for a career, but more of a transition to something else.

“What really shocks me is that though we offer health insurance, vacation pay and a pension plan, to many this is not a big deal,” Young says. “They would actually prefer getting the extra money in their paycheck.”

Sometimes a technician will move on looking for a higher hourly rate, he says, but it’s not unusual for an individual to come back to a former job after finding that there is not always work available, or for other reasons. Young is almost always willing to take a former employee back.

“Some people won’t take an employee back, but I will,” Young says. “You cannot fault someone who thinks he can better himself.”

He says his technicians learn that while some jobs are repetitious, assembly line work, there is something different going on every day in the sewer and drain cleaning industry. There are problems to be solved. Sometimes, something has to be altered or changed. It can be an interesting job and rewarding as well. After all, there are good jobs to be had.

“Our drain cleaners make a pretty good living, over $50,000 a year with a high school education,” he says.

Brown wants his employees to make as much money as possible, and he pays a commission on sales for the service technicians who clean drains. He is also willing to be flexible on hours worked. If, on a rare occasion, there is no work on an afternoon, he will send the employees home. There will be other times when they put in 10-hour days.

Guildner believes new recruits are just looking for a job, not a career, and sometimes they move on. They see the job as a short stop. They’ll move down the road looking for something better.

“We provide the benefits … health care, 401(k) profit-sharing,” he says. “We try to retain them. We now have 25 employees.”

Young says that frequently they will have the son of a longtime technician join the company, following in the footsteps of their father.

 “If the father has had a good experience with us, we will hire the son.” Young adds this doesn’t always work out, but he will leave the door open.

The issue of the diminished labor pool is not just here in the United States, but also to the north.

Rosa Hawkes, one of the owners of ABC Pipe Cleaning Services based in Surrey, British Columbia, says finding people to employ is very difficult and has been so for the 25 years her family has owned the business. Currently, there are 10 employees.

“I think a lot of young people think they are entitled to big bucks and little work,” she says. “Their expectations are just too high.”

Hawkes says that once she hires an individual, there is up to six months of training for that person to be considered ready for prime time. This is a high cost for any employer.

Brown, with a staff of 10, has concerns for the technicians who have been faithful employees for a long time. “If you work these guys to the bone, you will burn them out and not find somebody to replace them,” he says. “And we go through 10 guys to find the one that works out.”


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