You need to find good, reliable employees and they need to find you. Here's how to hook up.
The great part about finding and keeping top-quality snow removal employees and subcontractors is that they’re looking for top-quality employers to work for.
Did someone say win-win?
The search has many facets; some less obvious than others. Operators with no shortage of people who want to work for them take out ads, go to where people are looking for work, ask for and check out references, provide incentives for employee referrals, maintain a sterling reputation, provide thorough training for employees and specific instructions for subcontractors, treat customers and workers fairly and build a bond of mutual respect.
Good overall management—in short, being a company that people want to work for—can turn you into a magnet for potential workers and save you some or all of the search.
But assuming you do have to look, where do you begin?
Rick Kier, president and owner of Pro Scapes Inc. in Jamesville, N.Y., a suburb of Syracuse, says he places ads for subcontractors in newspapers and interviews applicants extensively. “We also look for them all year long. We don’t wait until right when we need them to start looking for them; we’re always on the lookout. Any time we see somebody with a piece of equipment that we think could be handy on one of our job sites, we approach that person to find out if he’s interested.”
He does not utilize the Internet, although he says he recognizes that “the potential is very strong.”
Pro Scapes recruits its people through traditional channels like newspapers, and always calls references. Says Kier, “We don’t just hire someone because he’s breathing.” Good employees are offered the chance to earn extra cash through a referral bonus system. If they bring in a friend, they receive $25 with another $25 after 30, 60 and 90 days for a total of $100. In all, he has 40 employees.
Because Pro Scapes services the high end of the market, Kier points out, its people have to look and act professionally. “All of our jobs look really nice. We have uniformed employees and our trucks look presentable, not all beat up and old.” Holding to such standards “creates an image out there that makes people want to hire us, and also makes people want to work for us.”
John Chiarella, Jr., president and founder of Ultimate Services Professional Grounds Management in Wolcott, Conn., says that, in addition to the normal efforts, his firm’s reputation helps draw potential employees. “People know that we pay our bills. We’re very structured and systemized, and we have procedures that we follow. When people work with us, they do what we say, we do what they say, and everybody’s happy. It sounds like a simple concept, like it’s common sense; but common sense isn’t too common nowadays.”
There are also some places operators advise you not look. Says John Allin, senior vice president of operations for Symbiot Business Group, whose national operations center is based in Erie, Pa., “I don’t know if I’d go down to Fifth and State at four o’clock in the morning and pick up anybody who happened to be sitting on the corner. I have contractors who have told me that’s almost exactly what they’re doing.”
Allin calls the practice a “very dangerous thing to do. If these guys get hurt shoveling snow or in your plow truck, they are eligible and should be able to get workman’s compensation. If you pay them under the table, you’ve opened yourself up to some pretty serious legal problems.”
Allin’s company, Snow Management Group, also in Erie, was acquired by Symbiot last November. The company, a division of Allin Cos., maintained over 5,000 sites in 42 states.
“I get asked these questions an awful lot,” says Allin, “especially about subcontractors. ‘How do we manage them? How do we find them? How do we do anything?’” His response? “You treat subcontractors the same way you treat employees. How do you go about finding employees? Most people put an ad in the paper, or they’ll contact the local bureau of employment compensation in order to get employees.”
The same methods work for snow employees, he says, although some snow contractors find that dealing with temp agencies can be beneficial “because then they’re not putting these people on their payroll for short periods of time.”
The rules for dealing with subcontractors are similar, Allin believes. “Just last week I was at a place in Connecticut where they want to grow their snow business and they need to use subcontractors to do it. They asked, ‘How do we manage subcontractors?’ and I asked them, ‘Well, how do you manage your employees?’ They asked, ‘How do we know the guys are doing a good job out there plowing snow?’ I asked them, ‘How do you know your guys are doing a good job out there cutting grass?’”
As for language barriers, each of the operators makes sure to have at least some bilingual people on staff to manage communications. Pro Scapes, which was founded in 1978, has several bilingual employees on the payroll. Kier admits the language issue is “a challenge. We also have some training materials we purchased that are in Spanish.”
How Much to Pay
All agree that the pay scale should be based on the local norm, which can be learned through networking with local colleagues.
Ultimate bids work out to subcontractors in three ways: by the season, the hour or the storm. The hourly and seasonal rates are par for the local area. For storms, younger brother and director of operations Domenic Chiarella explains, there is no rule of thumb. “If the place is 25 acres, it’s a lot different than something that is half an acre. If you do it by the storm you’re computing by the acreage.”
“Usually a subcontractor has a rate schedule that he’s used to,” Allin notes. Symbiot bypasses the issue by publishing its rates rather than haggling. “We find that works much better because it doesn’t open us up to an awful lot of negotiation. ‘Here’s the rate, if you want to work for us that’s fine.’”
“Maybe the biggest thing is that once you have a subcontractor, you need to keep them,” says Kier. To do that, he insists, “you need to treat them right. It’s treating people fairly and honestly, making sure you’re taking care of them for the level of effort they’re putting in.”
Kier also leaves the pay scale to the local market. His company pays employees from $8 to $15 per hour, plus a $1 uniform bonus. Subcontractors with their own equipment—such as a plow, backhoe or skid steer—can receive as much as $65 per hour.
Training for employees is part of the win-win process.
Ultimate’s training program contains what Chiarella describes as a “blow-by-blow, point-by-point listing of procedures, processes and the way things have to run.” It goes much further, however, extending to Naugatuck Valley Community College and the University of Connecticut, where employees receive instruction from professors on subjects ranging from effective communication skills and (for summer labor) agriculture to foreign language. The firm’s in-house training program, called Ultimate Services University, includes courses on topics like computer science, management/leadership, and access to Dale Carnegie Seminars to enhance customer service and people skills. Ultimate has more than 125 employees during the winter months.
The firm has every new hire go through an extensive training program before going out in the field to work. The regimen ranges from reading through a manual and watching a slide show or videotape to going out with an experienced crew leader who will work with them for several hours. Training for snow removal in particular can involve a whole day of classroom training followed by a half day of training out in the parking lot.
The training does not extend to subcontractors, says Kier, due to the nature of the relationship in law. “If you were to train your subcontractors, you would risk having them be considered employees. That’s one of the rules that the government uses to determine who’s an employee and who’s a subcontractor—who does the training, who controls their actions, who provides the tools they use.” Rather than training, Pro Scapes provides subcontractors with objectives for specific jobs.
Allin’s method is to explain the parameters of the job, the customer’s requirements, and then tell them how to go about meeting those customer requirements.
When he had his snow plowing business in Erie, Allin recalls, “I had my own employees doing all the sidewalk work, so we would actually in the fall train them. We would put sand out in the parking lot and train them on how to shovel the sidewalk. There is a science to everything.”
Indeed there is, including finding and retaining snow removal employees and subcontractors. The rules are basic, but should—no, must—be addressed professionally at all times.
Howard Riell is a freelance writer who resides in Philadelphia, Pa.
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