by Anthony Noel
The first of a two-part discussion looks at how to build and retain a reliable work force
When it comes to hiring workers, custom woodworking shops usually fit into one of two categories: those which carefully hire and train their personnel and those which do so inadequately. Not surprisingly, it is the shops in the latter category that are most often looking for help.
Certainly, there are other factors - ranging from working conditions to pay and benefits - that contribute to how often any business replaces workers. But if you combine careful interviewing and hiring with consistent training, your shop will greatly improve its odds of having the right people in the right positions for a longer period of time.
Though the bane of some managers, the task of interviewing, hiring and training employees holds many keys to a shop's success. The good news is that the process need not be nerve-racking for you or prospective hires. Establishing a good employee recruiting program begins with putting yourself in the other person's shoes.
Just about all of us have had the pleasure of being the interviewee for an available position. Whether the job was in woodworking or another field, recalling such experiences and considering what we would do to improve upon them for those we interview can help make the process a useful tool for qualifying potential employees. It can even make the experience a rewarding one for the candidate, even if he doesn't get the job.
But before we look at the interview process in greater depth, let's first consider how we attract potential workers to our businesses. Though the process often starts with a help-wanted ad, there are other options. For one thing, your own work force is often a rich source of potential employees. Post a description of the opening by the time clock for a week (or two, if you have that luxury) and ask employees to inform any friends who have the appropriate qualifications.
nother possibility is contacting other shops in your area. Differences in the type of work being done at custom shops range from subtle to night-and-day. Often, one shop's square peg is another's perfect fit.
If your 'silent search' produces nothing, a help wanted ad should be your next step. Careless ads attract careless workers, so take time to compose an ad that fits the opening. A good ad should neither mince words nor spare them in properly defining the job. It should also mention any benefits and should give a phone number for interested people to call.
Though some companies prefer not be bothered with phone calls, a small or medium shop can save much time by screening respondents by phone first. Such screening can help respondents determine whether your shop is too far to travel, whether your opening matches their interests and abilities and, last but not least, if the wage is what they are looking for. Spending three to five minutes on the phone may save you hours later, so let interested people phone you.
Once you have identified a suitable candidate (hopefully, several), schedule interviews and ask that they bring a resume if they have one. Otherwise, let them fill out a standard job application when they arrive, prior to the interview.
If there's one thing about being interviewed to which almost everyone can attest, surely it is the process' effect on the candidate's nerves. Now that you are the one doing the hiring, you may be surprised at just how tough things are on your side of the desk as well, particularly if you haven't done much interviewing before.
At the other extreme, maybe you have been hiring people for years, but are disappointed by your inability to promote from within.
Either way, a few simple steps can help you turn the situation around. Start with a simple commitment to treat your employees at least as well as you do your clients. If you think your clients make or break your business, think again - it's your employees. Before you can deliver great custom work, you need a work force that is committed to producing it. And if you are not fully committed to your workers - to their growth as craftspeople, to helping them learn the ins and outs of their jobs and to rewarding them for consistent, reliable service - just how committed do you think they will be to meeting your goals?
Still, as with other potentially trying situations, the process of interviewing and hiring people makes some of us seek an easy way out. For many, that translates into hiring people who say they can handle the job, quickly firing them when it turns out they can't, and winding up back at square one.
What if, with a minimal investment of time and energy, we could instead find the right person in the first place? This is possible, with a recruiting and training program that encourages our employees' growth. We will get into training next month. For now, let's answer this question: How can we do a better job of interviewing potential hires?
To start, you can make things better for you and the candidate by remembering what it was like to be interviewed. Remember how you felt at your first (or second or third) job interview? Your palms were sweaty, your heart was racing and you were concerned with only one question: 'Do I have what it takes to get this job?' Above all else, you wanted to impress the interviewer.
Of course, as we are interviewed more often, we begin to understand the process and loosen up somewhat. But few are the potential hires who are willing to admit any inadequacies during an interview. Nonetheless, it is your job as an interviewer to find out if the person seated across from you can help your company reach its goals. In short, you must find a way to have the person being interviewed tell you more than just what he thinks you want to hear.
The following checklist provides several keys to successful interviewing. Let's look at each a little more closely.
1. Review the candidate's written qualifications. Whether your prospect hands you a resume or fills out a standard application in your office prior to the interview, give the page a thorough read before actually starting the interview. Take as long as you want, and if you sense the candidate growing impatient (or even more nervous) be considerate. Say, 'Hang in there, I'll be right with you,' to help him or her relax.
2. Provide a clear, concise description of what the job entails. You have probably already done this to a certain extent on the phone, but do it again anyway. Take an extra minute to be sure you are both on the same page. Then, if you spotted anything on the application that raises your hopes (or doubts) about the prospect's ability to handle the job, say so, and listen to what he says.
3. Make your shop's standards clear. Once you have thoroughly fleshed out the prospect's thoughts about the job, it is a good idea to walk him through your shop and to talk more specifically about what it takes to achieve your shop's standards. Show examples of quality work and describe what would render work less than acceptable. Again, listen, and watch closely for non-verbal clues that the prospect is perhaps not as thrilled about this opportunity as he could be. Such apprehension will often surface in the shop, though it might not in the office.
4. Pin down the candidate's abilities and discuss training programs. This goes hand-in-hand with number three. Whether you sense enthusiasm or apprehension during the walk-through, show - and tell - the candidate exactly what he will be expected to do: 'We do a lot of these neo-angle vanities with hand-carved door panels - can you do carving?' If he balks, tell him you need the truth right from the start because, if you hire him, he could be carving tomorrow.
This is also the time to bring training into the discussion. 'Two of our employees are really talented carvers (or finishers, or machine operators) and they have trained several of the other guys. In fact, all our employees participate in an ongoing training program...' Again, listen to the prospect's thoughts about this.
5. Listen to your prospect. Have I made clear the importance of listening? OK. Just checking.
6. Sleep on it. Maybe, at the end of the interview, you're thrilled. Maybe your candidate is thrilled. Or maybe neither of you are. Whatever your gut feelings as the visit concludes, consider holding off on any job offer until you have had a chance to replay the session in your mind once or twice. You may wake up tomorrow and regret having offered this person a job for a reason that never occurred to you before.
On the other hand, what if the candidate who was less than enthused after the interview calls the next day, excited about the opportunity? Remember, interviewing is a stressful process for all concerned, and you both deserve to be alone with your thoughts before agreeing to anything. You may even find that some prospects would like to visit you again (or you may request that they do) before they commit to working for you. That's fine.
Throughout the interviewing process, keep this in mind: Taking the time to make sure a prospect is a good fit for you in the beginning will lessen the odds that you will soon be looking to hire his replacement.
Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.
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This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.