When I am visiting fabrication shops around the country, the most common challenge I hear is hiring and retaining good workers. This is a multi-part question:
  1. How do you go about hiring new employees (referrals, help wanted ads, etc.)? Do you prefer experienced workers or ones with a “clean slate” when it comes to stoneworking?
  2. What sort of training program do you have in place for your workers? What tasks do they start with, and how long does it take for them to be productive?
  3. What do you do to retain workers? What about benefits? Do you have any sort of bonus program in place?
Jeff Leun, The Stone Haus Inc., Chattanooga, TN:
In my experience, I have better luck finding good help when they walk in as opposed to an ad in the paper. Those out walking are usually more hungry (i.e. motivated). Whether or not they stay that way past the first check is like going to Las Vegas; it is a crapshoot. I’ve had a few that have walked in looking for big pay and seemed knowledgeable, but never showed up the next day for work. I prefer greenhorns if I have a choice; they tend to be more excited and interested in learning new things.

We don’t have a formal training program; we start everyone on a full day of runs on scrap and help them get the basic concept down. They proceed to polish to a 1000 grit and up only for a week or so until they look comfortable with the tool. After two weeks, they start being productive polishers. Some pick it up quicker, and it depends on the individual.

I feel if you treat your workers fair and with respect, and some attitude only when needed, they will stick around longer. The flip side is that the really good ones will ultimately leave to work for themselves; that’s just part of it. Currently, we don’t have a bonus or insurance program in place but the Stone Fabricators Alliance (SFA) is looking into group insurance for its members.

Ken Smith, Central Coast Stoneworks, CA:When hiring new workers, the need for experience depends on the position I am filling. Right now, I am searching for an experienced worker because of my need for a saw guy. I want someone who can match grain and think before cutting. For other positions, I prefer greenhorns; they come in with no arrogant attitude or bad habits. The most important thing is a guy who gets excited about what he’s doing and has that sponge type of learning ability.

In terms of training, it takes on average about a week of polishing scraps and another week to learn the router and some basic shaping. I really like the new worker to get the feel of the different grits of both pads and cupwheels. It helps them to know what to use in different situations.

To retain workers, I try to be fair with pay and honest to them to build trust and loyalty. We are a small shop, so we don’t have insurance yet, but we will and I let the guys know that. I am also initiating a bonus program where I will set a proposed finish date, and if we meet that, there will be a certain financial bonus. If we finish before the set date, the bonus is more.

Jim Marshall, The Beveled Edge Marble & Granite, Westminster, MD:I have hired both experienced and non-experienced help before. I prefer to train someone with very little stoneworking experience. Some of the fabricators with more years under their belt will bring bad habits learned in other shops. I also have people walking into my shop claiming to be a great fabricator and demanding top dollar. When you hire them, you find out that they know less than your rookies in the shop.

As for training new employees, I start them on some scrap stone to get the feel for polishing. Then they move to doing backsplashes in a few days. After a while of doing this, I will move them to polishing simple edges when they are ready for it. Other positions in the company require different methods of training. Most importantly, all employees are lectured in safety on the first day.

I usually work alongside my employees, and I never ask them to do anything that I am not willing to do myself. I believe they respect this, and I find this to be a motivational method that works well. There is a great article on motivational methods posted by Mark Lauzon onwww.StoneAdvice.comthat has other great suggestions.

We have health insurance available for employees that want it. We also have paid holidays and vacations. Some of the other perks are a company cell phone and use of one of the company vehicles when needed.

Ronald Hannah, Charlotte, NC:We have not had much success with classified ads or trade publications. Word of mouth seems to work best with us.

We will interview both experienced and unexperienced workers. We are constantly looking for good people that are team players. If that team player comes with experience, then all the better.

Unfortunately, most experienced fabricators come with a host of bad habits and attitudes that are hard, if not impossible, to crack.

In our shop, a potential fabricator is first interviewed by the shop personnel. If, after the first interview, they feel the potential candidate will be an asset to the team then, and only then, are they interviewed by the management personnel. This creates a feeling of both empowerment and accountability because all levels of employees were involved in the bringing on of a new hire.

We also look at unconventional issues such as, “What does their vehicle look like?” If they drive an old beater with six months of cigarette packages, milk cartons, old french fries and hamburger wrappers, etc. on the dash, there is a strong likelihood that they will not take very good care of our tools and equipment. Presentation is important. If a candidate has not made an effort to make a good impression, we are not interested in having him/her as part of our team.

We do offer health insurance, paid holidays, vacation and numerous other perks.

Matt Lansing, Stone Innovations, Inc., Plover, WI:My typical hiring process starts with an ad in the local newspapers. The ads will mention a need to be able to read a tape measure, to be good with their hands, and carpentry or metal working skills are a plus - the usual stuff.

I have found that hiring people with a hands-on background is the way to go. Welders, carpenters and electricians make good employees. I have not had very good luck hiring people who already have experience in stone fabrication. Since they came to me looking for a better job, that means they don’t have any loyalty; they will always keep moving and looking for a “better” job.

The interview for me is an important step. I look them in the eye when asking questions of them. If they look away, or look around, then they are not really serious about finding work. If they don’t ask any questions, then they are not really thinking about working for you either. (I learned this next one from another successful stone person in my area.) If they move around slowly, getting into and out of their car like they have nothing else to do, walking in the door with no purpose, you can tell they will do their job the same way - without motivation or pride. They would not be a good employee.

But I have also found that if you find a good prospect, you need to hire them quickly because if you don’t, someone else will. My latest CNC programmer came in my door, and I offered him a job on the spot without checking any references or seeing his application. You can just get a good feeling about someone. I told him that the job was his, but that I would just need to do some background checks and reference checks and I would call him back within 24 hours. Still, you always need to do your homework regardless how good they appear to be.

When the new employee shows up, if they are going to be fabricators in the shop, then they are given a 2- x 2-foot piece of stone to start polishing on. They do a square polish first; working on one side then all four. Then they round the corners. Next, they execute a hand-shaped bevel polish on one side, then all four, and then they round the corners. They appreciate the routers and other equipment more once they understand how hard it can be to hand-shape things.

If we have time, they also hand-shape some bullnose and a few other edges, but if they pick up the bevel polish, they are usually thrown into the mix with the rest of the guys.

New guys for the road are put with another experienced installer. They will usually run with an experienced guy for a number of months before they are allowed to run on their own.

New employees are not allowed to template. You need to have quite a few months - or better yet, a few years - in before we get to that step.

We pay our employees quite well, as we should for what we require of them. Most of my employees have been with me for quite a few years. We offer health insurance, paid holidays, vacation and also a 401k plan.

We are also looking into starting a bonus program. It was developed by another member of the SFA that was kind enough to show me how he set his up and how it has been successful.

Brian Briggs, Granite Guys, Inc., Ft. Pierce, FL:The biggest issue we deal with as business owners is employees. Unfortunately, in a service industry, we will never get away from that. You can buy some fabrication equipment and lessen your dependency on employees in the shop, buy software to lessen the dependency on office staff, a digital template system to decrease the amount of people you need templating. However, you will still have installers plus the guys and gals running the machinery.

We prefer to hire inexperienced people for shop help. Our requirements are to care about what you do, present yourself professionally and show up on time. They are less likely to come in with bad habits. If we are looking for a “grunt,” we will put an ad in the paper for an apprentice. Why? Try it, and you will be amazed at the different types of people that answer an apprentice ad in comparison to an ad for a laborer. If you are looking for a sawyer, put an ad for a sheet metal layout person. That is how the sawyer we have got into the business, and he is a perfect fit. Auto body repair guys can be trained quickly for fabrication. Finish carpenters can make great template guys, etc. You really have to think outside the box sometimes. We have “experienced” people come through the shop looking for a job all the time. Mostly we find people with bad habits, and half of them are not qualified to polish a backsplash.

When we get a new employee, we start them polishing backsplashes or running the router. From there, they move at the progression they set for themselves. I have one guy that was cutting perfect sink holes in a couple of months. I have had others that would never make it past router guy or splash boy. In this trade, some people have it and some do not (and never will).

We offer paid holidays, sick days, paid vacation, health insurance, Aflac and decent wages. We are currently trying to figure out a bonus program, but it is in an infancy stage. Our turnover is small. Most of the people have been with our company since the beginning. Loyalty is key; we are fortunate enough to have several very loyal employees.