One of the biggest complaints I hear from executives in all sectors of the construction industry is that they cannot find and keep good qualified employees. If they find someone who can pass a drug test, he or she is either not qualified or has a background that would make Al Capone blush. Good, qualified employees, not just bodies collecting a paycheck, are harder to find than Bears fans in Green Bay.  

First and foremost, I believe that the main problem is that most businesses are unknowingly competing with the United States government. Over the last six years, the evisceration of government standards for social security disability, welfare, food stamps, and many other benefits meant for the truly poor, has created a new segment of the population who have figured out they can do much better by not working. The government, other organizations, and various blogs give step-by-step instructions on how to get on the dole of the United States government. It is a widespread problem that can only be corrected when the country gets so broke and so in debt that the government will be forced to cut back and only assist the truly indigent.

The second big reason why this industry is struggling to find good qualified employees is that it does not pay enough and does not provide competitive benefits. Yes, you heard an executive say out loud, "We don’t pay enough." Here is the big but; we can’t pay enough because the builders and consumers who buy our products and services don't want to pay a fair price. In the construction industry, builders and homeowners alike will quote, bid, and cherry-pick every price. Because the industry is so fractured, there is always someone who, through ignorance or desperation, is willing to underbid projects and products with no regard to the real value of the work being done.

This continuous devaluation of the work equation in the construction industry has created a labor trap for the supply industry. Companies will hire under-skilled workers and spend time and money for training only to have those workers quit to go to other industries where margins and labor are more appreciated. I am confident there is not an executive reading this column that has not seen a great employee leave under this type of scenario.

So, how does this industry or your company get off this employee cycle of doom? First, stop letting the fear of new government regulations dictate your employee benefits program. Many businesses have allowed fear and propaganda from political viewpoints to gut their programs. You should develop and maintain a benefits program that can do its job for you. Don’t forget the reason you have benefits is to attract, hire, and retain great employees.

Next, stop playing the low margin game. Understand that you have to pay good people well and you can’t do that by giving away the farm. If great companies and subcontractors will make a commitment to their employees and start saying “no” to the low ballers and cherry-pickers of the world, then this industry will start building a good talent pool. 

There is one thing that I know for sure: There are millions of potentially great employees looking for a wonderful place to work and the building supply industry is one of the best in America. It is time this industry stops being the training grounds for other industries who are able to say “no” to stupid pricing.