Hero image of ProSales Editor-in-Chief Craig Webb

Winter Storm Wesley, which recently walloped the Plains and the Upper Midwest, reminded me of a 2008 ProSales story in which Harold Baalman recalled needing to buy thermal underwear to work at 84 Lumber yards. While working, the only relief he and his coworkers got came from heat lamps above the sales counter and a small heater in the bathroom. Memories of being miserably cold are one way 84 alumni bond when they meet.

Just about all lumberyards have evolved to where dealers no longer need to stack drywall mud in the bathroom because it’s the only place the product won’t freeze. But even with relatively more heat available, you still can find a tough-guy attitude regarding the cold among people in construction and construction supply. A couple of siding installers told me recently they expect their crews to operate in conditions as cold as 5 degrees below zero, and if they don’t dress warmly and bring two pairs of gloves, that’s their problem. Builders have been known to douse a plot with fuel and set the ground on fire so they can soften the dirt enough to dig a foundation. With customers like those, dealers have no choice but to work in such conditions, too.

It’s great when we can find people who prefer being outdoors rather than stuck in an office. But there’s a limit as to how many of those kinds of folks are looking for work outside—especially when heavy lifting is involved. As a result, dealers either have to do without such workers or find themselves forced to hire from less than desirable candidates.

Given how the labor shortage is likely to continue, something’s got to give. Putting it bluntly, if dealers want more and better workers, they need to make their workplaces more attractive to weather wimps.

In the North, this means more covered and climate-controlled storage facilities, such as a drive-thru loading area is a plus. Further south, it means installing fans or even conditioning the air in warehouses.

It also means providing more ways to do the work with less muscle power. Google “exoskeleton” and you will see a slew of devices being developed that will help workers lift and hold heavy objects. Some are military projects, some are being used by big companies, and a Lowe’s store has tested a device developed at Virginia Tech.

Making these changes will help expand your potential labor force by making it easier to recruit females. Proponents of off-site components manufacturing facilities say one reason why they think their operations have a bright future in construction is because they believe women regard working indoors as being more attractive than laboring outside.

Your investments also can earn you what veteran LBM recruiter Tony Misura has dubbed “compensation currency.” Suppose you and a rival lumberyard in the Snow Belt had offered a job to the same person. Your companies generally are alike, except you have an indoor storage area while the other yard’s racks are out in the cold. A potential employee may find the indoor option so attractive that he’ll work for you even if the other yard offers more pay. You made up the difference in compensation currency.

A study published last fall by the National Bureau of Economic Research reached a similar conclusion, only with age. Its survey of 18,150 workers nationwide in all types of jobs found that workers aged 62 and over were 2.5 to 3 times more likely to accept a job with less pay if that position involved no more than moderate physical activity or primarily involved being seated. Moving from a job requiring heavy physical activity to one in which the person is mostly sitting “is equivalent to a 12.0% wage increase while ‘moderate physical activity’ is valued at 14.9% of the wage,” the authors said.

The 62-and-over cohort placed far higher compensation currency on this benefit than on such other perks as being able to set one’s schedule or getting 20 days’ worth of personal time off.

For the rest of this year, we probably won’t get another massive snowstorm like Wesley, but that doesn’t mean conditions won’t be miserable. Some of your workers will revel in these conditions. Far more of your prospective workers will regard it as a reason to avoid applying at your facility…until, perhaps, you make it more comfortable.