With the industry picking up throughout most of the country, businesses are facing a problem they didn’t expect until further up the sales curve — a shortage in labor.
“For every pool company I’ve talked to, with the increase in volume, labor is a problem,” said Ken McKenna Jr., president of Tampa Bay Pools in Brandon, Fla.
Between 2007 and 2008, difficulties finding skilled labor was perhaps the No. 1 complaint among professionals in all industry segments. That talk stopped during the recession as local markets contracted by as much as 80- or even 90 percent.
Now that the national economy seems to be on an upswing, companies are looking to grow again. Many figured that there would be plenty of workers available who had left the pool and spa field and were ready to come back.
“It just wasn’t to be,” said Mike Geremia, president of Geremia Pools, a building firm in Sacramento, Calif. “It was a bit of an eye-opener when you couldn’t get anybody to look at your job.”
Reports of labor shortages seem most prevalent in areas such as Phoenix, Sacramento County, and certain parts of Florida, which had experienced the largest construction booms last decade only to be hit hardest in the recession. While the problem doesn’t seem as prevalent in the Northeast and Southeast, those areas haven’t been immune.
The types of workers and subcontractors who are in short supply vary by region. Phoenix is experiencing a shortage of paver installers while some in the Northeast can’t find plasterers or vinyl-liner installers. Professionals in several areas report shortages of plumbers, tilers and service technicians.
In some cases, the response to job advertisements has been even less than it was at the height of the economy. For instance, Geremia recently posted ads for sales and service positions. “It wasn’t just not finding quality people — we weren’t getting any response,” he said.
Even managers who found good hires this season worry what will happen at the next growth phase. “If we needed to pick up the pace to make up for rain or something like that, you can’t just go out there and find somebody,” McKenna said.
Some experts believe that the industry’s severe contraction caused professionals to leave in droves and gain other skills.
“A lot of people had to find other ways to make a living, and they’re sticking with that because at least they can count on it, whether they’re self employed or [in another industry],” said Bruce Bagin, a partner in B&B Pool and Spa Center in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.
In addition, many immigrants couldn’t stay in the country when work ran out, either because employment was a condition for their green cards or because they couldn’t make ends meet.
Yet it seems the staffing problem may have deeper roots than the recession. As many pool and spa professionals move toward retirement, there aren’t enough young people to take their place.
“The skilled laborers are getting older and older, and the youths aren’t there who want to work,” said Art Allen, president of A&G Concrete Pools in Fort Pierce, Fla.
This problem isn’t restricted just to the pool industry. The National Association of Home Builders took a survey of its members, who said they are having the hardest time finding framing crews and carpenters, said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe.
“We don’t know exactly where they went,” Crowe said. “We think fields like the energy field were looking for labor at the same time that housing was throwing it off. It’s a transferrable skill — building oil barracks, mining facilities. It’s obviously a different kind of construction, but it’s still construction.”
To attract more workers, NAHB’s affiliate, the Home Builder Institute, is ramping up efforts to bring back construction training to vocational schools, and to hold job corps training. “The vocational school is a particular focus because it’s gone almost completely away,” Crowe said. “Many school districts have reduced or eliminated that part of their program, so one of our efforts is to try to revitalize that.”
In the pool industry, this problem is leading to an increase in poaching. “If I need to find somebody who can do tile, there’s nobody out there,” McKenna said. “I [hypothetically] would have to find a tile crew working on another company’s pool and try to hire them away. There’s nobody going, ‘Hey, business is back. Let me open up my tile business again and go do pool tile.’ It’s not happening.”
Other professionals report that they’re hiring candidates with solid work ethics, but no pool experience, and training them. “Nobody comes to work with training in plumbing, tile and coping or stone setting,” Bagin said. “So we [have] an in-house training program.”