What is Labor's Perception of You?

Are You Ready to Find the Answer?





A year ago, I wrote an article on employee recruitment and retention titled "How to Become an Employer of Choice." That article generated a surprising response that continues to this day. It is obvious that this issue is still tops in the minds of those in the woodworking industry.

One of the points I made last April is worth repeating: "How your business is perceived in the community at large, especially in a smaller town, is the most powerful force in steering people toward or away from your door. Unfortunately, it really doesn't matter if the perception is correct or not." This not only applies to your own company, but to our industry as a whole.

Are the perceptions of you and our industry good ones -- or are they such that those searching for work will look elsewhere? With the available labor pool the smallest in decades, it is imperative to consider this question, both individually and as an industry.


How Do We Measure Up?

To see how you measure up, take a few minutes to look closely at the flow chart. If you are having trouble getting new employees to join your company and stay, you need to give serious thought to the questions posed.

First, ask yourself: Does the labor pool in general consider me as a viable possibility for employment? This is a big question and calls for an honest answer. If the answer is "yes," you are over the first hurdle and need to ask the next question: Will they join me if I offer them a job? If you get a large number of applicants and a large percentage of them want to join your company, you can answer this with "yes."

The next question to ponder is: Will they stay with me? If the answer to that is also "yes," then congratulations are in order, you are a member of the elite few who don't have a problem.

However, you most likely answered at least one of those questions with "no" or "I don't know." If you answered "no," you need to find out why and, if you don't know why, you need to search for the reasons. If you believe you cannot find what the reasons are, you are doomed to a fate of continually struggling in the area of employee recruitment and retention. On the other hand, if you find the reasons why the labor pool will not consider you, will not join you after the interview, or why they will not stay with you very long, you are halfway to solving your problems.

The next step is to analyze the reasons. This exercise is going to test your resolve because it is going to take time and effort to dig deep enough into the reasons so that you know the root causes. Then you should move to the next obvious step, that of removing the problems or the perceptions. There are some who will give up during this process and say, "I can't resolve these problems, they're too huge. I can't pay enough, I'm just a little guy," or a hundred other excuses. Don't accept "I can't fix it" as an answer. If you can't fix it, find a way around the problem. There is always more than one-way to solve a problem, even though some ways aren't as good as others.

After this exercise there is one more step: You should now go back to the original question and see if you can now answer "yes." Then, follow the chart again to make sure you can answer the next two questions positively as well. Don't try to do this alone. Share a copy of the chart with colleagues and get them involved; make it a corporate effort.

Industry Wake-up Call

Every sector in the woodworking industry and its associations should look at the flow chart and ask if there are any broad perception problems that go beyond the individual company. To suggest (as some have) that the only problem is that the labor pool has dried up -- because unemployment is at an all-time low in many areas of the country -- is just plain naive. There are people looking for jobs. Why are they not looking at our industry? The reason is that they have a negative perception to such a degree that it results in the following scenarios:


  • High school seniors look elsewhere for their first job.
  • The displaced don't bother to look at us.
  • "Shoppers" -- looking for something better -- pass us by.
  • Senior citizens prefer McDonalds or Home Depot.
  • College graduates aren't interested.
  • Those leaving the military do not consider woodworking.
  • Immigrants always seem to go elsewhere.

The perceptions that cause these reactions must be changed throughout the industry and this change will not happen easily. Someone has to take the lead and the rest of us have to join in.

Changing the Industry Perception

One of the most serious efforts toward changing our industry image today is being conducted by the organization WoodLinks. Basically, this is a non-profit organization made up of volunteers from diverse companies in the woodworking industry in Canada and the U.S. WoodLinks is targeting high school juniors and seniors with promotional materials and have developed programs for high schools that show our industry is no longer one of dusty, noisy and dangerous low-tech jobs. To the contrary, we are now a high-tech industry, manufacturing products using computerized equipment and robots.

We all need to consider supporting this program as individual companies and as trade organizations in this industry. I urge you to visit www.woodlinks.com and learn more about what its programs can mean to your local schools.

In addition, there are some great community college programs throughout the country that specialize in woodworking or furniture manufacturing. When there is a concentration of the industry in an area, pressure can successfully be brought to bear on the community college system to put in place a program to help local students prepare for jobs in the woodworking industry. Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, NC, is a good example. Catawba has programs in Furniture Production Technology, Woodworking and Upholstering. Visit www.cvcc.edu to learn more.

North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, has a Bachelor's degree program in Furniture Manufacturing in the School of Industrial Engineering. The program has graduated over 700 students since 1952. The school's alumni are senior managers for many of the largest home furnishing and woodworking firms in the world. There is a tremendous demand for these graduates, who are a great source of future management talent -- many are currently presidents and vice-presidents. The question is, why are many of the graduates going into other manufacturing sectors and not accepting positions in woodworking? You can view the details of this program at www.fmmcenter.ncsu.edu.

These are only three organizations that are trying to do something about changing the perception of this industry -- but they can't do it alone. We need unprecedented coordination and cooperation between organizations and associations to make the needed impact -- and we need it now!

A Call for Help

How about letting me know what you are doing to improve your employee recruitment and retention efforts and to change the perception of your company in your community. I would like to share some of your successes in a seminar on this subject at IWF 2000 in August.


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.