Help wanted; will train |

Help wanted; will train

Pat Patera

Three quarters of the companies recently surveyed by the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada say finding skilled help is a problem.

The challenges are well-documented: Washoe County employers plan to add thousands of workers. The pool of available workers is small as the area’s unemployment rate runs at 4 percent or below month after month. And recruiting from outside the state is difficult due to pay differentials between Reno and other areas.

The answer: Grow your own skilled workforce. Hire green recruits and conduct expensive in-house training programs.

“We’ve always had training programs, but 18 months back, we started paying people to train,” says Doug Coffman, safety director and human resources at American Redi Mix Concrete Co. The Reno operation employs 150, of which 80 are drivers.

Trainees are now paid for two to three weeks training time, minimum. While in training, they ride with an experienced driver who also handles the pour. A driver is responsible for the cement truck from the time it gets loaded until after the pour, says Coffman.

These days, jobs that look like basic blue-collar work aren’t so simple.

“The problem with concrete is the product you’re delivering,” says Coffman. “Drivers know how to differentiate between how wet or fluid the concrete is.” That means an ability to “read the slump” which comes from experience. Different slumps have different sounds.

A further challenge driving the truck is only one-quarter of the job. Concrete workers wear three hats: driving the truck, mixing the additives, and being Mr. Personality to deliver good customer service.

“Customer service is the most important part,” says Coffman. “We look for people who are friendly and who other people want to be around.” How can friendly service be taught?

“That comes from the top down,” says Coffman. Top managers demonstrate the ethic, and the company holds monthly meetings to talk about customer service.

At D&D Roofing and Sheet Metal Inc. in Sparks, President Ken Dillon says, “We’re definitely doing 25 to 30 percent more training. We just can’t find qualified people.”

While he says the company is continually training its 250- person work force, it’s the new hires that rack up training costs of $15,000 to $20,000 a head.

The 75 warm bodies hired off the street this year will train two to three hours a day for six months. And that takes time away from the foremen and supervisors who train them.

Again, the blue-collar work isn’t so simple. Roofers learn to work hoists and cranes, load materials onto vehicles, load materials onto roofs and learn proper placement on roofs so that they don’t collapse.

“We do 50 or 60 different types of roofing systems, from sloped residential to flat commercial,” says Dillon.

Rural employers, too, are ramping up their training efforts.

“Fernley is a pretty tight labor market,” says Patrick Keene, manager of human resources at the new Sherwin- Williams paint manufacturing and distribution plant.

The company wants only an A-plus player, says Keene. That means intelligent, driven, and able work in teams.

The cost to train that caliber of employee runs $8,000 to $10,000 and covers a long hiring and training process, from pre-screening to on-floor skills.

“We have developed a fairly tough screening process,” Keene says.

And again, blue-collar jobs have gone high tech. The paint making process is highly automated. Workers use touch-screen computers to make and move product. “Our people have to be fairly computer literate,” says Keene.

So the training process starts on the computer, where potential hires go online to view a virtual rendition of the actual work. Those who are still interested then screen themselves via an online test. Those who pass are invited on site to take a 90-minute computerized test to measure reading and math skills. And those who pass that hurdle interview live with the management team.

“We’ve had about 1,100 people take the first-tier online look,” says Keene. “Maybe 400 came on site to take tier two.” Sherwin-Williams ultimately hired 40.

“We’ve been very selective because there are no first level managers,” he says. “People work in teams. People have to be thinkers.”

Once hired, employees start with a three-week orientation process. All training is done in house. All the managers finance, safety, training, and site teach classes. It takes a town to make a team player, says Keene. The ultimate goal: after five years on the job, an employee should be able to work all non-management positions.

In Hawthorne, meanwhile, Peninsula Floors plans a manufacturing plant. Although it won’t be staffing until 2008, the company already knows it will need to train 25 to 35 local residents, says Steve Luther, vice president of operations.

“Our No. 1 goal is to hire in that area,” he says. As few as 10 percent of employees will transfer in. “It’s essential for companies our size to have training programs to keep pace with the growth.”

The worst-case scenario is a lack of employees, period.

In Fallon, employers asked Western Nevada Community College for help. Bus Scharmann, dean of the Fallon campus and rural development says 12 companies in Fallon asked the college to develop a workforce academy.

Their concerns? “People don’t know how to fill out an application,” Scharmann was told. “Not only do they lack reading and math skills, they don’t even know what a work ethic is. People don’t know how to be a team member; how to put in a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. They haven’t got any idea how to work.”

“And that’s extremely hard to teach,” says Scharmann. “That’s what we’re struggling with now.”