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Despite high unemployment, pool businesses struggle to hire

For pool pros, the pandemic has had a surprising twist: A major uptick in business.

“This has been one of the best years we’ve ever had. It’s been pretty crazy,” says Justin Lex, operations manager at Swimming Pool Services, Inc., a Wisconsin-based company. “Everyone is stuck at home and trying to build a pool or fix up their own pools.”

For pool pros, the increased demand means needing a proper supply of competent workers. Since pools don’t clean, maintain or build themselves, industry professionals are scrambling to find reliable help to manage day-to-day operations.

Hiring Challenges are Impacting the Industry

As of press time, the U.S. unemployment rate was 6.7%, but hiring hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk for the pool industry.

“You think a lot of people lose their jobs and it would create a great pool of talent,” says Michael Wagner, president of Pool Scouts, a Virginia-based franchise that offers pool services across the United States. “Overall, we have a different demand based on where the franchise is located. Despite the unemployment situation, it’s been difficult to hire techs.”

A Pool Scouts Facebook page shows a posting for part- and full-time positions at its Raleigh, North Carolina, location. Pool Scouts shares job description copy with all of its franchisees to make it simple to post jobs. The same could be done for pool companies with multiple locations to ensure a cohesive job recruiting strategy. Photo: Pool Scouts

Service staff and subcontractors have likewise been tough to hire. Pool experts say the virus may be keeping people fearful of seeking work; others believe it’s the inability to snag quality subcontractors.

“Like most pool builders around the country, our offices have had to compete for scheduling slots for quality subcontractors for certain trades like gunite,” says R’nelle Lazlo, vice president of national marketing and business development at Blue Haven Pools & Spas. “To keep good subs working for us, we emphasize the importance of treating them fairly and paying them on time.”

 Lex says the stimulus package may have impacted the ability to hire and may continue to be an issue as additional relief bills are debated in Congress: He figures people may be waiting to see if more benefits will become available before they start applying for work.

“I thought there would be more people looking for work,” says Lex, who is looking for construction, landscape and service tech employees. “I think that [stimulus package] posed a few challenges. It posed a few internal struggles as well. Employees started seeing, ‘Wow, I can just make that much sitting.’ ”

To prevent current hires from jumping ship, Lex says they doubled-down on their team.

“We invested more. We did a little bonus for them. We did some gas cards,” he says.

To add to other hiring woes, picky applicants don’t make it easy to hire, either. Lex has had some individuals tell him during the interview process what they would and wouldn’t do in a role. Naturally, those applicants don’t make the cut, he says.

“It’s harder to find people who want to work outside,” he says. “It’s physical labor. You find out quickly if someone is able to be physical.”

He also acknowledges the hiring process may be more difficult because of high standards for hiring at Swimming Pool Services, Inc. Despite the need for help, he encourages other companies to stand firm and make it just as much a personality fit as a skill fit.

“We hire by culture,” Lex says. “It’s the most important thing on my team. We have seven points of culture. If we don’t use those, we hire for the wrong reasons. When we look at the people who didn’t work out, we can see why.”  

Lex is creating a new onboarding process and plans to have a system in place for each position. Aside from the basics, he’ll also include reading material like the top 10 things a new hire should know in his or her new position and the top 10 things to do “if there’s nothing going on.”

A screenshot of the Swimming Pool Services, Inc., career page lays out details of joining the company for new hires. Justin Lex, operations manager at the Wisconsin-based company, advises to hire for culture as much as skills. Photo: Swimming Pool Services, Inc.

Where to Find Good Help

Despite a grim outlook for snagging new hires, pool pros can expand their reach to find the best and most hardworking talent. Eric Honeyman, owner of Honeyman Pool & Spa in Wichita, Kansas, is looking ahead to summer and he plans to stay local for his talent.

“I’m looking to lifeguards, high school swimmers and an HVAC tech school as my main source of a talent pool,” Honeyman says. “Lifeguards and high school swimmers make great cleaners as they may only want summer jobs and already know how to test the pool in many cases.”

For pool servicers, tech schools are a great way to source talent, too. Honeyman figures it’s also not a bad gig for HVAC-oriented individuals who are used to crawling around dirty spaces.

“They have a technical mind, know how to use a voltmeter and should already have knowledge of most tools we use,” Honeyman says. “When told they can give up attics and crawl space for backyard resorts, it tends to gain attention. These avenues are also great for entry-level pay and give the opportunity to grow with the company.”

When it comes to expanding a team, there’s still no better method than a referral from a trusted team member. Swimming Pool Services, Inc., offers sign-on bonuses to incentivize the process: $250 after 90 days for both the new hire and the referrer, plus another $250 six months post-hire. For Pool Scouts, referrals have also been useful in securing trustworthy candidates.

Popular job boards like Indeed.com are also helpful in catching the eye of new talent. Other recruiting tools include Craigslist, flyers and the careers section of a company’s website.

“While some of our offices use online listings on popular sites like Indeed or Facebook, we continue to receive applicants from around the country who apply on our heavily-trafficked national website,” Lazlo says. “With offices across the country, we are also fortunate to have greater networking opportunities for finding experienced professionals.”

A Raleigh, North Carolina Pool Scouts franchisee owner used this graphic on yard signs to attract local talent. Yard signs around the business are one way to entice locals to apply for jobs like pool technician work. Photo: Pool Scouts

Being open to far-away talent can also broaden the pool, Lex says. “I’m very open to someone looking at a career change and moving across the country if it made sense for both parties,” he says.

As for hiring people who don’t have a pool background, Lex — whose own background is in the restaurant industry — knows service industry staff can be great hires. He says being upfront about what the work entails, including start times, weather and others expectations, is essential to hiring the right pick. 

 To make it simple to post job openings quickly, the Pool Scouts corporate office shares job descriptions with all of its franchisees. This makes it easier to get a job up ASAP and also creates a cohesive job description appearance for Pool Scouts. The strategy would work well for companies with several locations, too.

On the digital front, Wagner also recommends showcasing how pool companies are protecting customers and their employees. Pool Scouts created a YouTube video and distributed it to all franchisee owners with details on how to properly sanitize when servicing a customer’s home.

It helps employees feel comfortable knowing their company cares about their safety and is providing the proper equipment to do their job safely, Wagner says. It’s also a good selling point for applicants who might be nervous about contracting COVID-19 as a pool servicer.

“That was key in making our customers comfortable and, in turn, keeping our technicians comfortable,” he says. “It shows we protect our technicians and protect the customer.”

While seasonal hiring is the right answer for some businesses, hiring for longevity is best. Even before adding in job board fees and training hours, position vacancies can be costly. To avoid that, a focus on hiring for growth and culture can help. Experts advise helping the new hire envision a long-term opportunity.

Wagner says pool companies must showcase to prospective new hires that the pool business is worth it. When people see opportunities for growth, he says, they’re more willing to give it a shot. Even in a pandemic.

“Share the story of the pool business being a great place to be,” Wagner says. “Illustrate there is a career path and growth opportunities.”

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