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Cesar Cortes, co-founder of Custom Pool Systems; Carolina Barberi, associate at Smart Aquatics; Jonny Nalepa, Smart Aquatics president; and Jeremy Guillen, co-founder of Custom Pool Systems pose for a photo at a Miami job site they’re collaborating on. Photo: Smart Aquatics

Pump Up the Perks

To attract talent for labor-intense pool work, industry must pay well, demonstrate potential

The signs are everywhere: Now hiring. Help wanted. Bonuses for new employees.

But good help still is hard to find. Frank Disher, a Poolwerx franchise partner in Texas, says COVID has had a huge impact on the employment status of local pool pros in his area. He receives a ton of applications but can’t seem to fill the positions the way he would like.

He crosses his fingers and hopes the ones who show up will do a good job. But what he’s experienced has been disastrous for him and others in the industry.

“We have been responding to three to four times as many applicants than ever, but 75% don’t even show up for an interview,” Disher says. “We basically hire any and all who show up hoping they will work out. Fifty to 75% of those don’t show up for their first day; 50% of those remaining don’t make it the entire week.”

Beyond that, he says by the time the new hires get their own pool route, they’ve all quit and he’s back at square one. Those who quit tell him the manual labor is too stressful and the working conditions are less than optimal in the extreme heat.

And that’s even with him raising wages, and adding annual bonuses and healthcare options.

“Wage increases and health options have been something we always wanted to do,” he says of making the recent benefits changes. “I believe our industry deserves to be paid very well and have benefits just like any other industry. If we are going to draw in better talent for these hard jobs, we need to be compensating better. Our industry is finally taking steps to gain respect as a trade. Good compensation must be part of that.”

Despite CARES Act unemployment benefits ending in September, the jobless aren’t exactly job hunting. In fact, at press time, the national unemployment rate hovered around 5.2%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jonny Nalepa, Smart Aquatics president, inspects equipment during a client site visit in Miami, Florida. Photo: Smart Aquatics

But settling for low-wage jobs isn’t an option anymore, especially for working parents who can’t afford increasingly expensive childcare: Rates have gone up by an average of 41% per year for center-based childcare across the nation, according to research from Lending Tree. It means recruiters and pool pros have to work harder to find anybody willing to step into pool roles.

“It’s definitely a different world,” says Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder and chief innovation officer at Workology, a consulting firm for human resources and recruiting professionals. “So many formerly available hourly candidates have moved on to other industries, and many are looking for remote work and finding it. This means we have to work harder to recruit candidates for hourly positions.”

Manual labor and blue-collar jobs are having a particularly hard time, according to a recent research report published by The Conference Board. Another survey by the The National Federation of Independent Businesses in May 2021 is still true through the end of 2021: Small business owners aren’t able to fill the jobs they have. Even more shocking is that 92% of contractors reported moderate to high levels of difficulty finding skilled laborers, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index for Q3.

Jonny Nalepa, president of Smart Aquatics, a design and consulting firm based in Miami, isn’t surprised applicants are harder to come by, given the industry often overloads service techs. As someone who has worked in service and repair — for both residential and commercial clients — he understands how intense the physical work can be. He says the balance between workload and payoff doesn’t quite align anymore since other job opportunities are available.

“The harsh reality of servicing pools is that it can be extremely labor intensive, especially in the dog days of summer,” Nalepa says. “You have to really understand water chemistry to be successful long term, which means it requires some smarts as well. And usually, companies overload employees with too many pools to do a proper job.”

Those who are smart enough to understand pool chemistry are intelligent enough to realize labor-intensive jobs typically constitute higher wages, he says.

But how do you attract talent that’s more fickle than the pH level of a pool?

Miller-Merrell says showcasing company culture is one of the most sure-fire ways to entice top talent. Putting the company’s best foot forward online and in interviews will snag the interest of qualified individuals, she adds.

“Highlight all the positive things your company is doing for its employees — from perks to benefits to flexible scheduling — and make those the focus of your employer brand,” she explains. “Work with your current happy employees to make them brand ambassadors. Referral programs tend to bring in the most loyal employees, so paying a referral bonus to an employee, along with a bonus to the referred employee after a period of time (three months, six months, etc.) can go a long way toward bringing in new candidates and retaining them.”

Nalepa says it wouldn’t be hard to believe someone working for Uber or Lyft (dependent on one’s location) brings in around the same weekly wage as a pool service tech. Add in the benefits of flexible scheduling and nearly unlimited earning potential working for those companies, and it’s easy to see why skipping labor-intensive jobs makes sense.

“It’s an interesting conundrum,” he says. “As the workforce becomes less willing to work labor-intensive jobs without what they feel is adequate compensation, we will continue to struggle with maintaining quality workers. And in order to properly compensate these workers, we can’t afford to look at pool service the same way we once did.”

Jonny Nalepa, Smart Aquatics president and Carolina Barberi, associate at Smart Aquatics, sit together to work on a project in a co-working space called Büro’s Coconut Grove. Photo: Smart Aquatics

His solution? Pool companies need to either increase pay, decrease workload or change the dynamic of the work to attract more desirable candidates. He believes the industry needs to start overhauling the approach to pool service — or continue to risk attracting people “looking for a quick buck who will either quit when it becomes too hard or begin to do half-ass work.”

To bring in the talent, showcasing the industry as a great place to craft a career is a must. That starts with the job ad, Disher says. Applicants want to know they’ll be compensated well and respected throughout every stage of a pool industry career.

“We need to communicate to the public and candidates that this is a well-paying and secure career,” he says. “We need to show the career progression and options of maintenance, repair, sales and management. We need to legitimize these positions with certifications and licenses. We have to bury the image that a job as a pool guy is just something you do until you decide what career you want to pursue.”

As someone who recently started his own company on his own terms, Nalepa says a respectful culture, environment and working relationship with employees is what will also produce loyalty. Ultimately, he says, it’s about how the boss treats workers and the inclusive work culture created by leadership.

“We as employers have to reconsider the type of environment we are creating for employees. Why should these people want to come to work every day for you?” he says. “If you can’t answer that question for yourself, outside of offering money, then how can you expect someone else to be excited about coming to work?”

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