The state of hiring and retaining employees in the pool industry
Historically, the pool industry has experienced frequent turnover. Add high employment and labor shortages across many industries nationwide, and filling jobs at pool companies is especially difficult right now. Workforce development may well be the biggest challenge facing the pool industry today.
Kyle Chaikin, president of Chaikin Ultimate Group on New York’s Long Island, has done a lot of hiring in his 37 years in business. His companies build, refurbish and service pools, and provide management services to aquatic complexes, which involves staffing lifeguarding crews and other seasonal employees.
He emphatically says it’s always been difficult. “Forever,” he says. “It’s never been easy. It’s just been easier in the past than it is today.”
Hiring has been tougher during COVID, Chaikin says, in part because of the benefits the federal government provided unemployed people during the pandemic. While these benefits helped many, he believes they created a disincentive to work that left many of his positions unfilled.
Chaikin relies mainly on word of mouth to find good employees, though in recent years, he has used Indeed and other online hiring platforms. He found paid ads somewhat helpful for getting leads for some positions, but not for others.
“We might get 20 people that respond to an ad,” he says. “If we interview six or seven, we might offer jobs to two of them, and we’re lucky if one shows up for work.”
Chaikin says hiring difficulties are the result of a larger problem facing many industries. He notes the rise in the number of parents who hope their children will attend college and never consider the trades as a career option.
“I think there’s a big problem in our country now because working in the trades is no longer looked at as good work,” he says. “I’m not sure it’s the pool industry that’s so low on the totem pole, but it is true that we have not done a great job in the industry of building a workforce the way, perhaps, electricians and plumbers and carpenters have. When you go into a trade school or vocational school, all those aforementioned trades have programs — and we in the pool industry are late to the game.”
Chaikin is one of several pool professionals actively seeking to promote the pool industry as an attractive career option. Working through organizations like the Northeast Pool and Spa Association and its Long Island affiliate, Chaikin and others in the area are putting together pool industry-specific programs and classes for high schools and vocational schools.
Alan Smith started his company, Alan Smith Pools, in Orange County, California, in 1981. He, too, has done a lot of hiring during his 41 years in business. He concurs that hiring has always been difficult but increasingly difficult in recent years. Much of the problem, he believes, is cultural.
“Back in the ’70s, when I came into the workforce, a lot of the crews were made up of guys from a rural farming environment, and they were used to hard physical work,” he says. “Those types of guys are hard to find now.”
On top of problems with hiring, Smith also struggles with retaining employees as more and more competitors pay their workers in cash. These companies can pay their workers more because they save money by not complying with any number of federal and state tax laws, insurance requirements, labor regulations and other laws. “I’ve got more than 100 employees, and we’re big into training,” Smith says. “My problem is, once we train them and they get good, non-compliant companies steal them away for cash.”
Though exact figures are impossible to attain, Smith estimates non-compliant pool companies could make up as much as 80% of pool companies in California.
Smith uses various online hiring platforms, depending on the position to be filled. He has used Craigslist to find project managers and salespeople. To attract laborers, he made a hiring video for social media about the benefits of working for the company, to mixed results. It attracts a lot of interest, he says, but doesn’t necessarily result in employees who stick with the job. “If we hire 10 or 20 guys, maybe two will stick,” he says.
With a labor shortage and prospective employees having more job choices than usual, Smith focuses on the benefits of working for his company when conducting interviews.
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“We have a 41-year track record of being in business,” he says. “We have a lot of long-term employees. We’re busy year-round. We offer benefits and a 401(k). If you have no skills, we can train you. This is a good place to work and start a career.”
David Manning found hiring during the pandemic particularly hard and attributes the difficulty to an overall negative image of the pool industry. “People would rather do almost anything else than be a pool guy or a pool girl,” says the co-owner and maintenance manager of Manning Pool Service in Houston. “The reality is that we have to know about chemistry, electricity, plumbing, HVAC, automation and programming and customer service. The pool business is a multifaceted job that takes skill, attention and hard work.”
Manning would like to see the pool industry better promoted as an attractive career choice and more offerings in vocational and trade schools, similar to what exists for other trades. In the meantime, he says his company is working with others to improve the image of the industry. This includes charging more for services and presenting a more professional look to customers.
Manning posts jobs on the company website, ZipRecruiter, Facebook and Craigslist. Like many pool professionals, he says he has gotten his best candidates through word of mouth, especially from friends, family and current employees.
For Chris Curcio, president of Litehouse Pools & Spas in the Cleveland, Ohio, area hiring is also a perpetual challenge.
He says the number of applicants they’re getting for each opening is about half of what it was in 2019, and the quality of the applicants is changing. He says they are less educated but looking for a cushy 9-to-5 job. “Hiring during 2020 was nearly impossible, and until the extra federal money for unemployment was stopped, hiring was very slow and difficult,” he recalls. “We had several ‘applicants’ tell us they could earn enough on unemployment so they really didn’t want the job.”
His company has used online hiring platforms, like Indeed and LinkedIn. “It’s a mixed bag,” Curcio says. “Sometimes we get better results from one and not from the others, and then the next time it changes. Unfortunately, it’s not consistent.”
He says the best way to get good hires is through current employees. “They can tell their friends things about the job that are not understood or potentially believed from just the usual ads we run,” Curcio says. “We have always tried to present our full-time positions as a way to have a career. This isn’t just a job. We want you to stay here, and have room to advance and earn more.”
We have always tried to present our full-time positions as a way to have a career. This isn’t just a job. We want you to stay here, and have room to advance and earn more.
Chris Curcio, Litehouse Pools & Spas
While Caleb Brown, owner of Living Water Pool Service in the Los Angeles area, says his company has had its share of difficulties in hiring over the years, he says that it hasn’t been as much of a problem lately. Part of this, he says, may be due to the company having always paid at the higher end of the industry average.
“The pay is helpful,” he says. “I think some of our success has not been related to a formula or anything special that we have been doing. We’ve been very fortunate to have found good people. It’s just God’s grace on me and our family and this company.”
Like many pool professionals, Brown prefers to hire people from outside the industry who have not developed bad habits or learned procedures incorrectly. He notes that in California, a generation of pool professionals are retiring — but he doesn’t see younger people excited about the industry or ready to take their place.
He shares the view that the industry has an image problem. In television, movies and popular culture, the “pool boy” is often portrayed as a slacker, and the job as not much more than skimming leaves off the water surface. Brown’s company emphasizes professionalism by having its employees wear uniforms, drive nicer trucks and use up-to-date equipment. “Since I started in the business, my whole thing has been to really push against the negative image of the pool industry,” he says, “and rebrand, so to speak, the expectation of what a pool guy or pool girl should look like.”
Brown does not use online platforms for hiring, having not found any that really work for him. Instead, he relies on word of mouth, then presents the job in as appealing a way as possible: good pay and benefits, getting to work outside, not having a boss looking over your shoulder and opportunities for advancement. While acknowledging that other factors are involved, including a certain amount of luck, this approach has worked for Brown and his company.
“If you pay people well and you create a good environment,” he says, “most of the time they’ll want to stay.”