One of the bright sides of the recent national time-out was having a little more time than usual to be in touch with colleagues. Those who know me know that I don’t spend any more time than necessary on the phone.
I hadn’t spoken with Scott Lollar in a few years other than on social media. But when you think of directors of operations in the paint industry, Scott’s name is right up there. Anyways, we caught up and had a nice chat about what we’ve both been up to, the state of the world, and of our industry.
We discussed the resilience of paint contractors, and how businesses that enter a crisis healthy often emerge from it in a good position as well. Some of us remember Y2K, 9/11 and the recession of ’07 when the bubble burst. We have to be strategic and take care of business so that when the world stops turning, we can maintain and improve upon what we’ve created.
Scott noted that for companies that were planning to hire this season, it may be an even better time to do so than they thought, because of the sheer number of people looking for employment. My own state of Vermont is a great example of that. We had boasted historically low unemployment rates for the past several years, and then BOOM…unprecedented highs.
An analogy that Scott used was that if you think of your business year as a four quarter game, it just became a three quarter game, which captures the sense of urgency for paint companies that have been impacted by this virus. You may notice that you have a good pipeline of work and a shorter time to complete it.
So it may be a great time to hire. If you were planning to hire one or two people before all this happened, maybe now you are more confidently looking for two or three. From an operational standpoint, that raises your training stakes a bit. With a busy spring hitting, it is more important than ever to efficiently integrate new staff and get them productively on the tools so that your business can be hitting its profit goals on all jobs.
Something in Between?
Historically, I think paint companies with actual training programs integrate new painters pretty cautiously – and that is a good thing in typical times. At the other extreme, I have talked with way too many owners/painters who have hired people and just plugged them in with little direction, training or feedback. That is usually an exercise in disappointment for both parties.
A nice balance to shoot for during this shortened year is to establish the basics with new people, but challenge them to learn a wider variety of skills with less repetition. In other words, maybe new hires learning our trade don’t need to spend a month scraping siding before you put a brush in their hand.
The Essential Non-Paint Applicators
Sometimes, we use the term “Triple Threat” when assessing the skill sets of our painters. A skilled and valuable painter should be highly capable in the disciplines of brushing, rolling and spraying. That model probably needs to shift a bit these days.
As we expedite the training process to help our painters become impact players more quickly, I think we should continue to make sure they learn the basics of surface prep first. Scraping and sanding will always be necessary, and those skills can be developed efficiently when we focus on the sensory experience. Helping less experienced painters develop a critical eye for how surfaces look prior to paint application is huge. To that, add the tactile aspect – how surfaces feel to the touch.
The abrasives that we use – whether on power sanders, pole sanders or even sponges – are applicators of friction to surfaces. Sanding is a basic skill but has to be done just right. Too much sanding, or sanding at the wrong grit at the wrong time creates backward motion right out of the gate. Not sanding enough creates rework after paint has been applied, which is also bad for forward motion. Anytime a new painter thinks they are doing menial or unimportant tasks, reassure them that it is all part of a process wherein each step is best done correctly the first time. It takes some patience on their part and yours.
Don’t underestimate the value of teaching the skills of applying non-paint materials early in the training. The putty knife is our best friend here. Teaching how to skim imperfections that our eyes and hands detect is a great first step. Next is sanding them smooth using the same eye and feel, and after that, cleaning up the dust as you proceed from one step to the next.
The caulking gun is also sometimes overlooked as an applicator. Applying caulking in a clean and efficient manner is an important skill that is pretty easy to teach and can help newbies contribute more immediately to the process of breaking out the paint.
Paint Spreading Time
Of course, you will be teaching even more basic habits – load-in/load-out organization, drop cloth setup, cleanliness, respect toward customers and their property. As a new painter gains experience and confidence in sanding, skimming and caulking, where do you start them on paint application?
On interiors, I teach 9-inch rolling on walls first. Physically it is not that difficult, and it is easy to see the results on the wall. It is especially helpful if they are painting over wall surfaces they prepped themselves. Let them cut in the corners; give them a shot at cutting baseboard lines. If your company uses tape for lines, you will also need to teach tape application. I happen to be from the older school that believes a painter needs to have freehand cutting skills, so tape is mostly for spatter protection on baseboard while rolling.
For exterior work, brushing paint or stain on siding or decks is a great way to get a painter lots of miles on the brush application odometer. Break this right down to what size brush you want them to use for which tasks. Teach them how to hold the brush, how to load it with product and how it releases product. Cutting siding into corner boards is a great way to learn cutting skills. Exterior lines are generally a bit more forgiving than interior ones. Newcomers to painting usually discover pretty quickly that there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
When a painter starts to put together this package –prep, caulk, cut and roll – let them know that there are numerous degrees of difficulty that they will encounter on jobs, and that spraying is yet another discipline with its own set of critical skills and habits. The higher the risk, the more you tiptoe them into it.
It is a good time to remember to set people up for success, and make that success readily attainable. After all, the more a new and inexperienced employee can contribute, the more their value goes up. People just entering the paint trade want to know that there is ample opportunity for advancement in both daily responsibilities and pay. Make it a win-win situation where painters can see their contribution to the operation and profit potential of the company. If you are doing this right, painters feel empowered and understand the incentive to contribute. As the company does better, they will too. And vice versa.
Scott Burt is senior editor of APC and owner of Topcoat Finishes in Vermont.
He enjoys communicating with paint contractors at www.topcoatreview.com