Can’t Find Painters? Who’s To Blame?

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One of the things I enjoy the most about being a paint contractor is my clients. I didn’t always feel this way in the early years of my business. They drove me nuts at times, but for better or worse, I learned a lot from them. These days, as I have learned (or perhaps earned the opportunity) to be more selective about projects and clients, I am gathering more insight than ever from those with whom we work.

Collectively, there are so many issues on our minds these days. Health and lifestyle are more prominently in focus than ever before. Many people who have
worked from home for the past year will likely not return to a conventional workplace setting. The way businesses are doing business has changed, perhaps forever.

At the same time, interest rates are friendly and people are investing in their homes on a pretty impressive scale. This makes for favorable market conditions
for us in the home services industry.

Where are the goods?

What started out as a mass lumber shortage and spiking prices seems to be crawling its way into other arenas. I was talking with a customer recently who is in the automotive supply business, with a pretty robust shipping and receiving department. They are paying $54 per sheet for oriented strand board, one of the lowest forms of sheet goods used in building shipping crates. That is considered a good deal right now, but you have to buy hundreds of sheets to get that deal. As recently as two years ago, you could buy cabinet-grade plywood at that price.

I was talking with the longtime manager at one of my paint suppliers the other day. For several awkward moments, I think we both tried to avoid pointing out the remarkably empty shelves in the room — shelves that should be full of dozens upon dozens of gallons of paint, racks that should be overflowing with roller covers of all sizes and colors, and bins that should have numerous choices of caulking tubes.

She told me that, in some cases, there are issues with raw material shortages but that the ability to move product is also now a huge challenge … literally, as in getting trucks from point A to point B. It’s not because of traffic or fuel prices but because of a sudden lack of people interested in driving the trucks that deliver the products to the paint stores. As in our industry and many others, the truck-driving population is starting to age out, and there are fewer people entering that field. As I got in my truck to go about my day, I heard on the radio an ad for truck drivers. They were offering six-figure salaries with impressive benefits packages. Go figure.

Where are the people?

That same day, I found myself chatting with a current client as I loaded my truck for the weekend. This guy is very much in demand as a sales consultant — very well-regarded and skilled in that field. He works with top companies locally, regionally and nationally. We were talking about market conditions, and he asked if my business has enough work. Most good clients want to refer you if you are good. I told him that we have more work than we can handle, and that in good conscience I really can’t take on any more until we solve staffing issues.

It is a frustrating position to be in when you can sell at a high rate but doubt your company’s ability to deliver the services. You become your own supply chain problem. I asked him what he is hearing from the companies he consults with. He said that while millennials (current 25-40-year-olds) have always gotten a bad rap for not being as interested in work as their predecessors, it is an actual fact of life now and not a trend.

The reality, according to this consultant, is that people have cracked the code on how to make money without the constraints or physical exertion of traditional occupations. He took his cell phone out of his pocket, held it up and said, “This, right here.” Research points to the reality that there is a whole economy of people making money by just flipping items all day long right from their phones. They’re buying and selling without touching any of it. Load up your phone with apps for venues like Facebook Marketplace, eBay, PayPal and Venmo, and you can do business from anywhere. Moving items and moving money … it’s amazing to think that major corporations are suddenly crippled in their ability to do that, but individuals are doing it in large numbers. And here I thought these kids tied to their phones were just watching videos and playing games. What to make of it? It’s kind of inspiring, really.


I had to ask my client, the consultant, how people “cracked the code” to decline traditional roles and forge a new lifestyle. He said that throughout history, when the game changes and the status quo becomes outdated, a common denominator is that people look around and see clearly what their options are. In the past decade or two, there have been exponentially more options than ever, brought about by technology and the convenience that accompanies it.

That is an empowering concept, that a person can look at their situation and say, “No, I am not going to do that.” 

Now our reality in the paint industry is that people are looking at our businesses and the employment opportunities we offer, and they are on a pretty
large scale declining to do this type of work. Certainly, this raises the question of how we adapt and evolve so that we can capitalize on the new market.

I think an obvious answer is to rebrand how we are perceived — right down to the language we use when we talk about what we do. If it looks like just a
whole bunch of jobs and work, that isn’t so appealing. It used to be that people wanted security and to know that there is plenty of work. But now the model of the traditional 40-hour workweek is in serious question.

The band Dire Straits may have been onto something when decades ago they suggested in the song “Industrial Disease,” that we should “abolish Monday
mornings and Friday afternoons. But seriously, it is time for us to take a good hard look as an industry at our own model. I think the focus in the past has
been customer facing, delivering highlevel service with appealing customer experience.

Now it is time to look at the employee experience. No one wants to be your “helper.” That’s just not a career goal that many people are going to go along with. I think it will be important going forward for paint contractors to customize the employee experience. This breaks from much of the conventional wisdom in our industry — to systematize and work toward a franchise model of plug-and-play employees. I think that is too impersonal and not appealing to the people we want to recruit into our companies.

This season, I am going with a younger and more flexible model for staffing than ever before. The oldest person I employ will be 24 years old. We are building schedules around the needs of our people by getting to know their interests and passions outside of work, then creating a schedule that is convenient and practical and meets their financial goals. I encourage all of us to sharpen up our listening skills and gather information from customers and employees to continue crafting our companies to be strong into the future.

by Scott Burt

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