[Cover Story] Labor pains

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PMPs struggle to find quality employees as the pest management industry continues to grow.

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October 19, 2015
Kristen Hampshire

Now Hiring


Pest management services are in demand. But who will do the work?

by Kristen Hampshire


Referrals just aren’t enough to fill the hiring pipeline these days, at least that’s what Richard Isdell notices at his company, A&R Exterminating in Augusta, Ga. “In the past, we relied on our employees to make recommendations to us, but in the last two years that is not working very well anymore,” he says. “We really have a hard time finding people who want to work.”

Isdell says there are fewer friends-of-friends of workers who seem to want jobs. “We are in a hiring phase now,” he says, relating that the nine-person team at A&R could expand to take on more accounts. So he launched a different type of hiring campaign by sending letters out to customers, announcing that the company is hiring. “They have sent us some leads,” Isdell says, adding that clients will only recommend people for the job who they’d want to invite into their homes.

Brian Lunsford, president and co-owner of Inspect-All Services with brother Brandon, says there isn’t necessarily a labor shortage in his area, but finding hard-working, quality employees that fit the company culture is not exactly easy. “We don’t have an overflow of candidates where we think, ‘Oh, man — that guy or gal was great,’ or, ‘That was a perfect candidate,’” he says.

Labor availability is definitely an issue. And, that’s what the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) found when it surveyed industry members 24 months ago. “Finding, hiring, training and then retaining people is the number one challenge reported by pest control companies. This has been an ongoing issue for as long as I can recall,” says Cindy Mannes, NPMA vice president of public affairs. “In 2001 we held the first industry summit and it was identified as the number one issue as well. Now that so many companies are reporting growth, it is even a greater challenge.”

Pest management services are in demand. But who will do the work?

The pest control industry is expected to grow the number of jobs by 20 percent from 2012 to 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s a “faster than average” increase of employment opportunities, pumping an estimated 12,800 more jobs into the industry during a decade timeframe. In 2012, the BLS reported 65,400 pest control workers in the country, defining the position as someone who “removes unwanted creatures…that infest buildings and surrounding areas.”

Why the growth? According to a Research and Markets report, Global Pest Control Services Market: Trends and Opportunities (2013-2018), the public is more cautious about their environment, and the commercial sector must maintain health and safety standards due to federal and state regulations.

As a result, more dollars are flowing into the pest management industry. In 2014, the U.S. structural pest control industry generated an estimated $7.466 billion in total service revenue, a 3.5 percent increase from the $7.213 billion measured in 2013, according to a report from Specialty Products Consultants.

All this is good news for pest management professionals. The economy is turning around, the phones are ringing, and the potential to grow routes and expand services is strong. The challenge: Hiring service technicians. As Baby Boomers age out of the industry, there simply aren’t enough Gen-Xers to replace them, a phenomenon known as the “age gap,” explains Rachel Ferebee, talent acquisition specialist for Arrow Exterminators. That means tapping the millenials for jobs in pest control, “and making sure we are attractive to them,” she says.

Meanwhile, progressive pest control firms recognize that branding their business — turning up the industry appeal — is a critical first step for expanding the labor pool. So is focusing on recruiting individuals with transferrable skills.

“We want to be an employer of choice,” says Shay Runion, chief human resources officer at Arrow Exterminators. “Our vision statement talks about hiring, training and retaining the best talent, so with our projected growth for the company, we know we need to take a proactive stance in filling positions that build a talent bench for future growth,” she says.

 

Recruiting Resources

Seeking ways to target new audiences for open service technician positions? You’re not alone, and the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) is rolling out some resources to help.

PestWorld.org: An expanded consumer website elevates the presence of the pest control industry and gives firms a place to point prospects to learn more about jobs in this field.

CareerBuilder: NPMA developed a CareerBuilder.com site for individuals to find jobs available in the industry.

PestVets: Veterans are a highly skilled and trained labor pool where pest management companies can find top talent, says NPMA spokesperson Janay Rickwalder. That’s why NPMA formed a new Veterans Group called PestVets. “NPMA is committed to engaging veterans in their successful transition to a productive and rewarding career in the pest management industry and the development of programs to support them,” she says.

Videos: The NPMA Career Connection program is designed to help industry companies attract and retain quality employees. Resources include three videos targeted to different audiences, including women and veterans. Pest control firms can download the videos for use at career fairs or to post on their company websites (http://npmapestworld.org/techresources/careerconnection.cfm). — K.H.

 

Transferrable Skills. The pest control industry is not alone in its struggle to fill positions that call for qualities like attention to detail, customer care, following a routine, adopting new technology and taking pride in one’s work. These are the characteristics an ideal candidate possesses, Runion says. “We are looking for individuals who are hard workers and who can adapt to change,” she adds.

The same is true in other service industries, from landscaping to construction to health care. Serving the customer, delivering quality, having a solid work ethic — these soft skills are what service industry businesses need in a candidate; they can train people to do the technical work.

“Throughout service industries, it’s hard to find talent that we need, and part of that is because of our growing marketplace,” Runion says, explaining two facets of growth: 1) actual growth in service routes is one aspect of industry expansion; and 2) growth in terms of developing new products, increased technology and systems. “We are constantly rolling out new initiatives and we need to find people who can adapt to those changes,” she says.

That means taking an open-minded approach to tapping talented individuals who can succeed in the industry. There are so many people who have transferrable skills that if hiring managers are thoughtful, they can see when they (land on a person) who is interested in becoming a professional in the pest control industry but may not have the background in it,” Ferebee says.

Transferrable skills come from industries you expect like construction. “If you know how a structure is built and how it is made, and you understand construction, then you can understand where a critter could hide,” Isdell says, adding that construction workers make valuable termite technicians. Also, he finds this labor pool is more available than others. “A lot of times in our area, contractors are hired for big jobs like building a mall or something and when those jobs end, they’re out of work.”

But other labor pools pest control companies might not traditionally consider also can be ripe with candidates. Ferebee points out that former teachers are hard-working, accountable and take pride in their work. Veterans and those who serve the military have a strong work ethic, leadership skills, adapt to change and execute well in a structured yet independent environment, such as operating a service route.

Individuals who succeed in sales can cross industries, points out Nancy Madrid, vice president of administration and human services at Bug Doctor in Paramus, N.J. “Pest control is just another product that people need,” she says.

Bug Doctor recently hired a fresh college graduate with a psychology degree. He found out about Bug Doctor through a career fair. “He is young, he brings energy to the company and has a lot of fresh ideas with technology,” Madrid says.

 

Smart Screening

Before you hire, do your homework on the candidate.

Getting solid candidates in the door to fill pest control service technician positions is one hurdle. Filtering those prospects to sift out those with criminal offenses, poor driving records, negligent work history and general character flaws introduces a whole other facet of hiring.

Pre-employment screening is risk management for hiring.

bad hire can cost your business more than $30,000, according to a CareerBuilder survey where 41 percent of companies estimated the cost of a bad hire for an entry-level position. One in four respondents said it costs more than $60,000 when an employee doesn’t work out. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has estimated that his bad hires have cost the company more than $100 million.

While screening employees isn’t a sure-fire way to hire flawless candidates — bad hires also include people who have been working unproductively in the company for years — the pre-employment processes in place that verify a prospect’s qualifications, licensing and integrity are a critical first step.

Before you hire, do your homework on the candidate.

“The most common mistake with pre-employment screening is when companies try to save money and say, ‘Well, I’m only going to check the current county residence for criminal records,’” says Jason Morris, founder of EmployeeScreenIQ. Morris is also a private investigator and expert witness.

Fifty-seven percent of criminal records EmployeeScreenIQ finds are in current county residences. “If you have 100 criminals applying for the job, you’ll miss 43 of them,” he says.

Here are some pre-employment screening best practices to adopt before you bring in one more candidate for an interview:

Ask for permission. “Make sure you get a completed job application asking relevant information, including experience, and at that time ask candidates to fill out a release allowing you do to background checks,” Morris says.

Companies can conduct their own background checks by enlisting in professional firms that provide this service. At Bug Doctor in Paramus, N.J., an outside firm performs a criminal record check on all interview candidates. (Candidates sign waivers permitting these screenings.) Bug Doctor also checks the sex offender registry and asks technician candidates to take a physical so they can qualify for respirator use.

Verify licensing. Before a prospect is invited in for an interview at American Pest Control Company in Lemon Grove, Calif., Rick Arendt ensures the applicant is licensed. “Here in California, there is a criminal background check on all employees and prospective employees in order to become licensed,” he says.

Examine driving records. Insurance brokers provide this service, as do background check firms. This is important for technicians who will be responsible for driving to customer accounts. Morris suggests ensuring that drivers’ licenses are valid (a common offense). “Someone may show you a license but it’s suspended,” he says.

Keep it relevant. For driving records and criminal background checks, always be sure the information you’re gathering is appropriate. “You want to be sure to use the records wisely and only use records that pertain to the position,” he says.

That said, think beyond the job title and consider the position’s responsibilities and the risk you could assume as an employer. For example, an executive assistant may seem like a position that should not require a criminal background check, but this person has access to the CEO’s files, email and more. “That is just as much responsibility as the CEO as far as risk is concerned,” Morris says.

Ask about offenses. If you conduct a criminal background check on a candidate and find an offense that would preclude you from hiring the person, first ask the prospect about the incident. Morris notes that you must make a business justification for not making the hire.

Consider drug testing. Pre-employment drug screening can protect a company, as Richard Isdell of A&R Exterminating in Augusta, Ga., found out the hard way (see “Hiring Misfires” on page 48). Pest control firms also should consider post-accident drug testing and random drug testing.

Be careful with Facebook. It’s tempting to look up candidates’ profiles on Facebook, and if an unappealing picture or post appears you might move that person’s application to the “no thanks” stack. But watch out how you use social media when screening employees, Morris warns.

“There are a lot of lawsuits out there today concerning companies diving into someone’s Facebook without their permission,” he says, advising higher level screening instead of using social media. “Anyone can have a fake Facebook page or have a fake Facebook page made about them.”

Morris dealt with a case years ago where an employee was fired from his job because the boss saw a picture of the worker snorting cocaine from the hood of a car. Turns out, that employee was a model for a drug-free workplace campaign 10 years ago and the advertisement photo was on social media. “You just don’t know,” he says. — K.H.

 

A new employee who used to work at Whole Foods joined Bug Doctor. During the interview process, he was presented with the company’s technical advancement schedule, a new tool that shows candidates how they can progress in the pest control industry into management positions and earn various licensing. “We gave him a ‘what’s to come’ so he could see the career opportunities he can have with the company,” Madrid says. “He knows he doesn’t have to stay a pest control technician forever; he can advance to senior technician or to management.”

Showing people opportunity in the pest control industry is a critical step for attracting fresh talent, says Stacy Feiner, PsyD, family business consultant and author of “Talent Mindset: A Business Owner’s Guide to Building Bench Strength.” “Sometimes in the service industry, there is a ‘boots and suits’ mentality, and you have to recognize the people who are providing these services are interested in their own success and career development,” she says.

Feiner emphasizes: “The most important thing a company must do in recruiting is take responsibility for differentiating itself and being attractive to candidates.” That’s not a typical approach in the service industry, she says, encouraging business owners to ask these questions: What are you doing to attract top talent? What role are you playing in bringing in qualified candidates?
 

Planting the Seed. Branding plays a big role in attracting new blood to the pest control industry, where so many operators landed because it was the family business. Isdell says he thought he’d be an attorney, until he got into his father’s pest control business and fell in love with it.

Ferebee hears stories like this often. In fact, Arrow’s own professionals are often sharing this perspective when they’re out in elementary schools or at career fairs reaching young people — planting the seed that the pest control industry is ripe with opportunities.

“Those of us who are in the industry realize that it is a place we want to retire from,” Ferebee says, adding that showing those outside of the industry the wide range of career potential in pest control is a responsibility that falls on PMPs. “We are salespeople, business managers and entrepreneurs if you think about a pest control service person managing their routes like it’s their own business,” she says. “It’s important for us to get the message out that this is a great industry to be a part of.”

That’s exactly what NPMA is doing with its video series targeting women and veterans (see “Recruiting Resources” on page 41). Arrow is becoming more active on social media to let people know about the industry. Bug Doctor also has amped up its online presence and this past winter hired an employee who found Bug Doctor through its website. “We have to market ourselves in a way that is attractive — this industry is not just about exterminating bugs,” Madrid says.

Madrid adds that one-on-one conversations with prospects help get this point across during career fairs and other traditional venues where Bug Doctor recruits. “It’s talking to people and introducing them to the industry,” she says.

Lunsford says Craig’s List is still the company’s best recruiting tool, though the company also uses social media and tools like Monster.com. “Craig’s List just seems to be the place where people look when they need jobs,” he says.

That’s why Inspect-All tailors its Craig’s List ad to widen the net. “We try to make our postings very broad and we say you don’t need experience to be successful in this industry,” Lunsford says, adding that some of the best workers he has hired come from the outside. “A lot of times, bringing in that guy who is hungry and ready to work is best because we can teach him our message as opposed to bringing someone with preconceived notions from another company.”

Lunsford’s ads also note that candidates must fill out a questionnaire, a way to better qualify candidates and “shine the spotlight” on daily aspects of a service technician job. “We want to be transparent,” Lunsford says referring to questions like, “Do you feel comfortable in crawlspaces?” or “Are you willing to work outside in cold or hot weather?”

He includes in the ad that the company offers paid vacation, benefits, the latest technology, a drug-free workplace and a 401(k) program. Inspect-All sells the advantages of working for the company, giving people from outside the industry a reason to consider pest control as a career. And, the firm is honest about what the job entails so managers can focus on viable candidates. “We find that we don’t ‘miss’ as often now [with hiring] now that we have a comprehensive hiring process in place,” Lundsford says.

New this year, Inspect-All is rolling out videos introducing prospects to the business and industry. The Lunsfords hope this will further qualify candidates, and also build awareness about what they do. “We want to lay it all out there so people can see who we are and what we look like,” Lunsford says.

Branding, growing awareness for the industry and tapping different labor pools are ways that pest control firms can attract more quality candidates to fill service technician positions. Retention also must be a focus. You don’t want to lose the good people you have, and companies that continue to evolve and invest in training and developing their people will keep talent on board.

And, because there are more jobs available in pest control than qualified candidates to fill those positions, businesses are competing for the best people. “If you want top talent, you have to perform like top talent,” Feiner says.

“Strong companies attract quality employees” could be a call to action to continue raising professionalism, adopting technology and making the culture attractive to millenials and outside service industry professionals.

Pest management is a growing industry that needs more good people. “Two of the tenets of the Professional Pest Management Association is to elevate the professionalism of the industry as well as showcase the positive, professional industry we are to the consumer,” Mannes says. “While PPMA continues to help grow the industry with our consumer education programs, media outreach and more, we all need to educate every customer on not only the value of what we do, but on how this industry can provide a great career track.”

 

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine.



Hiring Misfires


First-hand accounts from PMPs who hit some bumps in the road with employees
and new hires.

Even the best companies can make the worst hiring mistakes. Recruiting is a process driven by humans, so by nature there’s risk of error. While tight talent acquisition and training processes, along with careful background screening, can reduce an employer’s risk of inviting a “loser” into the organization, no system is perfect.

Here, a few pest management companies share some hiring misfires and the lessons they learned.
 

A Surprising Walkout

By Rick Arendt, president, American Pest Control Company, Lemon Grove, Calif.

We’re a smaller company of nine employees, and every worker who has ever left because “the grass is greener” somewhere else has come back to us later asking for a job. We really don’t like to terminate, and that’s always the last resort. As for having people leave us, well, it’s just not that common. That’s why we were surprised when an employee we had gone above and beyond to accommodate called us late one Sunday night and announced that he would not be coming into work the next day — or ever again.

We bent over backward for this technician — we do for all of our employees. We buy their children Christmas gifts and we really get to know them and their families. Actually, this particular technician’s wife had started working for us a few months prior doing clerical tasks because she wanted to earn extra money before taking a maternity leave. They were expecting their first child.

This employee quitting on us was really an exception to the rule here, and we still don’t know why he left. His wife continued to come to work — she did not know that her husband called off and quit until she came to the office the next day. She was afraid she would be terminated, but we told her, “No, we aren’t going to do that. You didn’t do anything wrong.” In fact, we bought her shower gifts before the baby was born.

This incident was a real slap in the face for us. It was a shock because we’ve never had someone up and leave us. We divided up the technician’s workload, and then we eventually replaced him. We’re careful about who we hire and we take our time before bringing someone into the company.


Dazed, Confused & Drawing Unemployment

By Richard Isdell, president, A&R Exterminating Co., Augusta, Ga.

A client at a historical building site in town called into our office to report that one of our service technicians was acting unusual. He was spraying on the pavement and seemed disoriented. When she asked him, “What’s wrong with you?” he told her, “I took some medication that made me dizzy.”

The technician left the property and drove back to our office, and the client called us while he was en route because she was worried about him driving. When he got back to headquarters, my mother (who was working here at the time) asked him the same question: What is wrong with you? He told her flat out that he took an illegal Vicodin that impaired his vision and abilities. We had wondered about alcohol use before, but we weren’t sure if the smell was an after-shave lotion. We did not have pre-employment drug screening in place at the time.

After that exchange with my mother, the technician left the building and did not return to work that day. There was no way for us to drug test him — he was gone.

When the technician came into work the next day, he smelled like alcohol and we had a talk with him about the negligent incident. We terminated his employment.

Later, he filed for unemployment. Because we did not require a drug test after the incident (we couldn’t — he left!), even the employee’s words about taking a Vicodin were not enough to keep him from collecting the benefit. He received unemployment from our company for more than a year. That is the only time in our company history we ever had to pay unemployment.

Now, we perform pre-employment drug screening, post-accident drug testing and random drug testing.

 

Overlooking Red Flags

By Nancy Madrid, vice president of administration and human resources, Bug Doctor, Paramus, N.J.

We were a little surprised when a mother drove her 21-year-old son to our office to fill out an employment application — and she filled out the form for him. During the interview, she sat in the waiting room. We found that odd, but we invited him back for a second interview. Again, his mother drove him here and waited in the lobby. We did offer him a job, but he lasted 30 days. We ignored a red flag: Who wanted the job more, the young adult or his mom? In the end, we weren’t sure.

This technician ended up resigning because he said his parents felt the commute was too far, he was paying too many tolls and the gas bills were adding up. He went on, telling us that his parents felt like this wasn’t the right job for him.

To bring someone on board and train them takes a lot of time and resources. We were disappointed. But to avoid blunders like this, it’s always important to include the HR manager in the recruiting process because there is so much involved (regarding discrimination) that most hiring managers do not know. You have to be careful not to discriminate against anyone during the hiring process. And, it’s also important to pay attention to warning signs that an employee is not a fit, as was the case in this situation.