Jobs, Skills, and Worker Shortages

As I looked through my folder of articles I’ve saved as topics for my newsletters and posts the number one topic, by a landslide, was the topic of jobs and employees.

Here are a few of the article topics:

  • There are 200,000 unfilled construction jobs as 30% of construction workers found new industries after the Great Recession.
  • Trump threats about tariffs and his going after Ford and Carrier and their Mexico plans.
  • The shortage of workers to fill many, many positions in a variety of industries. (As a sidebar item, our family cabin is in northern Wisconsin and in the county with the State’s highest unemployment rate. Yet last year restaurants couldn’t fully staff their operations because people didn’t want to work as they’d have to give up their State benefits.)

Here are some headlines:

  • Good help wanted, but hard to find
  • What would it take to return mill jobs to Trump county?
  • Factory workers demand winner deliver the goods
  • Skilled workers in short supply

The above is interesting (and true). In the day-to-day world of small business here’s what I’m hearing:

Owners are incredibly interested in how to attract, retain, and motivate good employees.

My annual client breakfast had requests for a speaker on employee issues (Jack Goldberg with Personnel Management Systems, Inc., the leading HR outsourcing firm in Seattle). My group of business owners repeatedly asks for presenters on attracting and retaining people. When  CEOs speak to us the questions always include some about people.

The disconnect as I see it, and I’m not the only one, is many of the people looking for work don’t have the skills for the available jobs. No matter what any politician says, someone trained to do maintenance or work in a low-tech factory doesn’t have what Microsoft, Apple, Google, and all the small tech companies need (and they don’t have the right skills to get a construction job or work in a high-tech factory). It’s why there are 500,000 unfilled tech jobs in this country (plus the 200,000 unfilled construction jobs and why good CNC machinists are at a premium). This makes keeping good people more important than ever (and why tech salaries have skyrocketed).

Some things aren’t going to change. It takes a person to build a building or program a computer. But now one person can program a machine that will work all night cranking out parts with no human supervision. Then that person moves to the next machine and does the same thing. What used to take many people over multiple shifts now takes one person on one shift.


In my opinion is education is the answer. As you get this I just returned from Antigua working on a Rotary service project. Our theme is, “Improving Education Through Technology.” Our goal is for the teachers to better reach their students by using computers, tablets, Wi-Fi networks, etc. instead of a blackboard. Not that blackboards don’t work, but it’s all about reaching your audience and the best way to reach kids is to teach via what they are using all the time outside of school, i.e. devices with screens.

Caution Ahead: Construction Related Business are Swamping the Market

Fact 1: In my 20+ years as an intermediary I have never seen so many construction related businesses on the market. This includes building materials, flooring, hardware distributors, window coverings, and specialty subcontractors.

Fact 2: In 2006 every bit of research done by anybody showed at least five years of solid commercial construction in the Puget Sound area.

Fact 3: We all know what happened in 2008.

Buyers and bankers need to be careful. I don’t mean avoid the construction industry but don’t let anybody convince you the valuation should be anywhere near what it would be for manufacturing, distribution, or service.

I’m working on one deal now for a $15 million revenue construction products distributor and the price is 3X profit. The seller recognizes it’s a market at a peak.

Construction is cyclical, very cyclical, and is economy centric. And, obviously, very hot right now. If I was looking at anything construction related I would want to see financial statements for the last 10 years. You’ll see the ups and downs. The good ones will survive, but they don’t have acquisition debt payments.

A December 2, 2016 Wall Street Journal article was titled, “Car Sales Roll Along; Aided by Discounts.*” The gist of the article was sales are up over the same month a year earlier and the average discount was 11%, versus 9.4% in 2015.

This reminded me of a story I tell in a couple of my talks. It’s about a past (and dearly departed) friend and associate, Jerry. To put it mildly, Jerry was financially incompetent. As I recall his only financial acumen was because of his experience as a business owner. He knew cash flow. Or should we say he knew short-term cash flow.

He watched his cash flow like a hawk. If he got to the last half of a month and it looked like his monthly income would be short, well, he’d go and make a deal (I should mention his prior business was in retail, he was a wheeler-dealer).

Prospective clients were offered a lower, introductory fee to hire him now versus later, even if later was only a couple weeks. Now when it came time to renew his services he would ask for the original fee, the client would say, “No, I’ll pay the same as before,” and he was in a loop of working for much less than the value he provided. Concentrating on the month-to-month hurt him.

There’s an old saying in business, “We can offer you two of the following, quality, service, and price but it’s impossible to give you all three.” You grow by leveraging your competitive advantage and that advantage can’t be price (in the long-term). It costs more money to provide quality products and services.

As we head into another new year, my advice to all of you is to not be like Jerry (or the car industry). Create a sustainable business by charging a fair price for fantastic service and a great product.

“When someone asks you, ‘A penny for your thoughts,’ and you put your two cents in, what happens to the other penny?” George Carlin

* The online article is titled, “Auto Makers’ November Sales on Track for Record – Black Friday deals and deep discounts drew shoppers


Everything is Local

The little things around us have a big impact.

What triggered this train of thought was two things.

On November 4 710ESPN sports announcer Danny O’Neil spoke to my Rotary Club. He mentioned how sports can bring a community together. Most issues, including politics, are put on the back-burner when we’re all cheering for our team.

Last year our local weekly paper, The Kirkland Reporter, had a front-page picture of the mayor and county council person cutting a ribbon to open a new ballot drop off box (we have 100% voting by mail or drop off in Washington, no day-of at the polls).

The latter reminded me of all my Rotary trips to Antigua where they will do a ribbon cutting, ceremony, grand opening of any and everything. Filled with a lot of speeches, of course. They celebrate the little things, together.

I know we have issues in this country, many people are poor, suffering, etc. But no matter what the politicians say to exaggerate things, life is pretty good when the majority of people have the time and energy to follow sports, entertainment, have small ceremonies, and similar. It’s a lot better than dodging bombs and bullets, living under authoritarian dictators, or face daily, severe, lack-of-food circumstances.

“November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.” Emily Dickinson

What’s a Great Referral

So what is a good referral, whether you’re an advisor or a plumber?

1) Here’s what it’s not:
“I gave your name to so-and-so. Maybe she’ll call you.”

2) Here’s a medium referral:
An email introducing two people with no contact information other than the email address.

3) Here’s a good referral:
An email introducing two people with a short description of the situation, the benefit of meeting, and phone numbers for both people.

4) Here’s a great referral:
An email as per above preceded by a conversation with each party telling them why it serves them to meet each other.
Or, you get the two people together on the phone or in-person as you make the introduction.

I’ll admit, I sometimes get so busy I do number one – maybe 10% of the time. I never do number two, so close to 90% of the time I am doing an introduction with contact info, usually after telling the person requesting help to whom I’m referring them and why.

It shows you care when you take a little extra step and give personal attention.

Who Would You Like As a Referral Partner?

On Saturday, January 9, 2016 the front page of the Seattle Times had a banner about Ken Griffey Jr.’s election to the baseball hall of fame main story while picture and main story was about the Seahawks playoff game, and the fact star running back Marshawn Lynch decided not to play on Sunday.

These stories were even more prominent on the front page of the sports section. As always over the last 6-8 weeks the Lynch story mentioned he did his injury rehab away from the team, in Oakland. And that as of Friday morning coach Pete Carroll was saying Lynch would play on Sunday.

What struck me was the difference between these two prominent athletes. Griffey was (and is) nicknamed The Kid because when playing a kids game he always appeared to be letting his inner kid show. He smiled, interacted with fans and reporters, and just came across as someone very appreciate he was able to earn a great income playing a game, i.e. having tons of fun.

All while avoiding the steroid scandals prevalent during his time. In fact, if you saw the video of him getting the hall of fame call or heard his interviews about being elected with a record percentage of votes, you realized how humbled he was by it.

Isn’t that the kind of person you want working with you or for you? Isn’t this the type of person to whom you’d like to refer business (and get referrals from)?

The Upgrade Went Backwards

I’m a fan of Microsoft products. I use Office and think it’s great. They’ve been a huge supporter of my Rotary computer projects as they’ve donated equipment, we get software and an almost-free price, etc.

However, they recently upgraded to Office 2016 and it’s taken a few steps backwards, at least with Word. While they’ve added some nice, timesaving features, in just a few weeks I’ve found a number of features, which I regularly use, to be missing. The most notable (to me) is I can’t customize the toolbar. No longer is there an icon to immediately print, and I can’t put it on the toolbar. I can’t add icons for emailing the document or for “save as.”

When I wrote them I was told the customizing feature hasn’t been added yet. Really? It’s been on every version I can remember. How do you upgrade a product and miss including long-time features?

There’s an old adage, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. It baffles me when a company as successful and with as many smart people as Microsoft does something like this.

As I’ve written before, it’s a classic case of overthinking. We put on so many bells and whistles it caused us to forget about the basics. When you put the customer first, you avoid this kind of thing. Because it’s not about how many features there are, it’s about ease of use of the ones someone needs or wants.

More importantly, it’s making it easy for your customer to buy and then recommend your product.

“The weirder you’re going to behave, the more normal you should look. It works in reverse too. When I see a kid with three or four rings in his nose, I know there is absolutely nothing extraordinary about that person.” P.J. O’Rourke

Learn By Teaching

Three times a year I volunteer at the SBA and teach a class on growing a consulting business. Last Friday was my most recent class and one of the things I told the class was an old teachers adage, “Those who teach learn more than those being taught.”

And once again I walked out of the room with note in my calendar book on things I was telling the class to do, which I need to do better, and a couple ideas from them.

It got me thinking, if you, whether you’re in manufacturing, banking or anything in-between, were training someone to fill-in for you while you take a month off, what are the top five things you would tell them to do? This could be marketing efforts, employee management, operations, sales, finance or any other aspect of your business.

Now ask yourself, how many of those five things do you do as conscientiously as you should? Plans, ideas and strategies are all great, but they don’t accomplish much if you don’t implement them and effectively execute the implementation.

As a result of the class, besides doing the things on my list, I’m going to sit back and think about what I could and should be doing that I’m not doing now. This is not reinventing or creating, it’s getting focus on things that have slipped through the cracks.

“The highest calling of leadership is to unlock the potential of others.” Carly Fiorina