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Solving seasonal labor problems

Features, Management | October 1, 2007 | By:

How companies manage the ebb and flow of tent-rental labor.

If you ask around, most tent rental companies can probably tell you what their state’s or province’s minimum wage is. They’ll have to think about it, though. They certainly haven’t paid it in a while. The labor market is far too tight, and tent installation is too grueling.

Once upon a time, business owners in the industry were faced with the problem of how to keep core employees busy during the off-season. Now, it seems they’re lucky if they can hold onto a bare-bones staff through the rigors of summer and fall.

“I might have 10 employees total, but I can probably go through 40 people in a season,” says Shari Graye, owner of Great American Tent in Birmingham, Ala. “Some of them might last a day. Some of them might last three months. It’s not that we don’t treat them well—it’s just really hard work, and Alabama is really hot.”

Dan Skena, president of Pennsylvania-based PartySavvy (previously called Pittsburgh Party & Tent Rental), concurs. “People seem to have a pretty short attention span,” he says. “They get bored with the job and decide to leave for whatever reason. It’s not unusual for us to have to start looking for people in August to get us through the fall season.”

It’s the economy, Skena explains. Unemployment in the U.S. has been hovering at just over 4 percent, which analysts consider historically low, though it spiked nearer to 4.5 percent in recent months. The jobs many people work are far from ideal, but one thing can be said of them: Most jobs are easier than hoisting a tent in a blazing-hot asphalt parking lot.

Margins in the tent rental industry are drum-tight, which puts an upper limit on the wages and benefits that renters can afford to provide. In some areas, fast-food franchises routinely start employees at $12 to $15 per hour. The competition is fierce, and you can practically taste the desperation.

“One of my friends said he uses the mirror test: You put a mirror under the person’s nose, and if it fogs up, they’re hired,” Skena says. “It’s a pretty low standard.”

These issues make it all the more crucial to hang onto good employees through the slow winter months, but there’s only so much inventory maintenance and tent cleaning to keep them busy. Some companies take on side jobs in commodity fabrication. Many have no choice but to lay off some of those hard-to-find staffers.

It is worth noting that some worker populations—artists, athletes and musicians, for example—appreciate the opportunity to work at a seasonal job, especially if they know they can return to it year after year. It gives them time to pursue their other interests. But they are a minority, and the ones who can handle the physical demands of tent installation are even more rare.

As often as not, the search for help begins all over again the following spring.

Just a phone call away

The strenuous nature of tent installation, coupled with the seasonal nature of the work, has led many tent renters to look into hiring contract workers. Graye, for example, likes to call in temps for the heavy lifting in order to reduce the strain on her longer-term employees.

“If we need a lot of loading and offloading, we’ll just go to these temporary labor companies,” she says. “We don’t put that on our guys—we keep them for the tent work, the more skilled work. It’s tiresome if you’re loading 200 tables, so why dog out your tent guys with that? Think about it.”

Unfortunately, the temporary labor market varies hugely from region to region, depending on the local economy and demographics. “The temp service here is absolutely horrible,” says Ron Weiler, owner of Sterling Awnings & Tents, Batavia, N.Y. “You order 10 and two will show up. Once, I was in Maine and out of the 12 we asked for, one showed up for 15 minutes. Another time I came down to Pittsburgh, ordered two big batches, and not one showed up. There’s a reason why they are there [at the temporary agencies].”

Skena echoes Weiler’s Pittsburgh experience. “The general labor that the temporary agencies in our area supply hasn’t, in my experience, been very reliable,” he says. “You get some good ones here and there, but on average we try to do our best not to use them. Now, we work with some companies from out of town on some larger events, and we hear different things from them. I’m told that the temporary labor situation in Chicago is actually quite good.”

That’s the general labor pool. On the other hand, it is also possible to hire trained, reliable, industry-specific workers on a temporary basis. Event Labor Works (ELW) in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, specializes in providing trained tent installers wherever they’re needed, especially for touring shows or for events located outside of a tent rental company’s home area.

“We prefer to send teams with a solid team leader capable of providing onsite training to junior staff, but if a client only needs a supervisor, we can do that, too,” says project manager Adam Singfield. “We can also send a team of more low-level installers, there to follow the lead of the client supervisor. Aside from custom team sizing, ELW’s greatest service offering has to be its ability to cater to last-minute needs. I mean, clients call us on Sunday morning in dire straits and need a four-man team onsite across the country within 48 hours.”

So what’s the catch? It’ll cost you. That’s why ELW isn’t a solution for smaller region-specific tent renters. Modest local events don’t bring in enough money to cover the airfare and wages of trained professionals from a faraway city.

“We’re not inexpensive,” admits Robert Megeney, the company’s president. “But it makes sense in some situations. If you are doing a project where you’re paying for travel, lodging and per diems already, then we’re a hands-down winner, because these costs are already included. And it’s worry-free.”

A staffing service like this may be a partial solution for a large, national tent-rental firm. But most companies don’t work on a grand enough scale to make it economically practical. They’re forced to look for other solutions for their summer rush.

Help wanted

Students would seem to be the perfect population to troll for seasonal help. They tend to be smart—maybe even potential management material. They’re free in the summer, yet don’t want or expect work during the idle winter months.

“In a lot of ways, they seem more interested [than most employees] in what’s going on,” Skena says. “They do a good job, and you may have them for more than one season. If you are lucky enough to get a good kid in high school, he can be with you three, four or five years. I know some friends of mine in the business who have had students actually come back after college and go to work full time.”

Unfortunately, the academic calendar doesn’t line up perfectly with the special event season. In May, when many warm-climate tent companies are in full swing, students are not available yet. Then, in late August, they evaporate despite the fact that you’ve got a full slate of September and October events. For companies whose busy season falls over the winter, students may not be an option at all.

Weiler finds that colleges in his area let out so early—the beginning of May—that there’s no installation work available for the students yet. “We can’t use them, but they are ready to work,” he says. “So what we try to do is, if they are good, we put them on and have them do menial tasks until we have [installation work] available. It’s just because we know that we are really going to need them.”

Despite the built-in scheduling drawbacks, Skena gives students the thumbs-up. “We’ve gone back to them because we’ve found that, in many cases, they are better than some of the other seasonal or full-time labor that you hire,” he says. “They are only there for a short period of time, so they don’t burn out as quickly as some of the other ones do. You don’t have to pay them as much as full-timers. They appreciate the job. You get some pretty good work out of them for the time that they are there, and that allows you to take more work.”

But tent renters can’t depend 100 percent on students, because there are the shoulder months to staff. For example, Weiler somehow has to bring his staff from a wintertime skeleton crew of six to eight employees all the way up to a steady level of 40 from June to October. That quandary led him to investigate an unusual labor pool.

“About 15 years ago when I was at one of the national meetings, some of us came up with the idea of a work-study program for Eastern Europe,” Weiler recalls. “So we volunteered to be one of the pilot sites. I get six to eight students from Eastern Europe each year, and they come over and I house them.”

Unlike their American counterparts, the overseas group stays on through October. Occasionally, he says, the affluent big-city exchange students experience culture shock when they find themselves in rural New York state. And post-9/11, it has been more difficult to obtain the necessary visas. Still, Weiler says, the program is so successful that it’s worth the extra aggravation.

“They’re rough wood that I can finish and polish a little bit,” he says. “They don’t have experience, but they’ve got good hearts. The last couple years I’ve been blessed with the cream of the crop.”

The total solution to the staffing problem is probably a combination of all possible approaches: finding off-season tasks for the best employees, hiring students over the summer, getting referrals from colleagues and employees, bringing in temps, and so on. When you’re feeling pessimistic, it helps to remember that everyone has these issues.

“I believe the fundamental nature of the industry makes it very difficult for rental companies to retain good employees,” Singfield says. “[We all have] last-minute orders, high stress and rushed worked environments … and extremely physical work spanning insane hours. The key to finding and retaining staff is to empower them—to provide them with a clear growth path so that they understand the potential of this industry, as well as the skill sets that will help them succeed and grow throughout their careers.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based near Athens, Ga.

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