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Workforce challenges and solutions

With labor in short supply, tent and event rental companies are exploring new strategies to find and retain workers.

Feature | December 1, 2021 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

Workers with L & A Tent & Event Rentals are shown opening fabric for an install. In addition to weddings, the company focuses on the educational, corporate and event segments, and has become more selective about the jobs it accepts due to labor shortages. Photographer: Envious Media Group; photo courtesy of L & A Tent & Event Rentals.

In 2020, the challenge was figuring out how to keep business doors open when the pandemic was forcing global-wide shutdowns. But now that life—and the tent and event rental industry—is approaching a semblance of normalcy,  there’s a somewhat unanticipated problem flummoxing businesses: the workforce. 

“Finding new, capable employees is like finding a unicorn in today’s job market,” says Tim Boyle, executive vice president of U.S. Tent Rental Inc. “We’ve found it extremely difficult to find and hire new employees. The day Biden announced the five years to $15 an hour, every single employee making less only heard $15 an hour is now the new minimum wage.”

Boyle says his company tried implementing the new wage law as it was written without success. In order to attract new hires, U.S. Tent Rental had to go all the way to $15 per hour, which meant giving significant raises to the existing employees to keep them on the job.

L & A Tent & Event Rentals relies on equipment, such as this Tent OX™, to help avoid worker fatigue and burnout. Photographer: Envious Media Group; photo courtesy of L & A Tent & Event Rentals.

Headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., U.S. Tent Rental provides event and party rental equipment throughout Florida, although the company does travel all over the Southeast for larger-scale projects and disaster work. Before the pandemic, the company had between 85 and 110 employees, including seasonal workers. Currently it’s down to 50. 

Historically, finding new hires for the peak-demand months was a bit of a struggle, but manageable. And thanks to full benefits for full-time workers, a 401(k) plan, HSA accounts (the company pays $1,000 annually into the accounts), quarterly bonuses for many lead positions, overtime hours for those wanting them and other opportunities, retention was never a problem, says Boyle. Even during the slower summer months, the company would try to retain around 80 percent of the workforce, sometimes by limiting hours to 30 a week if possible. Employee loans were also available if needed.

But now retention has become a “major issue,” says Boyle. Existing employees are being poached by other tent and event rental companies across the country. Even businesses in different industries are going after his staff, offering them “ridiculous” amounts of money, sometimes at rates 50 percent higher. Although the work is often project-based and of limited duration, employees are biting.

“The employees only hear the money per hour and now all of a sudden they won’t work anywhere for less,” he says. “It’s the craziest, most difficult hiring market most of us entrepreneurs have ever experienced.”

PRO EM’s operations staff works in the tent and structure department in the company’s Phoenix, Ariz., warehouse. The 250,000 square foot location serves as the company’s headquarters and Southwest hub.

Continuing scarcity 

By most accounts, the labor situation—which is hitting all manner of companies—won’t improve anytime soon. Chad Sorenson, president of Adaptive HR Solutions in Jacksonville, Fla., predicts hiring difficulties will continue into 2022. The company provides customized leadership development, management training, performance management employee relations and other solutions to a broad spectrum of industries.

“It frequently takes a number of quarters for an imbalance like we’re seeing to resolve,” he says. “There are [many] factors at play, including a shrinking workforce. This was caused by a variety of factors, including older workers deciding to stay retired, employees who were laid off during the pandemic and who decided to pursue a different career, or those whose health, or concerns, prevent them from returning to work.”

Each geographic region is facing its own challenges, Sorenson explains. But the bottom line is, nationwide there are 1 to 2 million more openings than there are people looking for a new job.

Brian Richardson, president of L & A Tent & Event Rentals Inc., is experiencing today’s new workplace reality.

This structure, built by PRO EM for COVID-19 testing, was installed in Los Angeles, Calif. Photos courtesy of PRO EM National Event Services.

“We’re unable to even get people in the door to fill out an application,” he says. “Prior to the pandemic, we had 37 non-management staff members. We’re currently operating with 15. We’d hire an additional 10 people tomorrow if we could find them. We’ve had help-wanted ads up for more than three months and have had fewer than 10 applicants.”

Although the Hamilton, N.J., company does approximately 100 weddings a year, it concentrates on the educational and corporate event segment, and ER response venues, says Richardson, adding that since the pandemic, L & A Tent & Event Rentals has also focused on long-term rentals to private and public schools.

Richardson doesn’t feel the enhanced unemployment benefits, many of which have ended, are why workers aren’t coming back. Rather, he blames the “extremely physical” nature of the work, the fact that much of this happens during weekends and the long hours.

“It appears to me that people are looking for a more personal and work-life balance,” he says. “Today, due to labor shortages across all industries, the applicant can be much more selective when it comes to picking a job.”

In response, Richardson says the company is being “much more selective” about the jobs it accepts, turning down those it may have accepted two years ago. Increasing its rental rates, achieving greater efficiencies through the use of equipment (which can also help reduce fatigue and burnout, he says) and “shedding” unprofitable projects has actually improved the company’s bottom line. 

PRO EM crew members are pictured here with a structure used for drive-through COVID-19 testing. The structure was installed at Honor Health in Phoenix, Ariz. Photo courtesy of PRO EM National Event Services.

“This year we’ve also retained an attorney who specializes in H-2B visas and are in hopes we’ll be able to use that avenue to add an additional 15 employees in 2022,” he says. “We’ve also had success previously by using a service that specializes in recruiting staff members from Puerto Rico.”

Labor is the “number one issue” for PRO EM National Event Services, says Brady Castro, principal. Headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., with offices in Los Angeles, Calif., and Chicago, Ill., the full-service event rental and production company provides equipment to a variety of markets in 35 states. Acquiring the Los Angeles and Chicago locations in 2017 has enabled the company to keep employees working year-round.

Pre-pandemic, PRO EM had nearly 240 full-time employees. That number has dropped to 110. (There are also around 800 part-time employees. Comprised of parking, security and guest services reps, these are mainly in Arizona.) 

“We’re definitely looking to hire to get back to the 240 to 250 number,” says Castro, adding that the worker shortage is hitting all departments and all locations. “Quite honestly, I’ve not talked to one person in our industry who isn’t experiencing the same challenges.”

He attributes the shortfall in part to a combination of people’s concern over COVID and the financial assistance provided during the pandemic, albeit noting that as that has ended, he hasn’t seen the workforce return. 

In response, PRO EM has implemented several strategies to try and boost recruiting, such as increasing starting pay company wide by 20 to 25 percent over minimum wage in its different locations.

“We’re also doing a lot of referral-based recruiting and that has been successful for us. Utilizing some of our existing assets, like branding company trucks, has provided us additional exposure to advertise that we are hiring,” says Castro. “We still have a long way to go.”

This Anchor Navi-Trac® tent from U.S. Tent Rental was installed for a New Year’s Eve party on a rooftop parking garage. Prior to the pandemic, the company employed nearly 110 workers, but numbers have since fallen to half of that amount. Photo courtesy of U.S. Tent Rental Inc.

Ties that bind

Retention is another concern, says Castro, although this has always been the case given the physical demands of the job—unfortunate because the company’s structures are quite technical and require “years of experience” to safely and properly install.

This illustrates why employers should put as much emphasis on keeping their workers as they do on hiring them says Sorenson.

“We know the old saying, it’s cheaper to keep the customer you have than it is to bring in a new one; the same holds true for employees,” he says, adding that statistics indicate 25 percent of existing employees are currently eyeing a move to another position or company. “Benefit programs, engagement training for managers and supervisors, pay-rate evaluations and workplace flexibility all play a role in retaining current employees.”

For example, Richardson says the average retention rate at L & A Tent & Event Rentals is more than 12 years. He attributes this stickiness to offering higher wages than the industry average, paid vacations, medical insurance, 401(k) and bonuses at least three times a year. The company also generally doesn’t lay off any staff in the winter.

Employees are looking for more than a paycheck, Sorenson says. Although in surveys, money is always among the top-five motivating factors, it seldom, if ever, is number one. As such, companies need to learn what motivates individual employees.

“Is it scheduling flexibility? Knowing their contributions to the company are valued? The relationship between the employee and [his/her] direct supervisor? The opportunity to grow the company? It’s different for every person,” Sorenson says. “The worst thing a company can do is develop a new employee benefit without first talking to employees. Too often I’ve seen companies spend time and energy developing a new program for employees only to see a 5 percent utilization. They developed something the employees didn’t want or see the value in.”

Sorenson says many companies are moving to an à la carte benefits package approach, enabling employees to select what’s most important to them. Whatever the strategy, it’s essential that companies listen to employees. This doesn’t mean running with every idea or creating a program specific to every person; it’s simply a way to ensure that what ends up being offered is desired.

“Employers who are feeling the crunch right now aren’t alone,” Sorenson says. “I have clients ask me why they can’t find employees or people to even show up for a scheduled interview. I tell them they’re in good company; it’s happening to many employers now. Don’t overwork the employees [you do have] because the burnout will cause you to deepen your recruiting woes,” he cautions. “There’s a fine balance in the employer/employee relationship. It’s up to each manager to find what works for their employees.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.

SIDEBAR: Playing detective

Knowing why your current employees remain with you can prove revealing and help hone your retention and your recruiting strategies, says Chad Sorenson, president of Adaptive HR Solutions in Jacksonville, Fla. As such, he recommends conducting “stay” interviews.

“Unlike a reactive exit interview with a resigning employee, a stay interview talks with current employees about why they joined the company and why they stay,” he explains. “Is it the family atmosphere, the boss, the benefits, the hours or the fact they get to work outdoors? Find out why employees like to work for you and use that to recruit new employees.”

Other tips he offers include proactively engaging employees since engaged employees tend to remain on the job, recognizing their hard work, and—very important—trying not to burn them out.

“This is hard, particularly when you’re short-staffed,” he admits of that latter suggestion. “But it will help retain employees. Extra pay isn’t always the answer—it doesn’t get them home any earlier. Sometimes it’s a thank-you and buying lunch for the team, or maybe it’s an extra PTO day.”

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