Finding Good Help

How does a rental store balance the need to attract entry-level workers with the need to stay profitable? It's an age-old problem that's getting more challenging as the demand for workers push entry-level wages skyward, while increasing competition for sales keeps owners focused on the bottom line.

Like most business people, rental store owners are guarded about what they actually pay. Entry-level wages vary by position, as well as from market to market, but generally speaking the wages store owners must pay are slightly above the local minimum wage in most regions of the country, according to a sampling of industry experts and rental store managers.

"Most rental stores can pay almost as low as minimum wage -$6 to $7.50 per hour -for counter positions depending on the local market," says Dick Detmer, an industry consultant. "Licensed truck drivers and mechanics get more because they are the most difficult people to find."

In some markets, especially in heavily regulated states such as California, truck drivers not only command a premium wage, but are often the focus of bitter recruiting wars between rental store owners. Charles Maltese, executive director of the California Rental Association, says the demand for truck drivers and qualified mechanics is so intense that it often dominates discussions whenever rental store owners gather.

"People will call me up to find out how much they would need financially to start a rental store," Maltese says. "I ask them whether they have any leads on certified truck drivers or mechanics because right now they are more critical than inventory."

Skilled workers more difficult to find

Maltese says that, in California, drug testing and other certification requirements have significantly narrowed the pool of available drivers. There has also been a decline in support from educational institutions, which has also impacted mechanics.

"One of the real problems is that vocational schools are not turning out people with the skills we need," says Maltese. "We had spent some time to develop a program with the state's vocational system and were starting to get some nice leads. But then funding got tight and everything got killed."

Most rental store owners say finding entry-level counter people is considerably less difficult.

Alan Grant, manager of Lincoln Rental Systems in Lincoln, ME, echoes the sentiment of many rental store owners. "I don't have a problem," he says. "Whenever I put an ad in the newspaper I get a bunch of applications."

Some store owners don't even have to advertise. Mark Whitesell, general manager of Rental Supply Inc. in Greensboro, NC, says he relies on word-of-mouth to find applicants.

"I have had no difficulty finding employees this way. I have been able to add a new employee every nine months and have lost only one," he says. "We now have nine full-time and four part-time employees."

Word-of-mouth advertising

In addition to being an inexpensive way to find employees, Whitesell says the word-of-mouth approach is an effective way to screen employees. "We have such a good crew that they are not going to bring someone here to work who is going to end up being a hassle," Whitesell says.

Not all rental store owners are so fortunate. Some find themselves in markets where the demand for labor is so high that they find it difficult to attract qualified workers. "Finding applicants may not be a problem, but it's another story to find good workers," Maltese says.

One approach store owners can take is to expand their labor pool, searching potentially overlooked applicant sources and finding ways to promote interest in working in the rental industry. For example, rental store owners could start promoting one of their greatest assets -their equipment.

"Many rental stores offer employees free use of their equipment," Detmer says. They also offer employees a percentage off the price of the products they sell, including party supplies. This is a huge benefit that stores should promote when attracting employees."

The rental experience

Another promotional point that is often undersold is the interesting and educational nature of the business. For people who like equipment and interacting with other people, rental stores can be an exciting environment. "Working with equipment and machines is more fun than most people realize," Detmer says.

Rental store owners should also find innovative ways to expose potential applicants to the rental store experience. This could be done by promoting internships, work studies and work co-ops through local high schools, technical schools and junior colleges. "Hardly anybody starts out wanting to work in the rental industry," says Detmer. "They don't think of it as a career until they get into it."

Finally, rental store owners should make sure they are considering all potential sources of applicants, including the "early retiree" market.

"Tapping into the older worker market is not as prevalent as it should be," Detmer says. "People think to recruit right out of high school, but they don't think of early retirees or of hiring part-time people instead of full-time people. Early retirees often have achieved financial freedom so they aren't worried about money. They are also looking for something to do. That combination makes them excellent workers."

In addition to wages, employee benefits can play a key role in attracting good employees. Whitesell, for example, offers employees a 401K plan, a direct deposit option, uniforms and group health insurance.

What should be included in the compensation package depends on the local market and individual business strategies, but store owners are well advised to carefully consider potential future costs before establishing permanent benefits.

Finally, rental store owners should not overlook the importance of keeping their existing employees happy through a quality work environment, training programs and opportunities for advancement.

Training is especially valuable. Not only does it help employees learn how to work with customers and various job situations, it gives employees a sense of the company's commitment to their future. Creating a fulfilling work environment increases the chances that employees will talk up their workplace, which will make it easier to find the entry-level applicants who will become good workers. There will always be a ready pool of applicants if the need arises to replace a worker or add a new job.

Says Whitesell: "Whenever I need an employee, I ask my employees if they know of anybody and they put the word out.

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