Training Tips for Isolated Times

Has COVID-19 altered your job site activity? Turn your attention to developing and refining a training program for new employees.

Painting contractors have grappled with a thinning talent pool inside the industry in recent years. But they’ve increasingly found success looking for new employees outside the industry.

For many painting companies, focusing on character and work ethic in potential employees, rather than painting experience, has proven to be an effective labor solution that can also pay dividends in building company culture. However, the lack of painting prowess opens up a different challenge: How to improve training to combat the skills gap.

And yet many smaller painting businesses – like small businesses in any industry – don’t have much in the way of formalized training programs, which ultimately boils down to a lack of time to develop them. But that can lead to drawn-out apprenticeships, unproductive employees, morale issues and high turnover.

The industry disruptions brought on by COVID-19 only add to the challenges of hiring and training. Others have scaled back to exterior jobs with skeleton crews only.

With the impact of social distancing on painting workloads across the country, now is the prime time to shift focus to other aspects of your business – namely, operational items that can help position your business for success whenever you’re able to return to regular work activity. And one of the top priorities should be a well-designed employee training regimen.

The specifics of what you teach new employees will be personal to you and reflective of your company’s practices, culture and values. But here are three tactics to help get you started on the approach.

1. Outsource basics, insource technique

Apprentices will see their biggest growth with a brush in hand on the job. Unfortunately, in many areas of the country that’s not an option right now. But there’s still learning that can happen, especially if those apprentices are brand new to the painting industry. They’ll need to learn the tools, terminology and a few core basics first – everything from brush types to paint selection to job site safety.

The good news is you don’t have to create a training program for basic painting knowledge from scratch – a number of industry resources have already done that for you. Here are two, free resources that offer centralized training specifically dedicated to supporting painting contractors with training efforts.

  • is an online portal developed by Sherwin-Williams that offers a series of nine training courses in English and Spanish. The courses are free and open to anyone, and they range from prep work and color basics to paint ingredients and brush and roller essentials. “The goal,” says Jeff Winter, Vice President of Residential Marketing for Sherwin-Williams, “is to offer new painters basic vocabulary and knowledge about the industry and what’s needed to be a productive member of a team.”
  • ShurPRO is an ever-growing repository of articles and videos that covers general prepping and painting tips, like repairing common drywall imperfections and masking cabinets, as well as more advanced knowledge, like spraying techniques and selecting and applying painter’s tape.

These kinds of resources aren’t designed to take the place of active, on-the-job learning, but they are a valuable complement to it.

Digital resources like these give employees a running start. “This way they’ll know the difference between a bristle brush and a synthetic brush and other painting basics,” says Winter.

They also provide contractors an invaluable resource: time.

“Now the painting company owner doesn’t have to take the time to train new employees on vocabulary,” Winter adds. “Instead, they can focus on the hands-on training.”

2. Create a tiered system

We all want employees to be as efficient and productive as possible right out of the gate. But new painters won’t be cabinet experts in a month’s time, especially if they’ve come from another industry.

Your expectations should promote swift growth, but they should also be realistic and measurable when it comes time
for employee reviews. One way to strike a balance is with tiered performance benchmarks that
get more in-depth over time to gradually scale up employees’ skills.

Christian Militello of Militello Painting & Powerwashing, a fast-growing home improvement company in the Philadelphia area, recently launched a training program he developed and branded as the Militello Painting Success Pathway. It involves four main levels of training: Apprentice, Painter, Lead Painter and Crew Leader – with three sub-levels within the categories of Apprentice and Painter.

“It started out as a way for me to frame employee reviews, and as a way to help motivate younger employees,” Militello explains. “But then I realized it could expand into a training program for anyone at any experience level.”

Here’s how Militello’s training program generally breaks down:

  • The Apprentice 1 level starts with very basic skills and work habits, like punctuality, team-mindedness, cleaning brushes, loading/ unloading vans and mixing joint compound. Apprentice 2 involves caulking, taping, identifying areas that require preparation and rolling basics, while Apprentice 3 involves entry-level painting work on windows and doors.
  • Painter levels 1-3 involve excelling in the skills employees develop during their apprenticeship periods, as well as picking up new abilities like painting walls and knowing their production rate.
  • Lead Painters will add to painting skills with expert field knowledge and communication skills, gaining responsibilities that range from knowing all types of patches to directing projects when crew leaders aren’t on site.
  • Crew Leaders are trained to assist in higher level business operations, like employee reviews, training future crew leaders and ordering supplies. They’ll also learn carpentry skills.

At each level, Militello has his employees self-assess their abilities and formally present to him what they’ve learned. “It’s a way for them to take ownership of their skills and work,” he explains.

Setting benchmarks like these immediately starts employees on a track of skill-building and growth. It’s also a way to keep you committed to executing the training program efficiently. And that’s ultimately good for your employees, your culture and your bottom line.

3. Attach value to growth

The more your employees’ skills improve, the more your company’s work, reputation and cost efficiency will improve. And there’s financial value to that, which can be passed along to employees to help limit turnover, increase morale and build culture.

Militello offers raises for each level to which his employees progress.

Kevin Nolan of Nolan Painting, also a Philadelphia-based company, does the same with his training program. Nolan has had tremendous success with hiring, training and retention – his company is one of the largest residential painting businesses in the mid-Atlantic, with a staff of 100-plus employees and annual revenue of $12 million.

Part of that success comes from the financial incentives Nolan attaches to his employees’ growth.

“We start employees at $15 an hour with no painting experience necessary,” Nolan explains, “and we then have a fairly aggressive growth track for them.”

Nolan’s approach puts new hires on a progressive training track to grow skills and pay quickly. If employees are performing up to standards at their three-month skills evaluation, they get a raise to $16 per hour and continue to potentially earn $20 per hour within one to two years.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of PPC magazine. Story by Diane Walsh, Vice President, Market & Channel Development, for Shurtape Technologies, LLC, makers of FrogTape brand painter’s tape. Photography courtesy Shurtape.