Ready to Meet the Demand? Five Tips for Better Recruitment and Retention in a COVID-19 World

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted painting businesses in many different ways.

“One thing is true across the board, though,” says the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Every business will face tremendous challenges as our nation begins the path to recovery, while still facing the public health threat of the virus.”

For many painting companies, one of the main challenges continues to be finding good workers. For some insights, PPC sat down with Tim Kenney, owner of W.T. Kenney Co., Inc., a fourth-generation professional painting contracting business based in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Tim Kenney
W.T. Kenney Co.

Kenney, a founding member of the Commercial Painting Industry Association (CPIA), shares what his company has learned over the past 80 years about how to recruit and retain employees – and what they’re doing now in response to the changes brought on by the pandemic.


The pandemic’s effect on the workforce

The U.S. unemployment rate was 13.3% in May 2020, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is down slightly from April’s 14.7%, which was a post-World War II high. By comparison, the jobless rate in May 2019 was 3.6%.

The latest survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America indicates that construction activity has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels in 34 states, while 21% of construction-related companies added employees in June. The Wall Street Journal reports that employers added 2.5 million jobs in May, the most added in a single month on records dating back to 1948.

Many are still out of work, though, creating a larger potential labor pool in many parts of the country. But good hiring practices still apply, Kenney says. Here are his five strategies for recruiting and retaining the best workforce in our current economic climate.

1. Be selective when recruiting

A year ago, Kenney says he was paying head hunters to find painters. That isn’t necessary now, but you still want to be cautious when interviewing to avoid “fool’s gold” and find the right fit for your company.

Many businesses have had to take a hard look at operating costs, and for some, that meant laying off their least productive employees.

“The job market now is flooded, but don’t just jump at the first opportunity,” he says. “You want to avoid knee-jerk hiring.”

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2. Treat people the way you want to be treated

When it comes to its people, the Golden Rule is not just a casual saying at W.T. Kenney. It’s the way they do business.

“It’s simple – treat your team members as you would like to be treated,” Kenney says. “Get to know them as people. Humanize the relationship.”

To illustrate his point, he shares a story about a team member whose father passed away. They visited the job site where he was working, handed him $500, and told him to go to the airport, offering to pay for his week off as well.

3. Share a clear pathway to success

Feeling a ceiling over your head can quickly cultivate dissatisfaction, Kenney says. He encourages internal coaching and mentoring, providing a clear path to advancement and promotion. This approach creates “contagious professionalism.”

His motto: Hire carefully, fire fast, and invest heavily in the people you have.

Your existing team members are ambassadors not only to your clients, he says, but also to prospective hires that they interact with outside of work. If your team feels their value and has pride in their position, this will naturally draw more high-quality talent looking for a similar opportunity.

“Perception is reality, and if you have a professional image – uniforms, nice trucks, and quality work – then you will get noticed,” Kenney says. “Everyone wants to be a winner.”

4. Pay above-market rates

While paying more isn’t always an appealing option, Kenney believes that it’s worth the investment.

“Hiring new employees is always a risk,” he says. “If I had a dime for every time someone told me they were a superstar, I’d be retired three times over. I let them know this and I tell them to ‘talk with their brush.’”

In other words, Kenney says, it pays off in the long run to invest more for better, committed talent. This also improves employee retention, as painters are less likely to leave your team for greener pastures.

Similar to sharing a clear pathway to advancement, he says a higher pay rate also will draw a greater pool of applicants, including the best who are looking for a place to take their career to the next level.

5. Emphasize professional development

Ongoing training and professional development are another key to recruiting and retaining the best workers, Kenney says.

To teach health and safety awareness, his company invests in the OSHA 10-hour Construction Outreach Training Course for all employees, and their 30-hour training course for field supervisors. They also provide aerial boom training, harness and respirator fit tests and more.

They also do a Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) background check of prospective hires. “Schools often require this,” Kenney says.

Before any on-campus painting projects, they also have team members take sensitivity training. “This is really appreciated by schools,” he says.

This kind of ongoing professional education not only creates a safer, more effective team, he says, but also a team that is more aware of their own growth and opportunities within your company.

Read more of what pro painters have discovered on the job in the PPC What I’ve Learned archive.