EVERY YEAR MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS are stolen from jobsites, often in the dead of night with no one looking. But the most significant thefts occur in broad daylight with management looking on: the pilfering of employees by competitors. With talent in short supply and everyone eager to grow, “Everyone is stealing from everyone else,” says Rob Bowman, president of Charter Homes in Lancaster, Pa.

If the home building industry has an Achilles heel, it's the subject of this month's “Trade Secrets” report: employee retention. In the upper levels of management, the situation is getting out of hand. Division presidents are in such short supply that a bidding war is going on for the best talent.

The situation is equally severe when it comes to the people who build houses: There just aren't enough to go around. Part of that, of course, is explained by the baby bust, the slowdown in births of Americans born between 1964 and 1980.

Wake-Up Call The industry has finally become aware that it needs to do a better job attracting raw recruits and overcoming the perception that the construction industry isn't an exciting career alternative. The NAHB, for one, has teamed with other construction industry organizations and the U.S. Department of Labor to launch “Skills to Build America's Future,” an initiative to attract young people to careers in the skilled trades. As our report, “The X-Factor Files,” page 100, demonstrates, several builders now work closely with trade schools and colleges to develop future employees.

This new generation of employees, though, expects potential employers to meet certain minimum requirements. You can't attract the best and brightest students without state-of-the-art computer systems and hardware. You need to provide a competitive benefits package, too. And most of all, you need to make it clear that everyone, including your youngest employees, has room to grow within your organization.

Grow Your Own Where will the employees come from to fuel growth at your company? The answer often is from someone else's company.

Hiring outsiders may result in an infusion of new ideas, but these employees may carry baggage—ideas from former employers that don't mesh with your company's objectives. The danger from this approach lay in creating a purely entrepreneurial company in which building houses for management profit is the top priority, and the fundamentals of good company building are overlooked.

Instead, builders need to take a closer look at what they are doing to nurture and grow employees. The literature on this subject is pretty clear: Top company managers need to be involved. They need to lead training efforts. They need to seek and accept ideas from employees. They need to provide continual feedback. They need to create a company culture through words and actions.

The home building industry has a lot going for it. Building homes is spiritually rewarding; it's a wide-open business without a lot of bureaucracy and with plenty of opportunity; and it's a business in need of people with strong business management skills.

Boyce Thompson
Editorial Director
e-mail: bthompson@hanleywood.com