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Interview with Stone World’s Jason Kamery: Hiring Challenges in the Fabrication Industry

By Kate Tyndall

February 29, 2020

In the stone fabrication industry finding workers is at a crisis level, as it is across the construction industry. Fabricators have a couple of extra challenges: The labor pool is small to begin with, and wrestling with big slabs of stone is risky.

Stone World managing editor Jason Kamery outlines the problem, challenges industry leaders, and offers some solutions that have worked for other fabricators.

“There used to be a ton of people who wanted to do this job. There was inherent risk moving around slabs that could kill you, but it paid well.” That’s no longer the case.

Finding Workers

The risk of bodily harm is not the only reason finding workers is tough. The stone industry doesn’t promote itself very well, Kamery says.

“Here’s a specialized job within the construction industry, where a lot of the bigger shops offer 401(k) retirement accounts and medical benefits, yet people don’t realize these positions are available. That’s because the stone industry is not doing its job, and it needs to address this problem."

The labor pool for stone fabrication is small. That, coupled with the aging of the workforce that is occurring across the flooring industry, makes it even tougher for fabricators to find people.

Uncertain where to find the labor they need, Kamery says fabricators sometimes fall back on hiring workers away from their competitors. That’s not always a wise move. “If they leave their current employer for you, there is a risk they will leave you too,” he says.

What has worked for a lot of fabricators is asking current employees who are doing good work to canvass their friends who are job searching, he says. Sweetening the request with a signing bonus is another option that can provide long-term dividends for the employer. He also suggests fabricators consider hiring someone from a different background. Experience is not always a failsafe indicator of success. “You could have a guy who has 10 years experience and been doing it wrong for 10 years,” Kamery says wryly. 

Asking the Right Questions

Evaluating job candidates takes thought if an employer wants to get an employee who will perform to expectations. The means the employer needs to have some, and be able to articulate them. Don’t just plug a warm body into an empty slot in the shop.

Kamery says smaller shops will say they don’t have time to spend a lot of effort interviewing their candidates. That's an understandable situation in a 5-man shop where one man down means 20% of the workforce is gone. The burden on the remaining employees is increased and job deadlines might be missed. But an unsatisfactory hire means more upheaval, another search for candidates, and stress on remaining employees. Unnecessary turnover can be a real morale buster.

Kamery says employers need to decide exactly what traits they have to have in an employee for a particular job. Not want, but need.

If a shop owner needs a saw operator, and identifies accuracy and attention to detail as the traits a prospective employee must have to do that job, then the employer should hone in on those two traits in the interview, he says. Now it becomes easier to separate the wheat from the chaff, and hire someone.

The employer’s task doesn’t end once a candidate is hired.

Building a Good Employee

“People don’t wake up and actively try to screw over [an employer’s] day. If they don’t know what to do, it’s your responsibility to make sure they do," Kamery says, counseling fabricators to resist the urge to always believe it's the employee's fault. Because sometimes it isn't. “Fabricators are always resistant to believe it’s their fault.” 

There are simple ways to deal with problems and ensure that workers feel valued.

Meet weekly at a set time to go over the past week’s performance, evaluate what went wrong, and how to handle that situation going forward, and highlight what went right, he suggests. These meetings don’t need to take a lot of time. For a small shop, 15 minutes is probably sufficient.

“If an employee did something well, acknowledge it, and put it in lights."