The multi-year pain point of hiring for custom integration firms does not seem to be letting up any time soon, and that is with all the industry buying groups, CEDIA, and Paul Starkey looking for ways to alleviate it! That said, there are standard business practices that can be adopted by any-sized dealers that can increase their odds of attracting the right talent and, just as important, keeping them around.
We spoke with Tracey Westbrook, director of human resources for Bravas, a company that has famously — and successfully — combined numerous CI businesses from across the country into a national integration firm. Before joining Bravas, Westbrook co-owned Home Theater Technologies, an integration firm based in Dallas, for more than 15 years.
RESIDENTIAL SYSTEMS: You’ve worked in this industry for a long time and you’ve seen recruitment change over the years. How does it compare now to where it’s been in the past?
TRACEY WESTBROOK: Even if you set aside current headlines about the Great Resignation, we’ve known for years now that people aren’t just looking for a job anymore — they’re looking for a career. They want a place where they feel comfortable and are given the tools they need to grow and develop. That represents a paradigm shift, really, in how things were when I first got started. An employer used to be able to post a help wanted sign and that was enough to get candidates in the door. To be successful in recruiting now, you must understand the needs of your potential candidates and adjust course to create an environment that’ll accommodate those needs. It’s more challenging because, for some, it requires an attitude adjustment.
Job jumping seems to be more prevalent than it’s been in the past. If a person brings in a lot of different experiences, that’s great, but at the same time you have to think, “How long is he or she going to be here?”
There was a time when an employer looked at work history with an eye for stability and loyalty. Now many employers view a variety of experiences as a wealth of knowledge. It’s wise to look at work history through a different lens today.
It’s on you as the employer to build an environment where someone wants to stay. People may leave for a million personal reasons you can’t control, but you can do your best not to give them a reason to want to go.
How do you give potential employees a reason to join, let alone stay?
With Bravas, we’ve learned that just as we analyze our client’s needs and we tailor our company direction to meet those needs, so should we analyze and adjust to the needs of our team — whether that means the people who are with us today or the ones that we hope to attract in the future. That’s the vision we’re working on within Bravas HR — we’re in the people business. Full stop.
I believe that is a message that resonates both with current employees and potential applicants. I remember when the group of integrators who eventually became Bravas first started meeting, we quickly recognized that one of the universal challenges we all faced was finding and keeping talent. And it was one of the reasons why we thought we could do better together as a single company. We could put that collective intelligence of the group together and address that challenge head-on. Through our experiences, I’ve come to understand that everything within an organization — company culture, management style, training, compensation, benefits — all of it affects your ability not just to attract talent, but to hold on to them, too. That kind of holistic approach is what Bravas HR is trying to promote within our organization.
There will always be team members who are tempted by a higher hourly wage. They may make a change for a few dollars more without thinking about things like health and retirement benefits or the business stability and career opportunities a national integrator brings to the table. It always feels like a validation of our approach to see those who have left for greener grass return again once they experience the difference.
The Bravas website leans heavily on the fact that it supplies a career — you can have a life in this; you can come here and there are different places to go and levels to achieve.
When you put that message out into the world, you need to mean it, and you need to have meaningful programs. That’s what we’re working on every day in Bravas HR — creating an environment where we’re not just giving that concept lip service but where employees begin to see it and feel it and know it’s true. We started with the design of our health, retirement, and time-off benefits package. Now we’re examining things like culture, development, and performance. It’s not a quick process; it’s a long game. It’s a commitment. Some days, I feel like the starting gun just fired and we’ve got the entire marathon left to run.
What qualities do you look for in candidates, both who have had experience and those who do not have it? And what do you avoid?
Regardless of experience level, the two qualities that I look for when I’m talking to a potential candidate are closely related. First, I look for a thirst for knowledge and a desire to know more. Second, I look for resourcefulness. I’m looking for people who are going to think outside of the box, who are going to look under every rock that’s out there to find a possible solution when they’re faced with a challenge, and who will not give up when an obstacle presents itself.
It’s probably clear that it’s not attractive to me when minds are closed to new ideas. I tend to avoid that quality.
Nearly everyone fears the training process — not so much the candidates coming in, but the people who must do it. How do you onboard and train new candidates with minimal disruption to workflow?
We talk about this all the time in my environment, and our director of learning would give you an earful if you asked him that question. I think it’s important to say that I firmly believe that learning ought to happen in every interaction with your teammates daily. When it’s done right, learning is a part of your culture to the extent that your staff can feel safe when they make a mistake because those mistakes become learning opportunities that can benefit the whole team, as well as them individually.
We’re working on an initiative that we hope to launch this year that will identify the necessary skill sets and tie those skills to a training curriculum that will address both the technical and professional development needs of the various roles in our organization. Here’s an example: when you teach a new lead tech how to program a control system, you only address the tech half of that equation. You may also need to teach them how to lead. Soft skills and professional development can be just as important and impactful as the technology side. By the same token, we need to ensure that training is meaningful, not burdensome. So, with this initiative, we’re also trying to reach a state of balance without overcorrecting.
Frequently, integrators see training as disrupting production in the face of immediate needs. At its core, though, training is an investment in future production. When people say, “I can’t afford to sacrifice production time to train my staff,” it’s hard for me not to ask them, “How can you afford not to?”
What do you find are the easiest and hardest positions to fill?
I think that most integrators will give you the same answer. The easiest roles to fill are anything that’s entry-level, where you can hire based on aptitude as opposed to technical knowledge. After that, it’s the roles in our organizations that exist in other industries, too. A delivery driver in any industry can be a delivery driver for us. As for the hardest, it is finding those experienced installers and programmers. It’s a limited candidate pool.
Have you found any places where crossover candidates have been coming through, such as electricians or even commercial integrators looking for a change?
Sure, and that’s a great question to ask, “Where can you find people with skill sets that are compatible with residential integration?” Are they in cable and satellite installation? Commercial AV? Car audio? There are a lot of compatible industries out there. Another thing we’re working on in our department is identifying those industries that could help us expand our candidate pool. That’s an exciting thing for us to dig into this year and early into next.
Many of the smaller integration companies don’t think much about corporate culture, thinking that it is something more for larger companies. How can your average CI business make itself a better fit for candidates?
Leaders who don’t buy into the concept of corporate culture are leaving a void by default that leaves the door open for a culture to develop without their input. Culture is part of the environment in the workplace, regardless of size, and it is real. Culture is a part of everything your organization does, whether you acknowledge it or not, and it is the foundation of retention and employee development.
If you go back to the statement I made earlier when I said, “We’re in the people business,” whether considering our client’s needs or the needs of the teams that serve those clients — I believe that if you make that your guiding principle, your culture is going to form in a healthier direction naturally. When you don’t even register the concept of your people’s needs, then you’re leaving it open to chance.
Related: Staffing Up!
Are there building blocks to creating a healthy culture?
In my view, the best companies’ fundamental missions, visions, and values are developed with their team’s needs in mind.
The next piece involves including this “people philosophy” in the decisions that you make every day. It’s where the rubber meets the road to a certain extent. If you think about an integration firm’s P&L, in order of largest number to smallest, hopefully, your top-line revenues are followed by the cost of goods sold and gross margin. The next biggest number is likely your people-related expenses. If you’re not paying as much attention to that as you are to gross margin, that’s a big piece to ignore.
Most integration companies don’t have HR staff. What’s the minimum that these companies should be doing in an HR-related areas in terms of compliance and also to make it a better place to work? Can they get HR support, or at least knowledge, from any associations or local business groups?
Compliance and risk mitigation are two things that owners never seem to find the time to address. The moment a claim arrives, though, it sure does feel important!
There are resources, and they don’t have to break the bank. I would encourage business owners who don’t have HR experience on staff to investigate payroll processing companies. Some of the larger ones offer HR tools and resources as a part of their pricing. There are also national commercial insurance brokerages that offer HR tools as a value-add. It may also be wise to consider partnering with an independent HR consulting firm to review your employment practices and onboarding, but also so you have a resource at hand on a need basis.
Related: HR for Integrators
What advice would you give to any CI businesses that are having a miserable time staffing and training?
It’s a real problem that will not just go away magically. It’s going to require your attention, and not just for one day when you can sacrifice a couple of hours, but a real commitment. I would encourage them to invest some true brain share in their overall philosophy about people, put it down on paper, and then make meaningful business decisions based on that philosophy — not just today, but every day. Making that practice a part of your everyday life will pay off dividends.