Find Great Rank-and-File Workers

By Elaine Pofeldt

Dec. 14, 2012

When architectural restoration and maintenance company Stuart Dean recruits workers, it goes all-out to make sure it’s interviewing the right people. The national company employs about 70 to 80 workers at its New York headquarters in Manhattan and an office in Long Island City, Queens, among nearly 500 nationwide. Many of those who do the physical work of restoring metal, stone and wood on the commercial and residential properties it serves are considered “semi-skilled.”

Stuart Dean relies heavily on a tool called the Predictive Index, a written personality test that helps determine if someone has the right stuff for a particular title. For instance, when hiring technicians for hands-on jobs as foremen, journeymen and “helpers,” it looks for individuals whose test results show they fit a common profile for craftsmen: They’re specialists who like some autonomy to work on their projects and share personal qualities like diligence.

“We find it incredibly accurate,” said Adam Arkells, chief human-resources officer, who estimates that the company has made the right hires 90 percent of the time that it has used the test. “Typically when we make a hiring error, it’s when we ignore the P.I.”

The company’s efforts may seem time-consuming, but experts say that giving careful attention to hiring rank-and-file workers can give small and midsize companies a competitive edge—helping them to avoid high turnover. (To find out how much turnover is costing your business, use this free calculator from the Center for Economic and Policy Research).

“Many organizations invest a substantial amount in senior-level hires. They think those are the important ones,” said George McColgan, president of Resource PI, whose Woodstock, Connecticut, firm advises New York City clients, including Stuart Dean, on hiring. “For the entry-level ones, they grab the nearest warm body and get frustrated when the person doesn’t work out.”

Having a good process for rank-and-file hires is likely to become more important in years to come. A 2012 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that low-skill service jobs were the fastest-growing sector in downstate New York and northern New Jersey from 1980 to 2010. That means that other employers are likely to be vying for the best workers at this level.

Here are some strategies for attracting and retaining the best low-skilled and semi-skilled workers.

Many employers look at lower-skilled employees as a cost, not an asset—and that prevents them from attracting the best people, says crisis manager Nat Wasserstein of Lindenwood Associates, which has offices in New York City and Upper Nyack, New York. Raising entry-level wages by even a small amount may help you attract a better pool, he says. And investing in an in-house training program will make your company more attractive to go-getters who want opportunities for growth—and ultimately make them more productive for you. “Instead of being a cost, they’re now an asset,” he said.

If you can’t raise wages, look into the possibility of offering health insurance, advises Wasserstein. “In my experience, benefits are a big deal,” he said. “Someone who is a lower-wage employee will take a job very seriously, knowing their family benefits are on the line.” Even offering “intangible” benefits, like workplace flexibility, can give you an edge, Wasserstein notes. Often, lower-wage workers face limited child-care or transportation options, so helping to accommodate their schedule can make your company very attractive.

One reason many companies make poor hires is they haven’t given enough thought to the skills and qualities needed to do particular jobs well, says McColgan. Taking time to analyze the common threads among the “gems” who have done a particular job well in the past may help you make better hires. “Don’t accept your intuition only,” advised Arkells.

As a former consultant for call centers, Ella Rucker, 39, is not a low-skilled worker but got a taste of what many endure after a contract position dried up in 2008. The Bronx, New York, resident, who attended college but never got her degree, applied for work constantly—but employers balked at hiring her when they found out she was unemployed. She ended up on welfare for several years. “I couldn’t stand it,” she said.

She eventually picked up more consulting work and is currently employed as a personal assistant. Her advice for employers who are having trouble finding talent: Be open to enthusiastic applicants who are currently out of work. To find the top performers among them, she suggests, look for those who have shown passion, loyalty and a strong willingness to learn in the past. “Look for people who take the initiative, take the extra step,” she said. Those are the kind of people you want on your team.

Elaine Pofeldt writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. Comment below or email

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