No one gets into the snow removal business thinking they will be pushing snow into spring. So, when late snow flurries plagued the Northeast last April, contractors were forced to re-examine how they would weather the storm and position themselves for summer success. A focus on labor, cash flow and operations helped to achieve this goal.
Stock your bench
People are the most critical part of any business. Without the right players in key roles, success is impossible. Unfortunately, due to the seasonality and unpredictability of snow removal work, reliable labor in the winter months can be hard to find. Employee turnover and labor shortages were two major issues for our company last winter. Most of the employee turnover took place in the final months of what seemed to be a never-ending winter.
Thanks to the heavy Nor’easter snow that bombarded the Northeast, many team members showed signs of burnout and were simply ready for springtime work. As a result, many of these employees threw in the towel before the end of the long winter. To make matters worse, labor shortages made it near impossible to hire replacements to fill these gaps.
To combat labor shortages and the inevitable employee turnover, our company used persistent weekly recruitment to keep our labor “bench” stacked for the duration of the winter. Weather permitting, we interviewed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for employees and subcontractors. This process allowed us to over-hire when possible and helped us to create a pre-qualified labor pool to draw from whenever we needed experienced help in the field.
Gave an inch, took a foot
This past season, my operations manager and I learned from the age-old advice that says, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Otherwise, you’ll end up breaking it.” This season was the second time my operations manager handled snow removal. However, this year, I wasn’t living in our immediate service area to help him. My wife and I moved 45 minutes outside the service area. The move both shook and empowered my operations manager all at once.
At the onset of the season, he settled right back into his role and planned for a successful season. However, he deviated from one piece of the plan – overnight scouting. He and I planned overnight scouting down to the last detail in his first year on the job. The plan included having overnight “snow scouts” monitoring snow and ice across the service area between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., unless temperatures were above 50°F.
The problem arose when he requested to allow these scouts to take nights off when there were no signs of snow or ice in the forecast. I was skeptical of this plan and shared my concerns, but I allowed him to go ahead with his plan. At first, there were no major issues. However, by allowing for this deviation, he unintentionally created a new irregular work pattern. Later in the season, when asked to work overnight, the scouts pushed back, resisted working when told and demanded only to work when they saw fit.
To make matters worse, these were salaried employees. In the end, he was able to shift the plan back to its original state, but he ended up having to cover shifts during the off times to successfully monitor conditions.
We quickly found that when you deviate from initial plans, especially those that are tried and true, you can get yourself into trouble quickly. No matter what the winter brings or how long it lasts, it is important to remain flexible and be willing to adapt your business to meet the challenges you face.