Propane retailers wrestle with hiring challenges

May 21, 2015 By    
Propane employees

Propane retailers have been challenged with finding dependable workers.

Having trouble finding – and keeping – hardworking employees? You’re not alone.

Many propane retailers complain that good workers are hard to come by. If you’re one of those retailers, you’re probably desperate for a solution so you can finally stop working overtime.

Small retail propane companies have it especially tough.

“It’s hard to find people that really care,” says Tina McKay, owner and office manager of Affordable Propane, a family-owned company in Fort Morgan, Colo., that delivers almost 1.5 million gallons of propane a year.

McKay and her husband tackle every task that needs to be done to keep the business running smoothly, including driving a bobtail to deliver propane, painting tanks, mowing the corporate headquarters’ lawn and cleaning the office bathrooms.

“It’s really tough to find people who are willing to do everything,” she says. “We never ask them to do anything that we personally don’t do.”

Ray Martin of High Plains LP Services in Trinidad, Colo., also splits duties with his spouse. He says he and his wife work long hours delivering propane, setting tanks, handling billing and other office work for the company, for which he sells about 400,000 to a half-million gallons of propane a year.

Although it’s best to inform prospective employees of what is expected of them early in the hiring process, some employees don’t understand what it’s like to work for a small propane company.

Employees

Give employees the type of work that will help them develop their careers, says Propane Resources’ Tamera Kovacs.

“I’m very honest about what I expect,” says Matt Weingart, plant manager at Salem Propane in Salem, Ohio.

Although Weingart tells prospective hires they will drive a truck full time in the winter, he explains there are other jobs to do come summer.

“They want the job, so most of the time they agree,” he says. “But I’ve found that come spring, the odd jobs start and I’ll get an attitude change for some reason.”

At most companies, odd jobs include washing, painting and leveling tanks because the longer a company is in business, the more tanks it has to service.

“Sometimes it’s tough to find versatile drivers who are willing to do more than just deliver propane,” Weingart says.

In addition to working odd jobs in the off-season, bobtail drivers are required to do more than simply log miles on the road when driving is their primary duty.

“Propane delivery positions are much more labor intensive. Some [employees] will work for maybe two or three weeks and then decide that’s not for them,” says Raymond Anielski, operations manager at Linden’s Propane in LaGrange, Ohio.

Employees

The propane industry requires a certain individual to work in winter conditions.

Martin agrees. “Sometimes you’ll get drivers with the mentality, ‘I’m a driver. I’m not going to go out and change a propane tank,’” he says.

Couple that with winter weather, and there’s no wonder it’s tough to find workers.

“Our business is in the extreme cold,” Anielski says. “It takes a certain individual who’s willing to work outside in these conditions.”

It also takes a special license, testing and training, none of which are free. That’s another reason propane retailers prefer to keep employees; they want to see a return on their investment.

For the propane industry, a driver must have not only a state commercial driver’s license (CDL), but hazardous materials (hazmat) and tanker endorsements, as well. Many prospective employees are qualified to drive a truck but lack the required endorsements. And some don’t want to pay to get them.

“The hazmat certification and fingerprinting is an additional expense to the employee,” Anielski says. “A number of them would rather have a CDL without that endorsement.”

Some companies will take on that cost, however.

Istock.com/Juanmonino

Training sessions ensure company protocol is followed and help build camaraderie among employees. Photo: Istock.com/Juanmonino

“If I want that driver, I have to help him go after that endorsement to haul propane,” Weingart says. “By the time it’s all said and done, you’ve spent probably between $100 and $150 to make him legal to drive.”

Insurance companies have their own requirements, according to Martin, and stipulate drivers must be at least 25 years old and have five years of hazmat driving experience before they will receive coverage.

“With all the different restrictions, it cuts a prospective pool of drivers down to one or two,” he says.

In some parts of the country, truck drivers opt to work for oil companies that typically pay more.

“In our area, [drivers] are working in the oil fields, where they can make twice as much money,” McKay says. “We can only pay so much.”

Weingart agrees. The oil and gas industries have taken a lot of the available drivers away, and a lot of it has to do with the wage.

“They can pay anywhere from $5 to $10 more an hour,” Weingart says. “That’s hard to compete with.”

Another barrier to employment is the product itself. Some people are not familiar with propane.

“A lot of guys just aren’t comfortable driving a propane truck,” Weingart says. “You’ve got to train them properly, make sure they understand it. After that, they don’t have a problem with it.”

Training helps prospective employees overcome those fears. For many companies, employees must undergo hands-on and classroom or online training. In addition, they must pass tests once their required training is complete.

“Propane itself is a hazardous material,” Anielski says. “Today, our industry has a strong focus on training our employees and our fire departments.”

The National Propane Gas Association offers the Certified Employee Training Program (CETP) to ensure those who work in the propane industry possess the knowledge and skills needed to work safely and effectively. The companies that put their workers through this training report good results and have nothing but praise for the national and state organizations that facilitate the training process.

“Over the past few years, I’ve found it easier to maintain my certifications,” Martin says. “So the CETP training has really helped.”

However, it’s all for naught if an employee chooses to leave the company.

“By the time you invest two, three weeks of training on them, and then you get them to learn the territory, you’ve got a couple months training into them,” Martin says. “If they don’t want to stick around for the next season, then you basically start from ground zero again.”

Says Anielski, “It is an expense to train an individual, and then if he doesn’t continue or if he doesn’t work out, that’s an expense we’ve lost.”

That’s why Anielski believes the dependability of a new employee is critical.

“His willingness to learn is so important,” he says.

No matter how much training you put new employees through, sometimes they don’t understand how to work with customers.

“It’s difficult to find a decent driver who is personable to your customers,” Martin says.

Hire a driver who is grouchy and drives into the yard too fast or comes by at the wrong time of day, and before long your customers will be looking for another propane company, he adds.

Employees must be able to talk to customers. The last thing you want a driver to tell a customer with a question is, “I don’t know anything about propane. I just deliver it.”

Martin says if his driver doesn’t know the answer to a customer’s question, he needs to say so but will make a phone call or take a note and have the office call back.

“They’ve got to be able to follow up,” he says. “It’s hard to find people who are articulate.”

Says Anielski, “They’ve got to have a good attitude and be patient with our customers.”

Tamera Kovacs, financial consultant and business valuations and sales expert for Propane Resources in Mission, Kan., says “‘Hire attitude; train skills’ is what Propane Resources founder Dwain Willingham would always say.”

Other desirable qualities include honesty, reliability and dependability. Propane retailers also seek workers who are cooperative and perform quality work.

“Of course, job knowledge is helpful,” Anielski says. “But one of the biggest things is his willingness to learn and a positive attitude.”

Placing ads in newspapers or on Craigslist will allow those companies seeking workers to select prospects from a large pool of candidates.

That’s not always the best way to fill a position, Martin says. Some candidates come in for an interview only because they will lose their unemployment benefits if they don’t.

“They apply for a job, but they don’t want it,” he says. “They will intentionally botch an interview just because they need to show that they interviewed for a certain number of jobs.”

To target qualified workers, consider contacting a local vocational school, high school or college.

“We have asked truck driving schools for applicants,” Anielski says. “It’s just that a number of them don’t want to go through that type of training.”

Kovacs recommends offering paid internships as a way to find good employees.

“Get the good people to come in and start working for you early on. Give them the type of work that will help them develop their careers,” she says.

A lot of people want to work with their hands and learn a skill.

“Reach out to these students,” Kovacs says. “Not everybody wants to go to college and be an accountant.”

Asking family, friends and neighbors whether they know of anyone looking for work is a good idea, too.

“The best luck I ever had [finding employees] was word of mouth,” Martin says.

He asked a friend who runs a trucking company to keep him in mind when any of his drivers ask to cut back their time on the road.

“There are a few people out there who are driving trucks long distances and want to change their job classifications so they’re closer to home,” Anielski says.

Of course, they need hazmat and tanker endorsements, which make it tough to find qualified drivers.

“If we put an ad out for office help, we get a number of applicants,” Anielski says. “Put an ad out for a truck driver or delivery person, and we get very few applicants.”

When posting a job opening, think about the ideal characteristics you would want the person who takes that job to have, Kovacs says. Be sure to target applicants who have those skill sets.

The website LPGasJobs is an online jobs board targeted to those working in the propane and fuel oil industries.

Another website, ZipRecruiter, allows companies to place one job posting on more than 100 job boards, which further widens the pool of candidates from which to choose.

And don’t forget to publicize job openings on your own website.

“That’s a great place to post a job,” Kovacs says.

Consider whether your company offers the benefits and work conditions that attract desirable employees. If you do, get the word out.

Kovacs says, “If you’re known in your community as being a company that everybody wants to come to work for, you will have a wider selection of people to choose from.”

Finally, take a good look at how you run your company. Sometimes it helps to ask yourself, “Am I providing a career opportunity or just a job that’s a stepping stone to somewhere else?” Kovacs says. 

What works for one company

Michael Dew, owner and general manager of Pioneer Propane in Sequim, Wash., says he’s been fortunate in that he hasn’t had a hard time finding quality employees.

Dew employs two 70-year-old retirees, plus a 25-year-old who works with one retiree and a 28-year-old who works with the other, year round.

The retirees already have a good work ethic, he says, so they make ideal mentors for the younger workers.

Dew says the idea came about when he launched his propane company and a friend who had retired approached him for part-time work in the winter.

“Well, he has friends,” he says, when asked how he found the other retired worker. “The retired people are quality people; their friends are quality people, as well.”

As for his younger workers, he snapped up a “sharp young guy” who “topped out” at a pizza joint. And like the retirees, the younger employee has friends who are just as smart and looking for work.

Although the retirees lead by example, they are no substitute for formal training. So each week, the company holds a training class and a meeting, and one day each month a daylong training session takes place. The meetings help build camaraderie and help reinforce company culture.

In addition, a propane-powered appliance is installed in each employee’s home as a way to practice installation and gas checks.

“It’s a very good way to teach what is expected when you’re in somebody else’s home,” Dew says.

But that’s not the only reason for the installation. It’s easier to sell a propane-powered water heater to a customer if you have one in your own home, he says. To further ensure his employees make good ambassadors for propane, he subsidizes the propane conversion of one of their vehicles.

Dew says he believes in propane, so he instills in his younger workers the value of a career in the propane industry.

“It’s not something that’s really going to go away,” he says. “And if you’re safe, it’s a safe environment to be in.”

1 Comment on "Propane retailers wrestle with hiring challenges"

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  1. NONA WESSEL says:

    Thank you for this article really hits home for us.

    Sincerely,

    Nona Wessel
    Wessel Propane, Inc.