Episode 61: I Think People Are Ready to Get Back to Work

Episode 61: I Think People Are Ready to Get Back to Work

Introduction:

Is your office fully open? Is everyone coming back? Or are you going hybrid? Are your employees getting vaccinated? Are you offering them incentives to get vaccinated? When do the masks come off? Are you having a problem filling jobs? Have you had to increase what you pay? Paul Downs tells us, “The people who really seem to want the job and are enthusiastic about it don’t have the skill-set. And the people with the skill-set don’t seem to actually care about completing the process. So we did hire one guy who started a week ago Monday, and he quit three hours later.” In this week’s episode, the owners compare notes on what they’re experiencing as we all search for that new normal.

— Loren Feldman

Guests:

Stephanie Stuckey is CEO of Stuckey’s Corporation.

Paul Downs is founder of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.

William Vanderbloemen is founder and CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group.

Producer:

Jess Thoubboron is founder of Blank Word Productions.

Full Episode Transcript:

Loren Feldman:
Welcome Paul, Stephanie, William. Thanks for joining me today. Let’s start with a quick update on where all of you stand as we seem to be coming out of COVID and this whole past year of pandemic. First question, those of you who have offices, are you back in them? William, I know you’ve talked a little bit about this. I think you had some pushback from your employees. What’s the status of things now?

William Vanderbloemen:
As of Monday, we’re back.

Loren Feldman:
How’d that go?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, I was out of town Monday through Wednesday. So far, great. [Laughter] No, I mean, seriously, it was one of those things where—I love our staff. They’ve been phenomenal throughout this whole mess, but I don’t know that anyone would have voluntarily said, “Why don’t we all come back now?” The longer we dealt with it, the more I felt like, I’m gonna have to be the one to sort of just say, “Hey, here it is.” I let my leadership team speak to it. And of course, there are so many bright people with very different opinions about when things ought to start or not start. So we had a broad spectrum of opinions there. Some people wanted to wait until the fall.

And finally, I just said, “Okay, guys, I don’t micromanage,” and I kind of called in some chips, if you will, and just said, “I don’t really swoop in and tell you what to do. But this time I am.” And they all, to a name, said, “Okay, fine, appreciate you being upfront about it.” And so we had breakfast tacos for everybody individually wrapped on Monday, and we had chocolate chip cookies individually wrapped on Tuesday. I think we’re doing a happy hour outside next week. We kind of tried to make it a fun time to come back.

Loren Feldman:
Is everybody coming in every day? Or did you go for a hybrid?

William Vanderbloemen:
So we came back in September, and if you needed time off, or you felt uncomfortable, you’ve been exposed, whatever… We had so many people who were getting exposed or had been at a party or a thing that it was getting ridiculous. And then when the holidays hit, everybody was nervous. So we were like, “Look, we can’t do big bonuses this year. We can try and protect your holiday.” So we shut back down. We opened back up in an A team/B team thing sort of way in February. And now we’re all back all the time.

Loren Feldman:
And did you get pushback on that?

William Vanderbloemen:
I have not heard that. And I’m not dumb enough to think that they would come tell me. You know, like, what’s the old line? The first day you’re the CEO is the last day you hear the truth.” So I’m sure there’s some buzz out there in places, but this I can tell is going pretty well. Now we’re in Texas, which has been a little more aggressive in opening than some other places. I know it’s different across the country, but in our world, things have been opening up, and the rates are staying down. And so I think people are ready to get back to work.

Loren Feldman:
How about you, Stephanie? Do you have an office?

Stephanie Stuckey:
I was renting office space, and then when COVID hit, I did not renew my lease. We have a distribution center. We just bought a manufacturing facility. We have two of our key employees in Maryland who have rented office space. And then my business partner and I actually each have been working out of our homes. We have retail locations that sell our products, some of which are franchised, so we’re often on the road. And we also have three sales reps who operate out of their homes and their cars.

We really have a model where, for me as the CEO, it did not make sense to rent office space anymore. Now that we own a manufacturing facility, I have an office there. I am moving to Wrens, Georgia in June, temporarily. I’ve got an Airbnb for three weeks, and I’m going to have an office there.

Loren Feldman:
How far is Wrens from Atlanta, Stephanie?

Stephanie Stuckey:
It’s two and a half hours. So that would be quite a commute.

Loren Feldman:
Yes.

Stephanie Stuckey:
So I’m going to be hands-on. I’ll have an office. If you’re in manufacturing, or if you have a distribution facility, you really don’t have the luxury of being able to work remotely. You cannot shell pecans electronically. You can’t make candy without being hands-on at the factory. But we’re largely back to normal, and most of our team has been fully vaccinated at this point.

Loren Feldman:
Have you encouraged that? Did you do anything?

Stephanie Stuckey:
Yeah.

Loren Feldman:
With any incentives, or just…?

Stephanie Stuckey:
I wish we were to the point where we could do some financial compensation, but we offer time off from work for folks to get the vaccine. And obviously, if they had any side effects, they had time off to recuperate.

William Vanderbloemen:
We have found that our people really did respond well to that. We said, “Take comp time to get the vaccine if you need comp time, even if you just don’t feel well.” And I guess the federal government’s been pretty friendly to that, allowing some tax breaks for non-PTO time that employers are giving people for the vaccine. We also gave them $100 so they could go buy dinner out somewhere or whatever they’re comfortable doing.

Loren Feldman:
Do you think that made a difference?

William Vanderbloemen:
I hope so.

Stephanie Stuckey:
That’s great information. Thanks for sharing that. And we do have some employees who are not fully vaccinated at this point, so I might use that $100 incentive ide. $100 is a good incentive if you are working a minimum wage job in a distribution facility, or a line worker in a factory. I think it’s worth it to us to make sure that our employees are safe, and the entire workforce is safe, because one person, as you know, can really impact the entire team.

Loren Feldman:
Paul, I know you’ve been up and running all along—or for quite some time, anyway. Has anything changed for you guys?

Paul Downs:
We had one employee who was working from home most days, mostly because… well, two factors. One, she experienced four deaths in the immediate family from COVID. And this is in Chile, Italy, and the United States. And so she’s scared of it, understandably. Also, she has a child [and] the school situation made it difficult for her to be in. But I got to the point where her not being here was really affecting her performance. I sort of required that she be here more, and we came to a deal where she’s working four days a week, eight to two. Everybody else has been in pretty much all the time. Some of those with children have had to set up a day in the week when they’re watching, and their spouse is working, and vice versa.

We’ve had a mixed set of reactions, but I would say 90 percent of the hours now of the office staff are being done in the office, and 100 percent of the shop floor hours are being done. We’ve been encouraging people to get vaccinated, and had pretty good compliance. The ones who had not set up appointments, it turned out, didn’t know how to do it, in my case. We’ve got shopfloor workers who just weren’t adept with the online tools for finding appointments, and they knew they needed to get it, but they were kind of at a loss of how to make an appointment. So I think that if you’re trying to get a whole blue-collar staff vaccinated, don’t assume they know how to actually get online and find an appointment.

William Vanderbloemen:
Paul, I’m so glad to hear you say that. We ran into the identical issue, and the line we straddle— because we have so many people who have worked as pastors in churches on our staff. I’m forever fighting the battle of good intentions, but me having to say, “Hey, we’re a business, not a church. Quit trying to be their pastor or their parent.” This was a time where I made an exception, because there were people that just didn’t know any better. They hadn’t had to work the system or figure out how to go into Walgreens at midnight, because that’s when the appointments open. So I’m glad to hear that it’s not contained to us. I felt like it might have just been an us problem.

Paul Downs:
I think it’s really easy to assume that, because you’re a business owner and you’re used to dealing with people who are relatively technologically adept. We just don’t understand the vast number of people in this country who just aren’t equipped with those tools. Either they don’t have the computer or they don’t really know how to use the computer. Or even if they do, they don’t understand how you do a Google search to find a quick vaccine appointment.

I think it’s the duty of the employer, if you want people to be vaccinated, to at least ask the question, “How can we help you?” And I ended up making an appointment for one of my guys who had no idea how to do it. And it turns out we got him an appointment within an hour, three blocks from his house. Just, like, boom. And he was so astonished that that could be done. Lovely guy, great worker, he just doesn’t think about those things. If you’re getting resistance, see whether it’s just a mechanical issue of them not knowing how to do it.

Loren Feldman:
I would make a joke about how some business owners aren’t technologically adept either, but Jay’s not with us today.

Stephanie Stuckey:
We can do it in Jay’s absence.

Loren Feldman:
Paul, do you know what percentage of your people are vaccinated now?

Paul Downs:
It’s pretty high. I was actually thinking, for our Monday morning meeting, of just writing all the names down on our whiteboard and then putting two boxes next to each one. And then say, “When we’ve got all these boxes checked, we can throw away the masks, and then we’ll see what happens.”

William Vanderbloemen:
Can you ask that?

Paul Downs:
I can. I don’t know what will happen.

William Vanderbloemen:
No, I mean, seriously, from a HIPAA standpoint, what are you guys hearing about whether or not you can ask if your people are vaccinated?

Loren Feldman:
You know, I’ve read numerous stories saying that there is no problem requiring employees to get vaccinated—that that’s been fairly common in other situations, especially medical places that require people to be vaccinated against the flu. In past years, that’s been commonplace. So if you’re allowed to require employees to be vaccinated, you must be allowed to ask them if they’re vaccinated, I believe.

Paul Downs:
Yeah and William, frankly, I don’t give a shit. [Laughter] I want to accomplish something here, which is to get everybody vaccinated. And I think it’s highly unlikely that anybody is going to make a test case out of me if I put their names up on a board. I have asked all of the employees individually whether they were willing to get vaccinated, and did not hear a no from anybody. So I would just like to show people where the finish line is, because I think we’re pretty close—and encourage everybody to do this for the team.

Loren Feldman:
Instead of offering $100, you’re offering mask removal?

Paul Downs:
Yes.

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, call me passive-aggressive, but I personally wrote the part of our policy that says, “If you are still not vaccinated, we would encourage you to wear a mask.” So if nine-tenths of our office is walking around without masks, and you’re wearing one, guess what?

Paul Downs:
Yeah, that’s a pretty strong incentive. I agree.

Stephanie Stuckey:
I know of one employee who has said he does not want to have the vaccine. And I’ve actually got a meeting scheduled with him next week. I’ve got on the agenda I want to talk about how to manage this issue because I was, frankly, taken aback when I just asked him. He didn’t refuse to answer, but it was a team meeting. I said, “I assume everyone’s gotten the vaccine at this point.” This one person said, “Nope.” Just flat out, “No, I don’t want to get the vaccine,” and so I have flagged that to follow up. It’s obviously a concern.

Loren Feldman:
At what point do the masks come off? Paul, are you thinking it has to be 100 percent before you do that?

Paul Downs:
I think 100 percent is defensible. And we’ve recently implemented access control into our shop for the first time in many, many years so that we can now no longer—hopefully—have strangers just wandering around in the shop like we used to. I think that we can assure the staff that everybody’s had their vaccination, and that you’re in a bubble, more or less. Now, the reality is that most of the time, most of my workers are not anywhere near somebody else. They’re 20, 30 feet away. But the two engineers sit next to each other, and I think everybody would just like to be done with the masks, and so that’s the incentive.

Loren Feldman:
So what’s the argument against removing the masks, even if you only have a couple of people?

Paul Downs:
Well, we allow people to remove the mask if you’re not near anybody. I’m sitting in my office right now, and I don’t have a mask on. And if I go out of the office, I put a mask on. But what’s the argument? I don’t know. It’s common sense.

Loren Feldman:
Well, I mean, if you only have a couple of people who aren’t vaccinated, and you’ve determined that they are holdouts—they don’t want to get vaccinated—is there an argument to be made that, well, then that’s on them, and they’re the ones at risk, and everyone else can take their masks off?

Paul Downs:
Sure, that’s an argument.

William Vanderbloemen:
Loren, that’s why we wrote our policy exactly like we wrote it. I could have said it this way: “Once you’re fully vaccinated, take your mask off.” Instead, we just said, “If you’re not, then we would encourage you to keep it.” So it kind of puts the onus on them. Because we do have people—whether it’s a health concern or whatever other reason, some religious concern—who are not going to get vaccinated. And we’ve kind of put it on them, like, “You keep your mask on, if you’re not gonna get it…” Everybody else? You know, it’s unwritten but clear.

Stephanie Stuckey:
Well, it’s also important where they are. If you’re not around other people, I think that’s different than on our factory floor where we’re in the food-production business. Everyone has a mask and a hairnet and gloves, so we are fully protecting the product that we are packaging and selling. I think it definitely depends on what the job function is, and whether you’re in contact with food, and in close proximity to others.

Paul Downs:
I’d agree with that. Also, what is the physical plant like? On our shop floor, we have giant fans blowing air in and air out all the time. The entire air volume turns over every hour, and so I’m just not as concerned out there. If I had everybody in a tiny little cubicle, you know, shoulder to shoulder, that would be a different situation.

Loren Feldman:
Sure. The other issue that I’m reading about almost every day is the shortage of workers. There are convenience stores that are paying signing bonuses. Any of you having experiences with that?

Stephanie Stuckey:
Yeah.

Paul Downs:
Yeah.

Loren Feldman:
Stephanie, you first. What’s your situation?

Stephanie Stuckey:
Well, I’ll start with the good news, and that is, we are seasonal. Our peak is during pecan season because we’re based on a commodity. August through the end of February is when our pecan-processing shelling plant is in high gear. And off season, we just have a skeleton crew that maintains the machinery and keeps the lights on, so to speak. We have until August to address this, but it’s a challenge, and our candy plant is year-round operational. And we’re already seeing the orders increase dramatically. So we’re gonna have to scale up.

We’re dealing with it in a couple ways. One is, we have hired a professional HR consultant who has extensive experience with factory workers in the South. He’s helping us put together ideas for how we’re going to be effective in recruiting and putting together a compensation package. We’re looking at potentially raising what we pay, and also giving a pathway to mobility within the company—that if you are diligent, you’re a hard worker, there really is a way that you can advance in the company. We’re looking at our benefits package, so not just the hourly pay, but what benefits can we offer? And we’re looking at culture and morale boosting.

And we really have to figure this out soon, because we’ve got Amazon looming on the horizon. 27 miles from our facility, Amazon is building a distribution center that will be opening in a year, and they’ll start recruiting people soon. So we need to figure out what’s the differentiator, working for Stuckey’s in Wrens, Georgia. We’re also fortunate we’re outside of Augusta. So we do have an economic center that has a significant population.

And the last point, I’ll raise—the suggestion I got on this show, Loren—was hiring persons with disability, people on the autism spectrum, who are particularly adept at monotonous tasks. Some of the linework could be adaptable for them. We are working through some of the safety issues. We need to make sure that everyone is safe.

Oh, and I do have one more point: We are looking at upgrading some of our machinery, and frankly, some of this machinery will enable us to have a few less people on the shelling floor. We think we can avoid having to hire a few extra people if we get this upgraded shelling machinery—it’s called a “cracker.”

Paul Downs:
I’ve got a question: Is your shop floor air conditioned?

Stephanie Stuckey:
Not to my knowledge.

Paul Downs:
Do that.

Stephanie Stuckey:
It’s heavily ventilated. I don’t know. I have been there in peak season, because we bought the plant January 29th, but obviously we were doing our due diligence. We were touring the facility before we purchased it. I was there during hot months, and the temperature was really nice. The facility dates to 1934. It’s had some upgrades, obviously, along the way. There are a couple of rooms, like the loading docks, that I think would be very expensive to air condition because there’s so much in and out movement with the trucking side of the business. I don’t know if all of the rooms are air conditioned, but I do think that certainly some of the rooms that are contained—and the candy side is air conditioned, I know that.

Paul Downs:
It’s important. [On] our shop floor, we used to have these giant industrial air conditioners. When I moved in, the shop was fully air conditioned. The air conditioners are so old that, in the 20 years I’ve been there, they’ve just stopped working. So now we’ve spent summers without air conditioning, and it is brutal. I would say that it’s highly unlikely Amazon’s ever going to air condition its warehouse. It might not be as expensive as you think, and an excellent way to distinguish yourself from some of these other jobs that are competing for your workers.

Stephanie Stuckey:
Well, that is a great point. I will definitely follow up on that with the plant manager today and find out: What’s the employee comfort. That’s one of the reasons why I want to spend a month on-site at the facility—not only because I want to get a good understanding of the business side, but I want to get a good understanding of the worker side. All my friends are joking that I’m going to be like Lucy and Ethel on the candy floor. We actually do have the line where the chocolate goes down, and you have to make sure you’re putting the toppings on. Part of what I want to do is actually work and understand what the different jobs are like, and there’s nothing like boots-on-the-ground experience.

Paul Downs:
Yeah, do it for a whole day. Every time I go out and work on the shop floor, I walk away with an enormous level of respect for my guys who just do it all the time.

Stephanie Stuckey:
Yeah, it’s hard work.

Paul Downs:
I happened to run one of our machines for three hours two days ago, and I ended up walking three and a half miles in the course of that.

Stephanie Stuckey:
Wow.

Paul Downs:
Yeah, just walking back and forth, doing the things that they’re required to operate. This is a job we’re hiring for, so it was good insight into why we might want to pay someone plenty of money to do this thing.

Stephanie Stuckey:
And our HR consultant has been doing that, too. He’s actually rolling up his sleeves and working the line jobs to have a real in-depth understanding of what types of positions we need filled.

Loren Feldman:
Do you know how many positions you’re talking about, Stephanie?

Stephanie Stuckey:
During the pecan season, we hire in the range of 50. And unfortunately, every season, we have to hire up a new batch. So part of what we’re looking to [do] is: Can we get some of these seasonal workers full-time and transition them over to the candy side? So about in the range of 50 during the season, and then the management level positions… I’d have to check the chart. Our entire like our FTE is 34.

Loren Feldman:
Let me ask you about that. You referred to the pay packages. I think you were talking about the factory workers. With Amazon coming, I assume they’ll be paying $15 an hour. How big an impact do you think that’s going to have on you?

Stephanie Stuckey:
Well, it will, because some of our entry-level positions are eight an hour.

Paul Downs:
Yikes…

Stephanie Stuckey:
So that’s not competitive. That’s the probationary period, so I’m talking about the absolute rock bottom, get-your-foot-in-the-door, and then you advance beyond the probationary period within a period of weeks. And then you start earning slightly more. But no, we’re not competitive with a $15-an-hour pay scale at the present time.

Loren Feldman:
Do you think you can be?

Stephanie Stuckey:
We’re running the numbers.

Loren Feldman:
You’ve talked to us about changing your business model. You’re increasing your prices and aiming to sell your product in upscale venues does. That’s got to help.

Stephanie Stuckey:
Absolutely, but everyone’s experiencing this, no matter what your industry is. The cost of our goods is increasing. The price of sugar is going up. I’ve mentioned that in previous episodes. The price of packaging is going up. Across the board, we’re seeing letter after letter from the various vendors that we use for our products, our ingredients, [giving] us notice that they’re having a price increase. So we’re feeling the pressure not only from the ingredients, but also from trying to be competitive in the marketplace with the salary structure that we put in place.

Loren Feldman:
Who else is looking to hire?

Paul Downs:
I am.

Loren Feldman:
And how’s it going?

Paul Downs:
I would say poorly. I’m hiring for a CNC operator, which, in our shop, has been a highly-skilled position. Our previous operator had a family issue and decided to move to Seattle. He had been getting paid 28 bucks an hour with all the overtime he wanted, full benefits. He was very good at it. And so he leaves, and we’ve been running ads, getting responses. I would say the rate of responses that are qualified is about 30 percent. Of the people I invited to interview, we’ve had something like 65 percent simply not show up for a scheduled interview.

Loren Feldman:
Wow.

Paul Downs:
The people who really seem to want the job and are enthusiastic about it don’t have the skill-set. And the people with the skill-set don’t seem to actually care about completing the process. So we did hire one guy who started a week ago Monday, and he quit three hours later.

Loren Feldman:
Why?

Paul Downs:
He said, “You know, this job is gonna make me… I’m gonna need to learn stuff. And I just don’t feel like learning stuff. So see you later.” It was astonishing. So I have three interviews in the next two days. We’ll see.

Loren Feldman:
What do you think is happening with the ones who have the skills and make appointments but aren’t showing up? Do they have other opportunities?

Paul Downs:
I think they’re finding another job, or one guy yesterday who didn’t show up said to me, “You know, I really just wanted my current boss to treat me better. And so I used your interview as a threat.” And he canceled half an hour before he was supposed to show up.

I think that one of the things that’s going on—contrasting to maybe 30 years ago—is that there’s so much more information about how to be a good boss and run a decent company that people just don’t want to jump ship as much. One of the best things for hiring is when the average company in your industry is really poorly-run. Then people are willing to take the chance. But now we have things like this podcast that teach us to be better bosses, so my employees aren’t going anywhere, unless they have a serious reason like this one guy who quit. And I think that’s true for most people in most companies. They now feel valued, and they’re not dying to go take a chance on a new job.

Loren Feldman:
Do you think it’s the podcast? Or do you think it’s sites like Glassdoor that let everybody know when somebody’s got a real problem?

Paul Downs:
All of that. All of that. It’s not a buyer’s market like it used to be. There’s a shortage of skills. There’s a shortage of people who have the basic skill=set of showing up and working. And in general, I would say that—given the unemployment situation the last 9, 10 years—everybody who wants a good job has one. And they’re not ready to jump so easily to something else that they don’t know.

Loren Feldman:
With that position you’re talking about, Paul, obviously, you’re paying a lot more than minimum wage for a skilled position. Are you thinking you may have to increase the pay beyond what you’ve been paying in the past?

Paul Downs:
I would be willing to. If somebody has the same skill-set as the guy who did it, they’re starting at 28 bucks an hour with full benefits. That usually works out to—when we add in the overtime—the equivalent of about $34-$35 an hour that they’re in the shop. And so you would think that that’s enough money to get people. We’ll see.

Loren Feldman:
William, what’s going on with you?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, I don’t know that I have congruent experience with Paul or Stephanie, because we’re not doing manufacturing jobs. We don’t have a warehouse, that sort of thing. And we are hiring, but we move at the speed of cash. I’m very hesitant to overextend right now.

And then another thing that happened over the pandemic, Loren, is a lot of the things that we do, we learned to do more efficiently. I know what a caseload should be for one of our consultants or a researcher, but we have—to use an overused phrase—we have a “new normal.” We can get more done with fewer people. So I’m not in a rush to hire, but I’m watching it because we’re very, very busy right now.

And again, it may sound a little contrary to Paul, but yes, it’s an employee’s market, but there’s an enormous amount of turnover going on right now. People are leaving their jobs for a myriad of reasons that we’ve gone over on the podcast before that I kind of predicted—might be too strong of a word—would happen, and they are happening… at least in the sectors we serve. So that means we’re busier and busier, and that means we’re hiring, but we’re doing it slowly. We had three or four new people start in the last week, and we’ll probably hold firm for a little bit and see how things develop this month before we make any more moves.

Paul Downs:
William, would you say that the basic pipeline that prepares people to go into your industry—if you want to call churches an industry—is that healthy?

William Vanderbloemen:
No.

Paul Downs:
I mean, are there schools?

William Vanderbloemen:
No.

Paul Downs:
Are there people who want to go in it? Are they being prepared? Because in manufacturing, it’s really unhealthy.

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, golly, 15 answers jump into my mind at once. It has been an aging workforce. Seminary, or divinity school—the equivalent to law school for lawyers or med school for doctors—for that school, the median age for entering students continues to go up. On the other hand, some of our more innovative clients are getting people right out of college and kind of opening up a trade school within their church. And so you’ve got a young workforce for more entry-level jobs that’s very well-trained. The senior level jobs? Not so well-trained.

Maybe more important than anything—and I think this is true across every job sector—there’s a crunch right now about to happen. We call it “the double-humped camel.” So it’s basically a look at how many workers are available by age sector, just pure numbers of supply and demand. And as the Baby Boomers continue to retire—and they will continue to for a little while—there’s this giant hump of a camel, like there’s so many available and they’re going away. A little farther behind them, millennials and Gen Z’s—which are, I would say, the dominant part of our workforce. Another big hump in the camel, really. Lots and lots and lots of people my age: 35 to 55. It’s where the valley between the two humps happens. So 35 to 55, there’s, frankly, just a shortage of births that happened back then.

So why do I say all this? As the senior level jobs, which is what we tend to help people fill—we don’t really work a whole lot with entry-level or middle management—as those senior level jobs open up with Boomers retiring, are you really going to hand the keys to a large complex organization over to somebody who’s 30? Well, the answer is no. So you’re left with looking at, “Well, how am I going to find someone who’s 43?” If I had $1 for every client that wants me to find them a new senior pastor who’s 43 years old, and acts like Jesus, but got married and drives a minivan and quit drinking wine, I would be a millionaire just for getting $1 for every one of those clients.

Paul Downs:
Do you have a conversation with them about what you just said, in terms of it being utterly illegal to say, “I want a 43-year-old?” I mean, I presume it is, from my understanding of it.

William Vanderbloemen:
That’s part of why people will hire certain consultants. You can be a little bit more delicate with things than not. You can’t interview somebody and say, “How old are you?” But you can tell me, “Hey, in a perfect world, if you had to predict who’s going to work best, what does that look like?” And I ask the questions. So yeah, and we do have the conversation about—and I hate to talk about people like this—but just the pure supply/demand of there’s a need for experienced leaders to take over from retiring senior leaders. And there aren’t that many experienced leaders out there.

Stephanie Stuckey:
We’re having a similar issue with some of the experience. We’ve got a pecan grader in his 80s, and it’s a dying skill-set. So how do we find someone out of college with a degree in agriculture or agribusiness who understands grading pecans? It’s a really critical skill-set.

Loren Feldman:
What are you paying in case somebody’s listening, Stephanie?

Stephanie Stuckey:
To be determined. We’re working on the pay scale right now. It’s seasonal, so a 1099 [worker] comes in for a couple months and grades the pecans, but he’s in his 80’s, and we had to beg him to come back for one more season.

Paul Downs:
It sounds like a technological fix. Because the same thing happens with lumber grading, and the computers can process images so fast now that I think people are building AI systems for this kind of thing.

Stephanie Stuckey:
Wow. That’s fascinating.

Paul Downs:
You should look into it, because you could have a whole table of pecans and the computer could identify every single one and grade them all in a second. It’s amazing, some of the stuff I’ve seen.

Stephanie Stuckey:
We work closely with the Georgia pecan growers. I think trade and industry associations can really be important in trying to find these skilled jobs. That’s just been a great resource—4H, Future Farmers of America—all of these organizations that do help to create somewhat of a pipeline.

Loren Feldman:
So we’re just about out of time. Anybody got anything they’ve learned recently? Anything you want to share?

Paul Downs:
I did learn how to operate this machine that I’m trying to hire someone to run.

Loren Feldman:
Is that why you did it?

Paul Downs:
Yeah, well, we’re so short-handed. There are a lot of things that happen at this machine, from extremely complex tricky operations to one that’s really simple, which is cutting the cardboard for the boxes we use. I talked to my shop manager and I said, “I know you’ve said that box cutting is really for idiots, so I could do that.” And it’s my first time ever running this complicated machine. I found it very interesting, particularly realizing that I was just at the bottom level of understanding how to use this thing. But now I can claim I’ve actually run every single machine in the shop after 36 years.

Loren Feldman:
Well enough to do it for real?

Paul Downs:
I can cut a cardboard box. [Laughter]

Stephanie Stuckey:
I have a learning related to our product launch. We have a marketing professional, a complete, amazing whiz at this on our board, and I got his advice on how we should do our new product launch. We’re not doing a New Coke or changing up our formula or our recipes, but we are getting better ingredients. We are taking out high fructose corn syrup, a lot of the preservatives, and really having a better quality, better tasting product and new packaging. And so this is kind of our launch coming up with the National Association of Confectioners’ annual candy and snack expo. We’re thinking through what we want to do for the product launch, and I was thinking of just doing the typical press release.

Our marketing guy had a really good suggestion: “Make it personal.” We’re a personal brand. We’re going for an emotional connection and building community around the sense of road trips and nostalgia. And so instead of doing your typical press release to the industry trades and to just blanket 100 or 200 press releases to all these different media outlets and hope 1-3 percent of them actually run it, we’re going to do something a little more personal. We’re still working on what that looks like, but we’re going to have something really nicely curated, sending some samples, and sending a personal letter.

Loren Feldman:
Who are you sending this to?

Stephanie Stuckey:
Well, we’re working on the list. So we want to be really careful. We’ve got certain media outlets that really make sense for our product. We’ve got some folks who are really on our wish list—like I would do backflips if Garden & Gun would be interested, or Southern Living. Actually, Southern Living has written about Stuckey’s completely unsolicited from us, so they’re a target. Route magazine, Roadtrippers, which runs a website.

Loren Feldman:
Have you thought of podcasters, Stephanie?

Stephanie Stuckey:
Podcasters? Absolutely.

Loren Feldman:
My thanks to Paul Downs, Stephanie Stuckey, and William Vanderbloemen. As always, thanks for sharing, guys.

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