Josh Zolin, CEO of Windy City Equipment Service and author of Blue is the New White, is on a mission to close the skilled trades gap. We met up via Zoom to talk through some of the major challenges faced by blue-collar companies today, and we covered a lot of ground on the benefits of hiring for diversity, how to keep distributed employees engaged, and how technology plays an important role in the growth trajectory of companies in today’s modern age.
Read on for some of my favorite bits from the interview, and if you haven’t already, make sure you subscribe to Josh’s podcast and buy a copy of his book to give to every high school senior you know who is struggling to figure out what to do after graduation.
Paralee: Technology and diversity are two words heard often in the halls of startup accelerators and internet startups as the keys to success. Why should blue-collar and skilled trades businesses prioritize them as well?
Josh: My mission is to close the skilled trades gap. Although I don't typically focus on one aspect of that or another, diversity in the workplace is definitely a big part of that, because if we want to close that skilled trade gap, then we can't ignore much of the demographic that can help us do that.
And technology is a tool that's at our disposal now. And it's about time. I think this industry is still, and typically has been, a little bit behind when it comes to technology. I believe we're starting to catch up a little bit with a lot of the solutions that are coming out specific to the skilled trades. And I'm a big proponent of that and utilizing technology to better the culture of an organization.
And it's a double edged sword because I'm a technology buff, and I always find these shiny new objects that I want to implement. And each one of them has a specific purpose. Right. But a lot of people in the company, they have to say, hey, Josh, can you just scale back for a second? You're implementing like six and seven and eight new solutions for us. And it tends to add some complexity to what we're doing.
I'm like, oh, that's a really nice way to tell me to shut up and stop.
Paralee: So what advice do you have for people who aren't tech buffs and aren’t necessarily out there looking for technology to help them solve problems but still have major challenges to solve?
Josh: We know that all of these skilled trades company owners and executives are focused on the quality of their work. These people take a lot of pride in the things that they do every day, doing a good job, making sure they're working clean, making sure that they're fixing whatever they're going out to fix, because that is the objective.
So they need to ask, “How can technology help the quality of my company and the quality of the service that I’m providing?”
For instance, I use XOi. It was a cool concept, and I got it, but it took me a little while to understand how I could implement that and what it meant for the quality of my service. But I quickly realized that attaching shareable videos to all the work orders can provide a sense of transparency that not only makes the customer feel more comfortable, but also is a way to hold my technicians accountable. And the quality of my service went up immediately.
And XOi is a software built specifically for field service companies, but there are other ways that you can use a software like that to implement quality control, having a technician show a manager what they're doing while they're on site before they leave.
We also use Slack for internal communication. Not a whole lot of service companies are using slack, but you really have to offer a clear communication point for technicians. We've got four branches now across three states, so you can imagine the gap in communication that can be created without some sort of a solution to keep it all together. And that all equates to quality.
You need something to connect and and bring all the departments together for quicker answers. At the end of the day, that just improves the quality of my service. It's just about finding the technology that can push it forward.
Paralee: Tell me how you ensure a consistent and supportive experience for a diverse workforce.
Josh: It’s a challenge with different branches and different personnel, but it's about consistency from the top down. I think a big key is that if the proper fundamentals of the company are in place and the proper values are in place, diversity doesn't matter. Once you bring somebody into the company, it doesn't matter if they're male, female, black, white; race, nationality, and language all go out the window.
All that matters is, “Can you do the job?” Which is which is ultimately the way that it should be.
Paralee: I’d love to hear your thoughts on supporting multiple languages within blue collar companies.
Josh: We do have a couple of people here on staff that their first language is Spanish. And sometimes there's a little bit of a language barrier. And it doesn't bother me, it doesn't bother my staff, but I know sometimes it bothers the employee because they feel their communication doesn’t come across the way they want it to with customers. And I think it almost makes them feel like, “Hey, I'm better than this, but whoever I'm talking to may not think so.”
But I think it's really important for the culture of the organization to make everyone feel comfortable and help them to feel as intelligent as they know they are. It comes down to the culture and the value of the organization, the values that that organization has in place.
A great example that comes to mind is what a friend of mine would do whenever onboarding a new employee is he would actually have a welcome sign made. Something simple like “Welcome to X, Y, Z Company,” but he would put it in all the different languages that they had at the company, making sure to include the ones that the new employee spoke. I thought that was a really fantastic idea.
Paralee: What are some practical ways that business owners can build a more engaging culture for their employees? How do you make them feel like that family business that we're all working together to create an impact.
Josh: It all starts with the leadership team. That's where the mind set starts. And every person that has direct reports has to be on the same page with one another. And I think that more often than not, even though that's fundamental to every business, it’s most often where the breakdown occurs. Some people don't always communicate on the issues or the topics that they should.
And then I'm a big fan of keeping direct reports at a minimum, like a Navy SEAL approach. One manager doesn't oversee more than six employees, so you can keep that close-knit group.
Once you get past six employees, that communication starts to break down and people start to feel excluded because just nobody has that type of attention that they can give to all of those people at once. So I think smaller groups or crews is definitely important to make people feel included and to really reinforce the communication, the culture and quality that we were talking about before.
It’s important to create an environment where everyone is comfortable sharing what they want to share. I'm the CEO of a company, so it's not easy for somebody to come in here and say, “Hey, Josh. I think you're doing something wrong. Can I tell you about it?” It doesn't happen often.
You really have to work to create a platform where people trust each other enough to deliver constructive criticism. I don't care how many tech meetings I hold, if my techs aren't comfortable telling management, “Hey, this is what's wrong,” then nothing's going to be improved. No one's going to feel heard, and that makes for a company that won't last.
So I'm constantly working to create a receptive culture. I don’t pretend to know everything. It'd be cool if I did, but what I often tell people is, “I know everything. I just can't remember it all.”
It’s one thing if people feel comfortable telling you something. The other thing is you actually have to do something about it.
Paralee: Technology and diversity can unlock a lot of growth potential for companies, but there is still a shortage of skilled workers out there. Do you have any advice for young adults that might entice them to consider something other than college after high school?
Josh: My thought on that is that unless you're absolutely sure that what you want to do the rest of your life is going to require you to have a college education.
And there are several reasons for that. A big one, obviously, being finances and costs and starting your entire adult life with a ton of debt that you're going to be struggling for years to get out of. If you don't know what you want to do, it's best to figure it out. College is always going to be there. I I've talked to a lot of people that opted not to go to college and then pursue it another route, whether it be the trades or trades adjacent or something else, and then decided to go to college later when they really understood what it was that they were passionate about, what it was that they wanted to learn.
College is not about going to college. It's not about getting the education. It's not about getting the degree. It's about the ROI. It's about what that college education can give you in the future. What kind of dividends can it pay, not just monetarily, but in quality of life.
So many people are pushed into college even if they don't know what they want to do. But it's still more of the same schooling experience they've had in high school, and now they're paying for it. It's just not giving them the type of experience that they need to understand what it is they might want to do in the future.
And it comes from a good place. Back in the day, in the 70s and even the early 80s, going to college without a clear objective was probably good advice because there weren't that many college degrees to go around. If you had a college degree, it meant job security. Today, a college degree is not a guarantee of anything.
Well, it's disengaging right now. If you force kids into learning something that they don't want to learn, they're not going to learn it whether you force them to or not. Which is why waiting to figure out what it is they truly want to learn who pays the most dividends, because then they're truly engaged and interested in what it is that they're being taught.
If you're interested in hearing more from Josh, I highly recommend his book as well as his Blue is the New White podcast where he interviews folks in the trades to get their stories on how they got to where they are and their own advice for people seeking to join the ranks.