Most of us in the workroom business got into it because we love to sew. Most of us have no formal business management education. We have learned to manage our businesses around our sewing, probably more out of a sense of survival and perseverance than from actual knowledge. We wear many hats out of necessity: secretary, accountant, research and development (definitely more than we planned on!), production supervisor, seamstress, fabrication designer, decision-maker, and on and on. In many cases we really are not managing our businesses. Our businesses are managing us.
Unfortunately, when we are overwhelmed with work we are likely to become frantic and not take the time to evaluate the needs versus the changes and the costs of hiring employees. So often we are only looking at the solution to a problem (getting more work out faster) and not at the side effects (the time involved in managing employees). It's like some cold medicines. We take the medicine to stop the cold symptoms so we feel better and can continue working, but it also makes us so sleepy we can't work. The trick is to take the right medicine in the correct dosage at the correct time. In other words, investigate the causes and effects of hiring so you are prepared for the outcome.
When you hire employees, you not only add to the number of hats you must wear, but you enlarge the hats you had to begin with. From the start, you will be getting into advanced accounting, teaching and people management.
The biggest change that occurs when you hire an employee is that you become a personnel manager. In itself that encompasses many additional jobs and responsibilities. First, you now are responsible for having enough business to keep that person hired. She or he is now dependent on you for income.
You must be knowledgeable about all the taxes, paperwork and information the government requires of employers. Of course, you could pay an accountant to take care of it, or get a good accounting software program.
You also must be knowledgeable about hiring and firing laws. In this age of lawsuits, it is extremely important to document everything concerning employees. As a people manager, do you know how to deal effectively with such employee problems as tardiness, absenteeism, personal problems and more? It is wise to learn about handling employee problems before you are faced with them. I highly recommend a book called, "Why Employees Don't Do What They're Supposed To," by Ferdinand Fournies. It is a very short and to-the-point book I wish I had when I had employees.
You may not realize it, but when you hire an employee you are making a major investment in your business. I'm not just talking about what this person will cost you, but what this person will bring to your business. After all, the whole point of hiring someone is to get the work done. This is where training comes in.
Hiring an inexperienced person is not likely to give you an immediate return on your investment. In fact, if you hire an inexperienced seamstress, you may even lose money in the beginning because you might not create the same products enough times for the new person to really understand and learn the procedures well enough or to build up speed creating them on his or her own. And because some products hardly ever are repeated, a seamstress is never likely to get very fast at producing those items.
This brings up another duty of the investment manager: performance evaluation. While you train a new employee you must determine if this person is going to be able to produce up to your quality standards and be fast enough to make money for you. Otherwise, your investment is lost.
Training is time consuming, but it is the main key to managing your investment. Good training, regardless of the position or experience of the person, establishes a good foundation for that employee to grow and excel in your company. Because this business is so reliant on custom work, when you hire help it is like buying stocks. You have to look at it as a long-term investment.
Training also can be a very rewarding experience. It is always a joy for me to see someone get excited not only about learning something new, but about doing it well.
Once the employee is trained the hard part begins and the value of adding this employee can be realized. You will invest a lot of time preparing for an employee and in educating her or him, but if this person cannot work unsupervised then the value of those extra hands is dramatically diminished. In fact, a new employee not only may fail to make money for you, but end up losing money for you. Not only should you give employees comprehensive training so they can work on their own, but you should be able to delegate work to them. In other words, after training, you should be able to give a new employee the authority to make some decisions and then accept the mistakes that may come with those decisions. The less you delegate, the more time you will spend managing and the less time you will spend on sewing or producing.
By the way, from my experience, hiring one person will not be nearly as draining to your time as each person you hire thereafter. From the second person on is when you start noticing you are more of a manager than a seamstress. But then, after that one person is trained, you may decide you like managing better anyway.
Training is not the whole picture. Once a person is trained, can you motivate that person to want to do the work the way you want it done? You may know precisely how the work must be done, and you may easily train an employee so she or he understands and can do high quality work, but can you keep that employee happy?
You will be making a heavy investment with a new employee, so you will want to do everything you can so she or he will want to stay with you for a long time. The fear of losing a trained and valuable employee probably is the biggest reason businesses either don't completely train their employees, or simply don't hire in the first place. It's not just the fear of the loss, but the fear of the resulting competition when the employee goes into business for herself or himself.
I wish I could provide an instant remedy for this problem, but I can't. I do know that there are companies out there that have long-term employees with minimal turnover, so I know it can be done. I believe the key is knowing how to deal with people's problems successfully and to motivate them. You can read books, listen to tapes and go to seminars on the topic of people management and motivation. I highly recommend investing in the Dale Carnegie course, or at least the Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Having a thoroughly trained employee -- one who is fast and quality-oriented -- along with your ability to delegate work to her or him is the best way to maximize the benefit of hiring someone. Such an employee can provide you an excellent return on investment.
Yes, it is a challenge to hire help, but that's the nature of the business. As for me, those sewing jobs (or shall I call them challenges?) that require the greatest thought and skill to conquer are indeed the most enjoyable and rewarding.
Kitty Stein is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 16 years and having taught classes on window treatment construction. Until 1990, Stein and a partner owned a workroom with nine employees. She since has opened her own smaller workroom, Workroom Concepts, that has just one employee. She also does workroom consulting, seminar speaking and is the author of Order in the Workroom available through Draperies & Window Coverings.