Matt: Hi Rob, how are you?
Rob: Matt, great!
Matt: Right-o. What do you do?
Rob: Well, I build brush fences.
For the people who aren’t too sure what brush fencing is, it is a native-grown tea tree, which gets cut and constructed it into hand-made fencing.
Matt: So I spent the day with Rob and the team building fences a few days ago. It’s not rocket science. It’s not fun, sorry, it wasn’t fun. The guys you have working for you are fun. Fill me in on how you acquired your workforce.
Finding a brush fencing workforce
Rob: Yeah, well, the workforce is a bit of a treat. For anybody who’s ever had to get their own workforce, it’s easy to work out why it’s a tough game to get the right people.
I have been building brush fences for about 30 years and to do the part I do, hand-thatching, takes about two or three years to train someone. To train them to a point where you could leave them on a job without having to repair their work completely. So, my workforce has pretty much come from, pot-luck. The universe has put somebody in my path, and they’ve come to work with me. I haven’t gone out and chosen anyone realistically for their skill sets.
So currently I have, three workers in the 65-66 category. I have myself at 58, and my other worker is 40, we don’t have a lot of youth on our team.
Matt: How do you and the team go when there are large numbers of meters to be built?
Rob: They’re tough.
Matt: I could just imagine with your team, fill me in, I have my opinions.
Rob: Well, the main game is to try and make sure you only take on the easy jobs. So that’s the first thing.
I look at the jobs, even though I could assure you every one of my workers would question my statement. Because as far as they’re concerned, every job we do, we seem to be going off to the Sahara Desert or going on a trek. Most of the jobs aren’t too bad. However, we’ve had a couple of jobs where we’ve had to carry gear over 100 meters. And that takes something, luckily the last time I was on a building site where that was the case, the builder lent me a few of his labourers to help.
Of course, our old boys were struggling pretty heavily by the time they went 100 meters. I tell you, a couple of them are smokers, and they did the walk-about twice. I wasn’t sure if they were going to make it.
It’s not easy finding the right younger generation to employ. Over the past six months we have been looking, but not wanting to be inundated, we went off to a couple of employment agencies. And then we even heard, better than just getting someone; they’re going to pay me some money to hire someone. So there was a couple of little games you could play with the state and the federal governments. They would give me a couple of workers, and if I employed them for six months straight, there was a $6K-$10K rebate that you could get back.
I thought I’d have one or two of those and see how we go, but unfortunately, the employment agency sent me a few resumes that were pretty much more of the same. And given that I already have a grey nomad working family, I didn’t want to add a few more 60-year old’s. They did offer me one 25 year old, but he had no license. Given that in my game we aren’t on a project for two years, we are at a new address every two or three days, getting the bus everywhere doesn’t always work.
That’s how my workforce has become the way it is, pure pot-luck and whoever the universe has put in front of me is what I’ve got.
I have brought in some sub-contractors from Queensland and New South Wales, guys I have a good relationship with and worked with previously. I was able to pick up the phone and ask them to come down and lend me a hand for a while. They have saved my bacon; they’re all very experienced, quick and very good at what they do.
Managing an older workforce
Matt: So it’s more like, you’re 60?
Matt: 58, sorry. My bad.
Rob: Very close to 60.
Matt: Please forgive me. Um, so seeing as the guys are, how do I put this politely?
Rob: Given that the guys are old and decrepit [laughing].
Matt: I wasn’t going too quite say that, but sure [lauging], we’ll roll with that.
Rob: Yeah, given the guys are old and decrepit, we do have to pace ourselves. And we try not to do too many hard physical days in a row.
It’s a bit like I have to have a clever, grey nomad management policy of my workers where I can’t do five hard days in a row.
And when I say that, I’m old school, we knock off at midday on Friday anyway.
I do Saturday mornings but it’s not really work, it’s just playing. I only make them work four and a half days and our days aren’t too bad. Normally we don’t start before 7:00 am, and they’re normally tucked up, sitting at home by 3:00 – 4:00 pm and on the bad days, it’s 8:00 or 9:00.
Matt: In the morning?
Rob: In the evening [laughing]. Not many of those, but we have had a few where we’ve knocked off at 8:45 pm.
Matt: Oh wow. Right, I know I’d be questioning my life choices at that point [laughing].
Rob: Yeah, you do big time. I mean, there’s a limit to what you can ask of people. But a couple of times I have asked them to work late. And they’ve all been happy to do the late nights; it’s not a long-term life choice to get home at 8:30 at night though.
Matt: I can only imagine.
Rob: Yeah so it’s interesting for a small business how we find your workers. Mostly it has been word of mouth, but I’m still out there looking.
Matt: Like you said, just whatever comes along.
Rob: Whatever comes along, if they’re happy to try the work and as you said, the truth is with fencing, it’s not rocket science. It isn’t hard work.
Rob: I mean, it can be hard work, but there is not a lot of mental capacity required. It’s a little bit of common sense, a little bit of brute force and then just knowing the job. And, as you said, you did the one day with us.
So everyone knows, Matt didn’t do a hard day, it was a quite an easy day, but he did do a day with us. It’s a case of, finding someone who fits into the team as Matt found, it’s a long time with each other, so you want life to be a bit of fun. I’m very clear; we’re at work for a lot of hours a day, I don’t want people who don’t blend in too well. So, as you said, the people we work with was a lot more fun than the actual work.
Matt: It was a very good day.
Clients reception of the team
Rob: My employees are all unique characters, and that makes work a bit of fun. They’ve all got their own little things going on.
Matt: It’s one thing for you to be the owner of the business coming and knock on the door and all the rest. But how is the client’s reception when the team rocks up?
Rob: Well, mostly I warn them that my team might be a bit scary and don’t be offended by how they look. I’m mostly on song with my clients and where I can I’m a bit cheeky. With some of the clients, I am always a little bit keen for them to bake some scones or get some cakes or pie or put something on for us.
Not always appropriate in every house we go to, but for some, I’m in fighting for the team that we all get a fresh morning tea or a fresh something for lunch. And it works great. We did one job a couple of years ago in Mount Eliza and this delightful lady, decided every day she’d go and get us pies for morning tea. So each day we had a little treasure trove of cakes, and at lunch, we’d all get a pie or something.
Matt: Oh nice.
Rob: It was stunning, unusual though.
Most of my clients, being serious inside of looking at my workforce, they certainly raise their eyebrows as we walk through. They all look, I can see them looking at us thinking, “When’s somebody young going to turn up here?” Some of them have asked me, “Are they going to make it through the day, Rob?” So it’s always scary when your clients are coming up and say to you, “Do you think your workers are up for working for the whole day?”
Matt: I can understand their, um, concern, I had that moment too.
Matt: Alright Rob. Thanks my friend.
Rob: Thank you, Matt, anytime.
Matt: And I’ll see you sometime in the future.
Rob: See you sometime in the future. You might be back down working for me.
Matt: Not likely [Laughing as Matt walks off]