Blog: When Hiring Local Is Impossible, We Hire Regional

I have a question for operators of nonprofit recreation centers: Do you hire local? Your fitness director, your aquatics director, your front-desk staff, the people who handle your janitorial services — where do they live?

As Stanmar's Ralph Agostinelli writes, the definition of hiring 'local' can vary.As Stanmar's Ralph Agostinelli writes, the definition of hiring 'local' can vary.The expectation among our clients, nonprofits in particular, is that we’ll “buy local” (as the slogan reads) when hiring subcontractors and tradespeople. And we do. We just don’t always agree on what constitutes local.

On one job, the design and construction of a YMCA in coastal Maine, we agreed to use all local subcontractors. As we started buying out the job, we were hiring some workers out of Portland, the closest city — 18 miles up I-95. One of the Y’s directors called foul. “You’re going all the way to Portland to get people? I thought you were going to use local people?”

Defining local isn’t always easy, but I know this — finding qualified tradespeople sometimes requires drawing a circle bigger than the typical small city of 20,000 people. The company pouring concrete in a small community probably has extensive experience with private home foundations and small commercial properties such as strip malls, but most likely hasn’t worked much with architectural concrete — meaning, concrete that is exposed to view. Working strictly within this shallower talent pool, we might have to adjust our expectations for the final product — and cover it with stucco.

I’ve worked and hired workers in dozens of small communities, from central Iowa to the rural south to the island of Nantucket, and it has been rare to work with people from the actual towns where these buildings were being constructed. But that’s not too surprising — even contracting firms with an office in the smaller community very often have owners who live elsewhere and themselves hire workers from further afield. In these situations, and counterintuitively to many owners’ thinking, the “local” firm is actually outsourcing the work.

RELATED: How Facility Location Impacts the Building Process

By contrast, there are other situations where the contract goes out of state but the workers are hired from closer by. One of those played out on a job we did in small-town Iowa — I hired a mason out of Wisconsin who in turn hired all of his workers from within a 50-mile radius of the job site. That meant that whatever the contract read, the people being employed were actually local, spending money within that area for the duration of the job.

Those kinds of arrangements occur more often the farther west you go, because of the scarcity of workers and the longer distances between communities. But even in the more-populated east, it’s natural that you would go looking for people in the nearest bigger city (whether 18 miles or even further away). That city will more likely have specialists you need, and you’ll find people with more experience than you’d find in the local community.

As a firm, we believe in buying and hiring local. Doing so supports the communities in which we work and helps to tie together our client institutions with their neighborhoods. Secondarily, because it cuts down on transportation and other costs, it makes good business sense. We just have to be wary of rigidly supporting goals that could affect job quality. Ensuring that workers have the requisite experience and ability is the best reason to draw the circle around local communities in pencil, not permanent ink.

So, to go back to my original question: Is your aquatics director local? If you told me you hired someone from the nearest city who had more direct experience running an aquatics program than anyone you found in your town — well, I’d completely understand.

More from Ralph Agostinelli:

Ralph J. Agostinelli, PE ([email protected]) is senior project manager at Stanmar Inc., a Wayland, Mass., design-build firm specializing in athletic and recreation facilities.

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