How do you grow before you grow?

Two Sarahs in Detroit have started a contracting facility. They write describing frustration and growing pains. One of the Sarahs says:

I wanted to write about my new business concerns. We are fortunate to have clients from day one and a steady stream of inquiries, and some generous press! Julian is shouldering the brunt of pattern making, stitching, sample sewing and cutting, I take care of the admin., promotions and some funding. Not to mention running my own clothing line and making sure it is produced, marketed, and distributed! Thankfully I have other Sarah so we can switch hit.

We need to hire more stitchers. We need to make the work flow. At the same time, Julian would be training, taking time away from his other valuable duties. Not everyone that comes through the door works out, so there is that distraction, but we have to make time to assess their skill level.

We can’t even take on all the work that is coming in yet and certainly don’t want to cast the net for more. The money coming in doesn’t quite match with the costs, yet. Making me cautious about hiring on. But the work can’t cover the costs because we can’t take more work until we have a skilled team. How much can one man [or one Sarah] do?!

What comes first: hiring more workers and paying them to train for speed and accuracy and then accept the jobs? Writing that out makes it seem so obvious that I didn’t want to throw in the “or vice-versa”. But how do you pay them? I’ve been told you take out loans to buy equipment, not to pay the bills or payroll. But what about training, getting everyone on the same page? Just a cost of doing business? Trying to see what my local/state government does for small business. I subscribe to the “ready, fire, aim” school.

As for the big picture, will the business be able to sustain itself and make money in the coming years? Will people’s needs for sewing diminish? Do I need to sew restaurant linens and auto upholstery to stay in the black? Maybe these are bigger questions than can be answered. How do you grow before you grow???

The last part first. One thing my ex managed to drill into my thick skull was that no matter what, no matter how competitive your industry, there is always room for somebody good. I don’t believe the need will diminish anytime soon. We have a real shortage of good contracting facilities willing to take on smaller lots. The problem I see is that as shops grow, the larger the lots that they want so we’re constantly needing small shops to feed the demand.

About hiring, paying and training. We had a whole discussion on interns (and associated costs). I came on record at that time saying I couldn’t really afford to train anyone intern or otherwise because it’d pull me from whatever I was already doing. In the Sarahs case, if they got training on their own that’d be optimal. Let’s assume you could train somebody before hiring them officially, I wouldn’t do it, I couldn’t afford the loss of my time. Of course that’s not to say they couldn’t leave otherwise but I’d have more chances at retaining them if I were paying them which gets me to my second point. If you’ve hired them, you have to pay them for the time they spend training.

Regarding training funds, some economically depressed areas (where the Sarahs live) have city, county or state money available. The local SBA or SBDC would know about that.

About having work to keep them busy or to train them on, it’d be great if you had just that perfect contract. Easy enough to expand their range of skills but not so tricky they’d mess it up to the extent it couldn’t be repaired. The other thing of course is to bring people in slowly. I’d advertise for someone who’d been a sewing line supervisor or factory sample maker. Once you had that person up to speed, you could add a second worker and spread the training duties with the first staffer. Also, you’d organize the work so the second worker got the easier part of the bundle.

Eric says that legally, you can’t test a worker for their suitability for the job until after you’ve hired them. Technically, if a blind paraplegic says he can climb poles, you can’t ask him to prove it until after you hire him. Since he has HR out the ying-yang and a union shop, I’m sure he’s right but I don’t think everybody knows this. One way or another, I wouldn’t hire somebody I couldn’t give a sewing test to, so I guess I’ll never hire anybody straight up and legal-like making me open to a law suit.

I know Mike has dealt with this more than he’d like to. Maybe he can pop in and provide some guidelines and suggestions. Do you have ideas?

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13 comments

  1. Esther says:

    Interesting. I DID take a sewing test as part of a job interview. My potential position and pay was contingent on how well I did on the test. Perhaps testing during interviews is dependent on the state or area?

  2. J C Sprowls says:

    I haven’t had any reason to validate my experience with Wage & Hour, so tread with caution…

    When I was hired by a uniform company, I had to pass a sewing test prior to receiving an interview – it only lasted 20 minutes (if memory serves).

    A sewing supervisor showed me the task (once), handed me a stack of cut pieces, and left me to do it. She returned 20 minutes later to inspect the work and then passed me on to the pattern department for the sit-down interview – which was the position I applied for.

    I presume that if the work wasn’t up to standard I would’ve either been shuffled to a different department (i.e. entry level operator) or sent home with a polite “we’ll be in touch”.

    When I worked in kitchens (many moons ago), applicants were required to audition for their job, especially if it was a “fine” restaurant. I think some form of audition is necessary where performance and dexterity are required.

    I’m not accustomed to being paid for auditions. And, I don’t know if this varies from state-to-state. As long as a company isn’t benefiting from “free work”, I don’t foresee an issue. But, it’s probably prudent to discuss with the Div of Wage & Hour to verify your business practices are above-board…

  3. Mike C says:

    I know Mike has dealt with this more than he’d like to. Maybe he can pop in and provide some guidelines and suggestions. Do you have ideas?

    We require a sewing skills test. I am not aware of any legal issues prohibiting it. Especially not for a company under 10 employees, where the rules are somewhat less restrictive in many areas than for larger concerns.

    I’d be interested in what laws Eric is refering to that make it illegal to test worker competance prior to hiring.

    There’s no easy answer as to when to bring on new employees. Typically, for new companies, the answer is to hire once the money is flowing in, relying on founder sweat + overtime to keep afloat.

    The other thing you can do is find ways to use temporary and part-time employees to offload tasks that full time employees would otherwise do. We do that during the busy times to allow our permanent staff to maximize their utility rather than having them do tasks that could be done by a much larger slice of the workforce.

    Finally, I would look for people experienced in what you do and be willing to pay more. Over the long term, you might save money by training inexperienced worker’s yourself, but small business is really about short and mid term survival. Someone that can come in and make an immediate impact on your ability to grow the bottom line may make more sense than extensive training.

  4. Erika says:

    Sarah – There are tons of business management books out there that speak directly to your issue. Ideally, when you started the business you projected for the best case scenario (tons of business) and put dormant structures in place to be activated as the demands on your business grows. That said, I am starting my own venture and know how challenging and daunting the task of planning and forecasting can be. Two books I have found helpful in my planning are the E-Myth Revisited (by Michael Gerber) and Good to Great (by Jim Collins). Both speak to the issues outlined in your post and could be great resources for building your business to accommodate where you are and where you would like to be. Best of luck! Erika

  5. Miracle says:

    Wow- Detroit isn’t really an apparel manufacturing center, so there may be no local incentives specific to the industry, but here’s my advice:

    When you are in a city where there are pockets of manufacturing, typically some part of the city government is dedicated to keeping work there and provides financial incentives to small businesses in that industry.

    In the absence of this, you end up with a more general city or county government office (or non profit) dedicated to helping skilled trade workers find work. Sometimes they focus on something very specific, like construction, and sometimes they focus on skilled trade in general.

    Non profits often provide financial assistance (i.e. subsidies) to help businesses afford the cost of hiring the displaced workers, especially when the worker usually makes substantially more than minimum wage and has trouble getting their fair wage in their local economy.

    So what I would do is call around. Start with the chamber of commerce, the economic development department, and other organizations and tell them your story. Get the word our and one lead will lead to another. You may find that there are programs to help you afford the cost of brining in employes, ESPECIALLY, when you can bring in someone who is technically “disabled” but still physically able to perform the job (for example, someone who is color blind, or someone with a slight hearing impairment).

  6. Big Irv says:

    This is going to be a huge challenge, but it is being done sucessfully in many areas that have experienced a downturn in sewn product manufacturing.
    I think the key thing you may want to concentrate on is attracting clientele that are willing to pay a fair price for your services. You need to safeguard your company from companies brandishing large orders, but not willing to pay a fair price.

    Many skilled sewers left the profession when piecework rates where eroded. They found work in other fields paid as much, if not more, than apparel manufacturing. It will take some effort to attract them back. In addition, you will need to retrain a large portion.To what degree you will need to retrain depends on how long they were out of the industry, level of skill etc..

    I would imagine the State of Michigan has funding for retraining of workers in many fields. You should definitely pursue this avenue. Apparel manufacturing in Toronto(3.5 hrs east) used to be the second largest manufacturing industry 15 years ago. It now is around 6 or 7 th. Perhaps funding is available at a municipal level as well.I know the City of Toronto has an Apparel Developement Section and job creation is a priority.

    I agree with Mike about paying more for experienced people. If allowed, one or two of these more experienced workers eventually may be counted on to assist in training even more people you bring aboard.

  7. Kathleen says:

    You may find that there are programs to help you afford the cost of brining in employes, ESPECIALLY, when you can bring in someone who is technically “disabled” but still physically able to perform the job

    Or autistic! I think at least 25% of sewing operators are and maybe half the pattern makers :).

  8. Sarahs says:

    Thank you all for the great advice! I’ve got to sit back and take it all in.

    I have been contacting local government offices, takes some itme getting to the right people, whatever. Also, yeah, not an apparel manufacturing center, meaning no garment district, can just run out the door and get a bunch of zippers, buttons, fabrics, etc. same day at wholesale. Toronto and Chicago are only 4hrs away though and we have a good community out here we can car/hotel pool together.

    We have a large Mexican and Eastern European popultion here, have barely tapped into that, but did come up with a guy, but we got him in a little early and had to lay him off. Felt HORRIBLE! Want to avoid that, at the very least by setting up contractual workers. And reading in the book, I was comforted by the industry job description chapter, sewing production should be error free if following all the other steps.

    Thanks for being there, Kathleen and co.!

  9. Colleen says:

    In my experience, a fit and patternmaking test are always part of the interview process (for Technical Design and Patternmaking positions). It helps both the applicant and the interviewer assess one another’s skill level.

  10. Sarahs says:

    Primarily, we are looking for stitchers and cutters. There’s a local design school. They use industrial equiptment. I guess when Jules is freed up he can manage the projects. It makes me think of the Karate Kid, “wax on, wax off”.

  11. Eric H says:

    Eric says that legally, you can’t test a worker for their suitability for the job until after you’ve hired them.

    Actually, the way I understood it (I’m no lawyer, I only learned this at a labor law seminar), you can’t test them until you have offered them the job. There is a fine legal line between hiring and offering. Basically, the offer is made contingent on them demonstrating some competency. The catch is that if they complete it, you have already offered the job and it is therefore up to them to accept it. If you wait until you hire them to test competency, now you must terminate them (with all the repercussions involved). If you test before the offer, you may be up against some kind of discrimination claim. If you actually offer the job contingent on the outcome of the test, the discrimination claim is tougher to make because you did actually offer a job and they failed an objective test.

    That is a key component of the test: it must be objective, and it should also be relevant to the job. You probably can’t ask stitchers to parallel park a gasoline tanker.

  12. Eric H says:

    Now that I think about it, and now that I’ve looked around a little, I think this advice may have been directly related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance (I attended that seminar about 7 years ago, so please forgive). I think you can do relevant and scientifically valid (objective) skills tests, no problem. However, medical exams are different:

    To avoid violating the Americans With Disabilities Act, don’t ask an applicant about his or her medical history and don’t conduct any medical exam before you make a job offer.

    Once you decide to offer the applicant a job, you can make the offer conditional on the applicant passing a medical exam. Just be sure you require the exam for all entering employees who are doing the same job. If you only require people whom you believe or know to have disabilities to take the exam, you will be violating the Americans With Disabilities Act.

    From nolo.

  13. Mike C says:

    I figured this was an ADA issue.

    A sewing or pattern making test shouldn’t trip either the “medical” or “objective” part.

    In addition, the ADA only applies to companies with 15 or more employees. (I believe that if you provide “public accommodations” such as retail stores, dining, etc. there are some provisions that do apply.) Micro-employers have more flexibility with this set of regulations.

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