The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 3.6 percent in April, a 50-year low. The figure in Canada is 3.8 percent, and young people throughout North America are spending less time than ever outdoors. It’s no wonder paddling shops are having a tough time finding qualified employees these days.

“I’ll tell you something everybody will agree with: It’s getting harder and harder to hire great employees,” says Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin, where unemployment is hovering at about 2.5 percent and McDonalds is paying $14 an hour. We asked retailers across North America how they manage to find and keep good staff in such a competitive environment. Their verdict: You can’t afford to be cheap.

“Rule number one is find out what the prevailing wage is in your town and pay it,” Bush advises. Good employees command higher wages, but they’re often worth the extra cost. “It’s better to have 10 people making $15 an hour than 15 people making $10 an hour,” he says. “We’re short-staffed right now, down maybe three people from where I’d like to be. But the people I have are great.”

Bush pays competitive wages and provides matching 401K and health benefits (he’s on the same insurance plan as his employees). It’s a big expense, but not as costly as staff turnover. “I don’t know why this is a secret,” he says. “At the end of the day it comes down to treating people like human beings. The owners I know who do that have very successful businesses and do very well.”

You don’t have to hire paddlers

“We try to hire paddling enthusiasts, but nowadays we don’t need enthusiasts. What we need is somebody with good communications skills and customer service experience,” says Mike Ong, owner of Southwind Kayaks in Irvine, Ca. The ideal shop employee is an avid paddler who is great with people, but the 14-year industry veteran says people who fit that description are harder than ever to find and keep. “If that’s what you’re looking for, good luck,” he says.

Know your customers’ needs

Knowledge helps sell, but it’s important to hire employees who have the right kind of knowledge, says Steve Marshall, owner of Paddleyax in Independence, Virginia. The bulk of Marshall’s business is in fishing kayaks, and his customers are moved more by fishing tips than kayaking jargon. “Given a choice between someone who worked in a big-city kayak store or someone who’s new to kayaking but familiar with the fishing here, I’d go with the local guy,” he says.

Good staff come in all ages

“I’ve had a couple really good young employees come through. Their communication skills and outdoor experience were fantastic, but after a year or so they move on with their lives,” says Sean Creary, owner of River and Trail Outdoor Company in Rothesay, New Brunswick. Creary was happy to have those flashy young stars, but his bedrock employees are older. “They’ve got kids and are at a point in their life where they’re happy working at the shop. I give them lots of flexibility and I pay them well.”

Resist the rush

Chances are, the perfect candidate won’t walk through your door as soon as you post a help-wanted ad. Creary prefers to hold out for the right candidate, even if that means picking up extra hours himself. “It’s more important to have the right person in the store, even if that means it’s going to be me for the next little while,” he says.

Know your weaknesses

Too many retailers look to hire a younger version of themselves, but the goal of hiring shouldn’t be to duplicate your own strengths. It should be to complement your team. Simon Coward, owner of Aquabatics in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta, puts it more bluntly: “Realize what you suck at and pay people to do it for you.”

Photo: Mark Hemmings


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