Possibly the first major threshold that a self-employed individual must cross is that of taking on their first employee. We all start out working by ourselves and as we gain confidence and work begins to come in at a rate faster than we can handle on our own — and relying on friends and colleagues to help out is no longer a practical solution — thoughts turn to taking on a full-time employee.
Unless you are very lucky and someone crosses your path whom you feel is perfect for the position of assistant, setting out to find such a person is often difficult.
By taking on an employee — someone for whom you will be responsible and for whom you will provide work all year round as well as a salary, sickness and holiday pay, protective clothing and welfare together with appropriate training on site and perhaps at a college — you are embarking on a serious project.
However, it is such a natural part of development that if you follow basic rules the experience can and should be enjoyable.
Assess your requirements
Assuming that you are positive that you really need an assistant, that you can no longer cope on your own due to the pressures of your workload or the type of projects that require two pairs of hands for both practical and safety reasons, and are not simply desirous to expand for the sake of it, then finding the right person is vital.
It is helpful to follow the rule of "tee". You must be confident that your chosen assistant will display punctuality, reliability, honesty, have suitability and personality. The five "tees" are extremely important.
Too often employers rely on paper qualifications, on the assumption that a candidate must be suitable because they have documentation. IT skills and school results may indicate the right person, but no amount of words are of any use if that person is always late for work, becomes unreliable or proves dishonest.
Suitability and personality are also very important — suitability not only for the task in hand but also the nature of the work involved. Without getting bogged down in detail, if you normally operate in, say, a quiet environment, your clients may not welcome someone with a raucous laugh or loud voice.
Similarly, if someone has a timid personality, they may not be suitable for work in a challenging situation. Your choice of assistant should complement your personality, almost as an extension of yourself. You do not want to be in a position where you have to mould your assistant to suit your requirements at a human level. You will be busy enough carrying out works training.
You should be prepared, both financially and mentally, to make a loss on your assistant for the first year or so. You may well find that you are producing less work as you spend time on teaching and training, not just how to do certain jobs but to carry them out to your requirements, which may be at variance to their current skills/training. Gradually though, you will find that your productivity is rising and profitability will return.
Obviously, this will depend on the type of work and the way you operate your business. For example, if you work on fixed-price contracts and are paid to complete an amount of work for an agreed sum of money, then you will probably find your work rate lower in the short term.
If you charge by the hour and you can charge your customers a "labourer" rate (try to avoid terms that indicate a pupil, such as "apprentice" or "trainee", because they may not want to pay you to train your staff at their expense) then all well and good.
Simply have two or more rates — one for yourself or a director/partner, with another for general labour, charging separately or as an hourly crew rate (craftsperson/labourer/transport and tools). In this way, you will not draw attention to the new assistant or their lack of experience.
Need for mentoring
It is most important, both for yourself and a new employee, that you have clearly defined rules. Not simply concerning what to do and how to do it with regard to practical working, but also what I refer to as "site etiquette". These rules may be set out in the form of a document for the sake of clarity and to help to avoid any misunderstandings.
For example, always appear clean and tidy and ensure that you wear fresh clothing each day. No radios or headphones should be permitted on site and neither should the use of mobile telephones be allowed for personal calls during working hours. Leave the site clean and tidy at all times. Do not enter a client’s sheds and outbuildings unless accompanied by the owner.
This site etiquette schedule can be as long as you wish without being overbearing. After all, if these are the rules that you normally abide by, it is preferable to have them written out formally as a site instruction.
Similarly, maintaining records and filling in time sheets is another discipline that helps to train the new employee in the ways of operating an efficient business. It will also help you to maintain your own efficiency.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, it should be an enjoyable and profitable experience for you both. Once mutual respect has been achieved, and your successful training has been implemented, you may well be looking for employee number two — whom both of you can train.