With employment levels currently high in the UK, attracting great workers is getting tougher. Marshall Atkinson offers advice on how to find – and keep – the staff your business needs

One of the biggest challenges a shop faces currently is the problem of finding quality employees. I personally hear about it from shop owners practically every single day. “Help! My guy just quit and I need a new ____________”. Fill in the blank with the vacant position. As the unemployment rate remains at record lows, it’s ever tougher to find people that are talented, skilled or sometimes even just those that will show up. For shop owners that I’ve been talking to all year, this is one of their biggest unresolved challenges. There just aren’t enough good people to go around. Which brings up a few other points too: you better be taking care of the folks that work for you; and company culture matters more than ever before. 

To this end, I thought I would address a few ideas on this subject and see if I can help you with the problem of finding quality employees for your business. First, let’s tackle the topic of what makes a quality employee in the first place. This could be different from shop to shop, but for me, there are really four main points that I always look for in a staffer.


There is nothing worse than trying to run a shift when a few key employees haven’t shown up yet. To be considered a quality employee, showing up on time and being ready to work make the top of the list. Dependability is something that someone either has or doesn’t have. For your current set of employees, are they dependable? Let’s say your shift starts at 7am. Do you find almost everyone arriving at work and clocking in before 7am, or are they drifting in some time after that? Are they ready to work? Also, are you doing a good job of communicating expectations for being dependable? Are there consequences for being late or missing work? (Get the employee handbook template in my ebook Shop Basic Info Pack if you need help with this.) What I’ve found is that great people want to work with great people.

Shop culture importance

When the shop culture doesn’t reinforce the standards and norms that should be obvious, people sink into bad habits. That’s why to me, starting with a dependable person is so important.

What to look for:

  • In the interview, did they show up prepared and early?
  • Length of service with companies for an extended time. At least two years with firms.
  • Volunteering or any service that isn’t a paid position. They show up because they want to be there.
  • Projects with a deadline. Everything we do in this industry is deadline driven. You need to understand their viewpoint on that.
  • Teamwork. Being part of a team and working together to accomplish something makes you dependable when you have to support others. Find examples of that.

Find people that want to learn. They tend to always make the best employees because learning is the key to growth.

Passionately curious

What’s interesting in this industry is that I see some shops with younger owners (under 35) quickly building their businesses, while shops with older owners are stagnating. I don’t have any scientific data to back this up, as it’s just my gut feeling/opinion, but I believe it’s because the younger crowd is hungrier for learning. They are willing to try new things. Older shops stick to their guns. “We’ve been doing it this way for years,” they say. When nothing changes, but your marketplace evolves, you might find yourself at the back of the pack trying to catch up.

Quest for knowledge

For employees, I try to find people that want to learn. In their history is there proof of that?

What to look for:

  • In their life, did they have to learn how to do something to excel? Did they learn how to do it before or after it was required of them? You want the person who learned before.
  • Do they take action and learn new approaches to things? Even if something failed, I want to know about that journey and how that may have impacted something in their life.
  • What hobbies do they have? Name the last three books they read. You want someone that is exploring.
  • How are they using tech in their lives? Is there a new app that they use to save time? What modern-day gizmo or thing is impacting how they see things or work?
  • Ask them about a new idea that thrills them. Can they talk about that intelligently when you ask questions?

Action oriented

The best companies have problems solvers on their team. When something isn’t ready or maybe isn’t going right, a quality employee will take action to resolve the challenge. You don’t needfinger pointers or excuse makers on your squad. The decorated apparel industry thrives on action, regardless of the department that person might hope to work in. So when you look for people to work in your shop, try to find people that have demonstrated success with action. That trait makes a quality employee.
Look for doers What to look for:

  • Someone who took a chance. When they say “I tried this and it didn’t work out”, that isn’t necessarily a strike against them, it’s proof that they took action. What was learned?

  • Action people are ambitious too. Look for proof of that when you talk to them. What leadership roles have they had previously? Are they moving up?

  • Can they get the job done without hand-holding? Action-oriented people will step up. Talk about those experiences.

  • Proof of execution. Maybe they had a big job or project in their past. What hurdles did they have to overcome to build that?

  • What are they passionate about? When you really like to do something, you will dig down and drive success. Nothing can stop you.

Skill to pay the bills

Of course, you would rather have a trained and skilled person apply for the job. However, in this industry shops are constantly looking for people that are already trained. If you want a production manager, press operator, embroiderer or someone else that has years of experience to apply for a job with your company, get in line. Skilled veterans of this industry are in high demand. Many people who might normally jump at the chance to work in your shop get lured away by another shop because they are willing to fork over more money to solve their hiring problem.

Put skills to the test

What to look for:

  • Length of service – how long has someone been doing a particular role? The higher you go in the shop food chain, the more experience you need to be sure they can handle that task in your shop.
  • Vocabulary test – an easy way to see if they have the skills is simply to talk about the job. “Describe for me what you do when you set up a job”, is a great question to ask over the phone with a would-be press operator or embroiderer. Can they describe accurately the process? Do they know the lingo? Be sure to ask some follow up questions about what happens when things don’t go as planned. What did they do to resolve the challenge?
  • Ask what they want to learn. Where does their education stop? Do they know how to run a water-based ink or discharge job? Can they do appliqué or puff embroidery? Can that artist build an underbase plate in both Illustrator and Photoshop?
  • Be sure to ask why are they leaving. Their answer can indicate why they would leave you too.
  • What do they struggle with? When they start working for you this will come out, so let’s get it out in the open now. Maybe it’s registering a job or mixing ink. What’s their fear?

Quality employee recruitment

Finding great employees is a lot like finding a new customer. You need to ask yourself why anyone would want to work for you. That ‘why’ is a huge question. You might start with your current employees. What’s their ‘why’? This industry is hard work. Sometimes it is hilarious fun, but often it is backbreaking, sweaty and really messy. What is going to drive people to your door so you have a thick folder of CVs of quality people to comb through? Here are some thoughts you might try:

Start with your own employees

Do you have anyone on staff now that you could train and promote? You need a cross- training programme that has a feeder system built in so you can insert well qualified and trained people into roles should a vacancy appear. Map out the route from the lowest entry job to your top manager. What does it take to do everything in between? If you do this correctly, it is almost the best way as you are in control. But let’s say you still want to bring in outside people for the position. Your employees can be a fantastic resource for that. They might know someone who could be the right fit or someone that might be perfect for the role with some training. Offer a bonus to anyone that brings in a new hire and they make it to the 90-day review. £100 will work okay, £300 will work better.

Use your website

Do you have a ‘We’re hiring’ page on your website with a tool that a potential candidate can use to apply or simply send in a CV? You want candidates to be familiar with what you do, and your website is built to show off your company, so that’s a win all around. Bonus points if you have photos or videos of your crew actually doing the job you are trying to fill. Use a section to post the job description, compensation range and anything you want people to know before taking any action applying for the job. 

Social media

Yep, just like with recruiting customers, finding the right person to work for you can start with a social media campaign. Except instead of marketing your value to your customers, you want to tout how great your company is and how it’s stocked with happy employees. However, be sure that what you market rings true with reality: if you promise awesomeness and all they get is mediocre, don’t expect people to stick around for long. LinkedIn is great for professional recruiting, but unless the position involves executive level opportunities you might want to try more socially accessible platforms like Instagram or Facebook. Make your post easy to share and be sure to include a call to action link: ‘Send your CV here!’ or ‘Schedule a call with Betty here!’. If you are feeling creative, get several of your current employees to help you by filming a short video with them talking about how great it is to work at the shop. Splice that together and post it.

Try job boards

There are plenty. Monster. Zip Recruiter. Glassdoor. Your local newspaper. Not to mention theImages Buyer’s Guide – you can be sure that every prospective employee reading your Situations Vacant advert will be knowledgeable and familiar with this industry. Be sure to fill out a job listing with accurate information, including the compensation range and any benefits for the role. I’ve spoken to many owners over the years that don’t post the pay range, and I have always felt it was a mistake not to use that as a qualifier. Let’s say you want to post a job and potentially hire someone at about £15 an hour. For someone that makes £12, that’s going to be a raise for them. But what if someone makes £22? If they contact you and you can’t meet their rate, you’ve wasted both their time and yours. That’s why a range makes sense.

Use questions to qualify people

One good tip is to use a few questions or give instructions to qualify people before you interview them. If you want quality employees you need them to have the right experience, attitude, skill set and ability to succeed that fits the bill for that job. Can you list four or five questions that you might ask in the interview if they made it that far? Why not shoot those over to them now before you even meet them? Low-quality candidates won’t or can’t answer the questions. They might not even respond. If they can’t complete a simple question-and-answer session on time, what do you think they will do when you hire them? 

Use temporary workers first

Running large contract shops, I’ve hired plenty of folks that came into the shop as a temporary worker. In fact, this is just about my preferred method for production people. You can see their work ethic, dependability, attitude, ability to learn, sense of humour and many other characteristics that you might find interesting all on display as they complete tasks for you. If they prove themselves daily you can give them more challenging work. If they don’t quite get it, you can call the agency and request that they don’t come back.

Industry recruiters

Just like in other industries, there are recruiters that specialise in finding staff. I’ve hired from them and also have had them help me with my own job search. Either way, they are there to help matchmake people with jobs. To me, if you are looking for management level or highly skilled people, using a recruiter is your best bet at hiring someone that will have all the experience and skills you need. There’s a price to pay for that speed, which is the recruiter’s fee. But if you are trying to narrow the time you are conducting the search, it’s the best route.

Why do quality employees stick around?

Ask yourself that question. Most of the time an employee will quit mainly due to their direct supervisor more than anything else. Shops that have long- term employees also have some great leaders on their roster. So what makes employees stick?

  • Fun. This is your shop’s culture
  • Empowerment
  • Working with like-minded people
  • Decent pay
  • A sense of belonging
  • Respect
  • Benefits
  • The feeling that they matter
  • They see a career with your company

So, what’s it like in your shop?

If you are a shop owner complaining about your workforce or that you ‘can’t find good people these days’, but that burger flipper at McDonald’s makes more than a good chunk of your staff… I can tell you why you don’t have great people on your team. If you feel the need to lock the doors so nobody can go outside during the day, you have incredible trust issues and that’s why you can’t keep staff working for you. Just like with customers, the easiest way to grow your company is to keep the employees you have now rather than trying to get new ones. The technical business term for this is ‘employee retention’. Your employees might call it something else: ‘treating people right’ or ‘respecting me’ or ‘trust’. There are very few secrets in this industry. How you treat your employees gets around to other shops and other employees in your town. If it’s on the positive side, you’ll have people coming over and filling out applications every day. I’ve seen it. Do yourself a favour. If you want greater success, make your company one that people will be proud to work for; one that when they go home at night they can talk about the awesome things you are doing, and how they are involved in it. Find people who want to matter and make a difference. Always remember the old adage, though: Hire slow, fire fast.

Marshall Atkinson is a leading production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC. Marshall focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability. He is a frequent trade show speaker, article and blog author, and is the host of InkSoft’s The Big Idea podcast.