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Eric E. Larsen

Sign Installers Are Getting Older – We Must Recruit Their Replacements

It’s incumbent on sign company owners to lead this effort.

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IN MY EARLY CAREER, I dug holes, poured concrete, tied rebar, set poles, climbed ladders when they used to be connected to the boom, walked across high-rise sign cabinets to unhook lines — along with all the other things needed to complete a job. I enjoyed working with the installers on a site and learning the tricks of running a project in the field.

The things I learned on an installation crew I still use today in my design work. I build in shortcuts and tricks, so when the sign arrives on site, the team can get right to work. They appreciate the time I take in design and the other things the fabricators work into a build to make the install smooth. But several problems are starting to pop up.

The job of an installer is getting harder — not because of the equipment, but because crew members are physically getting older. Contemporary cranes and service trucks have hugely advanced in the past 20 years. But while the equipment improved, recruiting strategies didn’t.

Only the owners of sign companies can solve this — not the crews. They’re too busy working on projects. An all-out plan needs to be put in place to generate installers and fabricators or we are facing a full-blown crisis.

I talked to an install crew recently, two guys in their 60’s I worked with in my early career, now and wanting to retire. But they have been asked to stay on until the company hires more people, and then they will need training. Each has more than 40 years in the industry and a wealth of knowledge — yet long hours, lengthy trips and physical labor wear a person down over time. Both told me that there is no one in line to train. They are now backed up for months in installation and maintenance jobs because they are the only ones who can do what they do.

I could go on and on about designing in pick points and resting plates to make installation easier. Setting up a structural support aids both in transport and setting steel. But guide angles, sliders, bolt-up methods and so on will do no good if no crew can put the sign up.

Owners and HR complain that no one wants to work or has the skills to start or, my favorite, “I don’t have anyone experienced enough to take over and run projects like so and so.” The hard reality is you won’t find anyone — no matter how hard you look. We need to recruit people. Together, the owners and officers of sign companies, along with Sign of the Times, can begin to solve the problem.

I am looking at setting up a podcast made available on signsofthetimes.com to start and hopefully broaden the discussion. Stay tuned…

Eric E. Larsen is the Lead Designer of the Historic Theatre Marquee Division of Wagner Electric Sign Co. (Elyria, OH).

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