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Signshop Has Just One Real Option to Fill Open Position … but It’s Not a Great One

Should the company make the hire or wait for a better candidate? Your peers offer their counsel in “The Case of the Hobson’s Choice.”




JAMES “SONNY” Halloran was an institution at Woodford Signs. The lead fabricator had started as a signpainter, moved through cut vinyl to CNC routers, lasers and more as the company grew and sign fabrication evolved. But after 41 years and already having put off retirement for one year, the countdown clock was ticking: Six months, about the amount of time Anne Dryden, president and owner of Woodford Signs, had wanted a new hire to be onboard and training with Sonny, who would be replaced as lead fabricator by Aileen Kim.

But like so many shops, Woodford Signs could not find the “right people” to hire — the right people being fully trained, ready-to-go, plug-’em-right-in… And so they had little choice but to consider plan B, hiring someone with little or no training. Martina Robinson, the company’s vice president, revised the details of their hiring posts, eliminating the previous experience requirement and then braced for what she thought would be a maelstrom of resumes.


Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are NOT a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.


Created by ROLF L’MAO, Signs of the Times’ mascot. Email him at

Illustrations by Karina Marga Cuizon

Four resumes trickled in over the next 10 days, which, in turn, only increased the pressure as the countdown clock ticked. On interview day with all four scheduled, one candidate — the only one with marginal experience — no-showed, of course. One asked only about benefits, one really just needed a job, but the last, Justin Dylan, a graduate of the local high school the previous year, currently employed by an area chain grocer as a delivery driver, was enthusiastic about “making things” and that it would be cool to make signs that light up at night, then see and show them to people.

Martina and Sonny reviewed some of Woodford Signs’ projects in town with Justin. “You know the Ridge Theatre marquee and blade sign?” Sonny asked Justin. “We did that restoration,” which was met with, “That’s awesome! And is that what it’s called when a sign is hanging off the building like that — a blade sign?”

“Yep,” Sonny said. “Cool terminology,” Justin answered.

The more they spoke the more apparent it became that Justin might be a sign person, but alas, he had no experience at all with fabrication, nor with construction.

“So you didn’t take shop or anything like that in school?” Martina asked. “No,” Justin replied. “It didn’t really appeal to me then and had the reputation of being a bit of a joke.”

“But now making things, signs, appeals to you. You would have to be going to shop class here to learn, under Sonny here,” Martina said.

“Yes,” Justin said. “It’s hard to explain. It had to do with being in school, having to do it, like science classes, which I never liked.” He paused, then continued, “The other night, I actually watched a science documentary on Netflix. It was incredible. I… It’s just that it was my decision to watch.”

Martina and Sonny looked at each other. “OK,” Sonny said. “Yeah, I get it. And now that you’re out of school and it’s your decision to want to work here, you feel you can get excited about coming in every day and helping to make signs.”

“Yeah!” Justin said. “Definitely!” The interview concluded shortly after, Martina and Sonny thanked Justin for his time and said they’d get back to him.

Anne met with Sonny and Martina the next afternoon, after a positive reference from Dylan’s current employer. The two related to her Justin’s enthusiasm but lack of direct experience. The other two candidates who had shown up were quickly put aside.

“So we’ve made our best effort to find someone, anyone, for this position and we’re down to either taking or leaving this young guy,” Anne concluded. “Well, do we take a flyer on this?”


The Big Questions

  • What would you do if you were in Woodford Signs’ position? Go with the one available option or keep looking a little longer? Has your sign company ever faced this choice and if so, briefly, what happened?
Howard S.
Lexington, KY

Hire him! You can teach fabrication skills but you can’t teach desire.

Jean S.
Plymouth, MA

I would offer the candidate the opportunity to come to work with us for three days, even on a part-time basis, before he gave his notice at his other job. During that time he would have the chance to work on several different types of projects, go out to measure and watch an installation. Our team could also have the time to interact with him to see if the fit is good culturally. At the end of the short trial, we would talk again and see what his feelings about the job are … [although] I would continue to let the ad run for the short trial period.

Jason S.
Webster, TX

I think a little more time and a bigger “NOW HIRING” sign is what is needed in order to fill the position correctly. A good attitude never hurts, but smiles and compliments don’t go very far in “the back of the house” when you really need a problem solver.

Kelley C.
Vancouver, WA

Always hire for attitude as cultural fit as the top criteria. And let’s face it, every sign company has to train more than we want to. There just isn’t a large number of candidates with signmaking experience on the market.

Frank S.
Albany, NY

Forget about sophisticated fabrication. Outsource it. Maybe the kid can learn simple fabrication and do it in house. He might also learn installation. This company needs to cross-train its employees.

Joseph L.
Port Chester, NY

We just spent $4,000 on ads and interviewing to find that our choice didn’t actually know how to read a ruler! In reality, most of the time I find that it’s not what they already know; it’s about how quickly they learn and can adapt … The search for good employees sometimes means hiring and hiring until you find someone that actually has the skills to be an asset. We do a 90-day trial run to make sure the employee is right for us and them.

Christine A.
Texarkana, TX

This article is why cross-training is essential. Personally, I would hire the young man. He sounds eager to do something new. He can be trained how to do things properly and will not use shortcuts he may have [otherwise] learned along the way that are incorrect.

Jasmine A.
Joliet, IL

If I were in Woodford Signs’ position, I would definitely look for a better candidate. Ten days is not a long time to keep a job posting, especially for a niche industry like signage. It is great that the candidate was enthusiastic but being the sign industry, that can dull quickly. I would try to find someone who has at least heard of the business or worked in the business for more than zero days … My company has been in a similar situation with hiring new staff and we decided to wait until we found a candidate with experience. We kept our current employees and provided more overtime until the right candidate came along.

Lisa H.
Mabelvale, AR

Someone took a chance on me in 1985.

David F.
Enfield, NH

I would hire the man, but on a three- or six-month probationary or apprentice basis. During the probationary period you should be able to determine his work ethic and his ability to learn the trade. If he works out, all well and good and you have an employee who will grow with the company. If he doesn’t have the aptitude, and it looks like he never will, or he does not demonstrate a good work ethic, then you can let him go with no hard feelings. The key is explaining the terms under which you take him on so there is no misunderstanding if [or] when you part ways. I’ve hired people with no direct experience in the field. Some have worked out and others have not and I’ve had to let them go. For my money, it is worth taking the risk on an unknown if you think there is more than an even chance of success. Just know when to cut the cord if things go south. You’re running a business!

Don O.
Coquitlam, BC, Canada

Hire him, pay him extra for his enthusiasm as you want him to stay and learn. Keep teaching him new things and pay him well so he doesn’t have a reason to leave. We have eight people in our staff of over 100 who we hired only because of their enthusiasm rather than their skill level. These eight people have been with us between 25 and 40 years. They were all fresh out of high school and looking for their first full-time job when we hired them. All but two are in supervisory or management positions today.

Andrew A.
Kensington, MD

Hire the young person — attitude over aptitude every time.

Carroll B.
Goffstown NH

I started in this industry at 12 years old “interning” to have discounts on my printed artwork. It didn’t take long to fall in love and become a full-time fixture. From there I grew and every shop I worked at after [that] had high school kids who would come down [for] jobs. Those inexperienced kids were like a sponge. You can teach them the process and procedures of the shop. This is great if you don’t have your ideal candidate. They can help and do the gopher jobs while you do the heavy lifting. It’s not the ideal situation, but they will grow into a great employee over time if given the chance, and when the time comes and your dream employee walks in, both can add to your shop.

Greg G.
Daytona Beach, FL

Yes, hire him and keep hiring more. Prepare to kiss many frogs to find your prince. The kid seems worth a hire regardless. Hire a few more like him (maybe even some of the candidate’s friends) and one will develop into the leader.

Tracey K.
El Cajon, CA

We’ve been in similar situations before. Enthusiasm goes a long way toward learning and doing a great job but it’s a 50/50 proposition. I would consider hiring him for a few days and have him shadow Sonny to see if it’s a good fit and to see how fast he picks up. We do hands-on tests as part of our interview — follow directions to make a small sign with cut vinyl in 15 minutes, a computer test to see their knowledge. You could modify some easier tasks on machines for him to tackle. You could also wait for more applicants but since time is of the essence — we always say “follow your gut.”

Daniel W.
Tucson, AZ

Hire him. Train him to be a sign man. You have a blank slate here! He has no bad habits to unlearn. If you encounter a better candidate later, cross that bridge then.

Jeffrey C.
Seminole, FL

Definitely hire him. You can’t teach enthusiasm. And if he already has it, you’re ahead of the game. Sonny would be able to show him the correct way to do things and not have to worry about unteaching bad habits or wrong knowledge.

Peter P.
Shawnee, OK

Attitude, personality and willingness to learn are much more important than experience. Experience can be taught to the right person. Changing a worker’s work ethic, processes or ways once they have been taught a skill can be much more difficult. It’s always best to search for a good fit for your organization instead of someone that just knows how to do the job.

Bob B.
Oakdale, CT

HIRE THIS GUY! What more can you ask for other than an eager blank canvas? The reference from the grocer goes a long way to tell you how he will be showing up. After that it’s all on you to teach him how to do things the right (your) way. We have often hired young inexperienced people that worked out great.

Kenny W.
Oklahoma City, OK

Unfortunately, we have long ago given up on finding people with a lot of experience. We now try to find the best person who we think will fit and spend the time and money training them. If we can find someone who will come to work, on time, every day, we feel we can teach them what they need to know. We would hire the kid.

Kelly M.

I would hire this guy. Enthusiasm to learn, young and bright with good show up to work ethics, yep, I sure would. Send him to me tomorrow.

Dennis S.
Nevada City, CA

Obviously, you want to hire this young new energy. Enthusiasm is real. When I found the sign industry, I could not hold a job to save my life working construction and labor. The signshop was like art class for adults and it just stuck to me. I finally found something I was interested in. I’d set some quarterly goals for Justin with maybe some small pay bumps for these achievements. You might find a winner.

Shane P.
Cookeville, TN

Hire him, train him.

Mike C.
Murray, KY

I would give him a 30-, 60- and 90-day trial, making a decision as to whether to continue training him as soon as possible. I would continue to advertise for other potential candidates until I make a final decision on candidate #1.

Matthew P.
Orlando, FL

There are always diamonds in the rough. We would bring on the young prospect, but since the position seems to be a critical part of the operation [a fabricator], you don’t just throw a newbie in over their head. We would “hire from within” in key positions. Normally, we have several people cross-trained in a portion of the duties/areas Sonny is responsible for, so if he had taken vacation or called in sick, which happens, the shop doesn’t come to a complete halt. There has to be someone who has conversed with Sonny and experienced his thought process, and experienced his expert execution on various projects throughout the year(s). That would be the person we would move up. [With] the owner and management having seen this problem arising, they should have a system in place where there is always someone able to perform some of another person’s duties, while always growing the staff in skill sets and expanding reach into other areas, so they are never caught in a pinch like this again.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the scenario, “Sonny … would be replaced as lead fabricator by Aileen Kim,” not the young man himself. Presumably, Aileen is already sufficiently trained to have been named Sonny’s successor as lead fabricator.


Rolf L'mao is Signs of the Times' mascot. Contact Rolf at

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