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A portable sanitation business owner in Iowa perfectly expressed the way many of us feel about the state of the industry in 2021. He said, “It’s crazy.”
First, the positive. He can pinpoint the time when the business he runs with his father became incredibly busy and has remained so: March 2020, when the country began to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That was when he rented handicap-accessible units for a nearby COVID-19 testing station. More than a year and a half later, they’re still there. So are units at other testing sites and doctors’ offices.
On the negative side, the business owner is a victim of his own success and the devastating, worldwide effects of the pandemic on business. He has experienced unprecedented delays in receiving new inventory. He even had to pay an expensive additional surcharge, charged retroactively, in order to secure his last purchase. He is ordering again now, with hopes of receiving new units as early as possible in 2022.
As a result, the owner is constantly adapting on the fly, switching out units. He has to pull the best-looking units off construction sites for use at weekend events.
His company has three routes. He and his father are running two trucks while their third truck sits idle, all because he can’t find the workers he needs. His company is five workers short. It’s not just portable sanitation, the owner noted. Every business sector has “Help Wanted” signs out. He also runs a septic service and has had to turn down lucrative jobs due to lack of help.
Sound familiar? It’s the situation many portable restroom operators find themselves in. Plenty of work, plenty of frustration. The pandemic continues to loom large over the portable sanitation industry, offering a wealth of opportunities while putting up major roadblocks at the same time.
Business is Booming
First, let’s recognize that many operators are experiencing a business and financial bonanza as a result of COVID-19. Many of the new jobs are a direct result, such as units at testing stations and vaccination sites. The demand has also increased as customers of all types, from construction and agricultural to public and personal events, have become more aware of the need for sanitation. This success has been recognized nationally, as in September 2020, when New Yorker magazine published the article, “COVID Silver Lining: The Porta-Potty Boom.”
As important as it is to the PRO to run a successful business, it’s equally important to appreciate how the portable sanitation industry has risen to the occasion. It’s similar to the industry response when a hurricane or massive fire occurs, only this natural disaster is ongoing.
COVID-19 has been described as humanity’s worst crisis since World War II, and every PRO would gladly exchange their pandemic-related profits for a pandemic-free world. Nevertheless, we feel a high level of pride, and the performance that operators have displayed have given the industry a big boost in image.
Since COVID-19, sanitation is being taken more seriously. Portable sanitation is not just in high demand, but operators are also more respected for the crucial services they provide to our communities. It’s an overdue and well-deserved accolade.
Even as business soars, it has been perhaps the most challenging time for the industry as well. The two most worrisome problems many PROs have been having are 1.) long delays and uncertainty in receiving inventory; and 2.) a shortage of workers.
Many PROs are completely out of inventory. Yards are empty – toilets, sinks and hand-sanitizing stations are all rented out in the field. Before the pandemic, this wouldn’t be a problem. Orders would be quickly filled and the units would be in use earning income.
But this is no ordinary time. Orders now can take months to fulfill, and there is a lot of uncertainty as to actual delivery dates. Prices have risen. There have also been instances of retroactive price increases on orders already placed.
As a result, PROs are turning down business left and right, “leaving money on the table.” The situation is a vicious cycle. The shortage of products also means that it’s hard to maintain the fleet. When a toilet needs repair, the supplies aren’t immediately available to fix it. So even more opportunity goes down the drain.
Meanwhile, the labor market seems to have almost completely disappeared.
Manufacturers are in the Same Boat
Delays in receiving inventory and supplies. Price increases. Equipment breakdowns. If you want to know why this is happening to you, it’s because it’s also happening to portable sanitation equipment manufacturers.
A rep from a major manufacturer recently described the company’s efforts as barely keeping their head above water. Manufacturers are running their production 24/7 but are still months behind on orders.
With portable sanitation, problems start at the very beginning of the process. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) used to make restroom units, hand wash stations and other equipment is in extremely short supply, and the price reflects this scarcity – it rose an incredible 68% from March 2020 to March 2021, reaching record highs. The price continues to go up every month.
According to National Tank Outlet (May 2021), “It is unknown when and if price increases will stop, slow or return to normal.“ In June, Plastics Today reported, “The unprecedented supply shortfall [of resin] leaves no room for error — every additional hiccup that develops in the supply chain can reverberate loudly to send prices even higher.” PT added, “Importing resin has become an even bigger challenge” due to shipping challenges.
Even when supplies are attained, the manufacturing process is being continually disrupted. Production difficulties, material shortages and logistics and supply-chain problems are negatively affecting practically all manufacturers in some way. Any manufactured product needed for the industry, from metal door jambs and metal rivets to hoses and other plumbing fixtures, can unexpectedly be delayed for days or weeks at a time.
Meanwhile, the complex machines used to produce the units, sinks and components tend to break down because they are running full bore 24 hours a day. Lead times to get new parts have stretched into months, leaving the manufacturer to scramble for spare parts to keep things running. Orders for new machines needed to increase capacity have lead times of eight months or more.
The problems are compounded by worker shortages in the plants.
The Labor Market is Tight
Where are the workers that portable sanitation owners and manufacturers need right now?
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) reported in its August 2021 Jobs Report that a record-high 50 percent of all small business owners have job openings they couldn’t fill in the current period. Nine out of 10 owners who are trying to hire reported few or no “qualified” applicants.
In July, CNBC reported the highest wage increases in years for blue-collar jobs. The rise in compensation actually began before the pandemic, and yet the difficulty in filling jobs remains. Labor experts believe that many workers aren’t returning to work primarily due to the continued potential health risks of COVID-19, especially the Delta variant.
Also, the market for manual labor jobs has been shrinking for years before the pandemic started, and it is expected to continue to decrease. AARP reported that nearly 2 million older workers have retired since the start of the pandemic, leaving companies with a smaller pool of potential employees. Workers have more leverage in negotiating pay and benefits, knowing there are so many other jobs available. This is especially trying for an unglamorous industry such as portable sanitation.
Going Forward Into 2022
As we hurtle toward the end of 2021, the state of the portable sanitation industry remains complicated and unsettled. We see the positives of more business and an improved level of respect. Yet, recent news reminds us how easy it can be to throw out of balance the supply-chain system we rely on so much.
In one instance, at the end of August, a record number of container ships were stuck in a bottleneck outside the California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where about one-third of U.S. imports enter the country.
Then, Hurricane Ida struck in late August and early September. The damage and potential effects on plastic resin production are still being assessed, but it has already affected logistics, as trucks that are needed to deliver relief supplies are diverted from their usual routes.
Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to run its course.
Examples such as these point to a realistic outlook for autumn – more of the same. Plenty of work, plenty of frustration. In review, here is how we see the next few months:
- Demand for portable sanitation products and services will continue to remain high
- Demand for the raw materials needed to manufacture portable sanitation products will continue to squeeze supply
- Prices for these materials will continue to remain high
- Parts and components needed for portable sanitation products and the machines that produce them will continue to be difficult to get on a predictable basis
- Long lead times for manufacturing and delivery of portable sanitation products will continue
- It will continue to be difficult to find workers
We want to offer some practical suggestions that may help your business in light of the current state of the industry:
Consider Raising Your Prices
You’ve heard this suggestion from us many times, so we won’t belabor the point. We continue to support an industry-wide increase in the price of portable sanitation services. Customers are willing to pay more at this time due to the pandemic and a greater awareness of the need for cleanliness. Also, all major manufacturers of portable sanitation equipment and supplies have experienced sharply rising prices and have passed some of those costs on to you already. You know your customers, your competitors and your market. It’s your decision!
When you order to replenish supplies or add to your inventory, keep in mind that you can continue to expect longer delivery times for practically everything, from units and hand wash stations to deodorizers to trucks and trailers. When ordering, take into account not just what you need now but what you will need several months down the line as well.
Vet Your Supplier
You’ve probably had a good relationship with your supplier, so we hope that continues through the pandemic. However, and this is true whether you’re a new or long-time customer, pay more attention to the “new normal” relationship. Stay in close touch with your reps and don’t hesitate to ask questions. How has their pricing policy changed? Does the company treat their customers, large and small, equally? Gather as much information as you can. Reach out to other PROs to hear their experiences. Talk to other manufacturers. If you find yourself continually unsatisfied with your current supplier, explore other options.
Consider Used Equipment
One of the most important features of portable bathrooms is their durability. Most well-made units can serve 20 to 30 years. In the long term, purchasing new units will give you the highest quality porta-potty with the longest life in the field. But in the current environment of the crush of new business and delayed deliveries, many operators have rushed to the used market to fill the inventory gaps they are experiencing. Top-grade used units are now at a premium.
If you are a diligent shopper and purchase from a trustworthy source, you can get serviceable units at a decent price that will meet your needs. JohnTalk Classifieds, Pumper Magazine, PRO Monthly and Pumper Trader are go-to sources of used equipment, as are Facebook and Craigslist.
Look for units from manufacturers you have found to be durable so you don’t have to frequently replace parts.
Take into account that used units won’t have warranties.
Continue the Employee Search
What are you doing and not doing in your job recruitment efforts? You may decide to increase the compensation you offer. Highlight your “Help Wanted” needs on your website and online job boards. Continue to network in your area. Stay in close contact with your Chamber of Commerce.
A good approach is to put more effort into your online job recruitment. The employee review website Glassdoor found that more than half of lower-income households and high-school educated, “blue-collar” workers are more likely to use a mobile device such as their phone for their job search. You may want to keep the initial contact process as simple as possible for phone users, such as having them simply call or text your cell to set up an appointment.
Use other resources, such as contacting the U.S. Department of Labor Regional Veterans’ Employment Coordinator (RVEC) in your area for help in hiring veterans. Or, find the nearest American Job Center for additional help.
Promote the Industry
As we have all seen during the pandemic, people are seeing the portable sanitation industry from a new, more positive viewpoint. Let’s continue to hammer home this attitude.
The best way to promote the portable sanitation industry locally is to continue to perform at your highest level. It’s a tough request when you may be overworked, understaffed and short on units, but your efforts under the circumstances can be an even greater inspiration. Meanwhile, you might also have promotion opportunities at Chamber of Commerce affairs and job fairs and working the occasional non-profit event.
PSAI has created a general marketing message for improving the image of the industry, which is highlighted in the June 9 edition of their newsletter ASSOCIATIONINSIGHT. Keep these key messages in mind while you are in action:
- Portable sanitation is essential anywhere people gather and sewered sanitation is not present
- The experience of using portable sanitation should be clean, odor-free and dignified
- Portable sanitation operators are business professionals with unique expertise
Former PSAI Executive Director Karleen Kos wrote, “Operators can leverage the situation to educate customers, raise prices to more sustainable levels, and demonstrate how a high level of quality and service create better outcomes. Workers on job sites are happier and safer. Event attendees stay longer and spend more money. Everyone is healthier. We all win.”
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