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Attracting the Best Employees

Make sure the grass is greener on your side of the fence
By Ron Hall


It's a dark Friday evening, one of the coldest nights of a bitterly cold Cleveland, Ohio, winter. About 100 trade show officials, sponsors and landscape company owners and their significant others are gathered in small friendly groups in a cozy corner of the cavernous I-X Center. This is an invitation-only preview - complete with hor d'oeuvres, wine and new-age rock band - of the annual Greater Cleveland Home & Garden Show.

The air is warm, humid and pleasantly fragrant in this neatly partitioned section of the 2.2-million-square-foot monstrosity of a building that was used to build bombers during WWII. The nearby dozen or so themed landscapes are awash with tulips, azaleas, rhodies and small plots of turfgrass.

Jacob Grimm and his wife Bobbi are showing a chatty middle-aged couple around their company's garden. The garden that he and his team installed for the show has a boldly clean futuristic look. Grimm is owner of Brothers Grimm Landscape and Design Co., which serves the northeast Ohio market. He founded the company in 1995.

Grimm is anticipating a good year. One big reason is that several months ago he hired an experienced account manager.



Jacob Grimm did his financial homework prior to adding a new manager.
Photo by Ron Hall.

"I have aggressive growth plans for the company and I needed someone to help us get there," says Grimm. He made the decision after carefully examining his company's financials, making what he felt was an accurate assessment of the service opportunities in his market and then measuring his expectations for the new hire's performance.

Taking on a manager is a big step for a modestly sized company such as Brothers Grimm Landscape and Design. The expectation, of course, is that the new person will take on some of the responsibilities formerly shouldered by the owner - and also pay for his or her keep; and more.

Grimm is confident that will be the case, especially the grounds maintenance part of his business. Grimm has always enjoyed designing, selling and delivering high-quality residential landscapes. That's how he established his company's reputation in his regional market. But he recognized he needed someone who can sell, schedule work, build and maintain positive customer contacts and oversee production. He wanted someone who could begin contributing almost from the start. It was a match: the new hire, who had worked for another player in that regional market, saw the move as a new and more attractive career opportunity.

"I've pretty much made that his (account manager's) responsibility. I'm going to stay out of the way," says Grimm.

There are almost as many different ways to acquire employees as there companies seeking them. But, by a large majority, landscape business owners see acquiring and keeping good employees as a huge challenge.

Earlier this year an industry survey by St. Paul, Minn.-based Hindsite Software revealed just how big a challenge they face in finding "good employees."

Only 3 percent of the respondents to the survey said that it's "very easy" for them to find good employees. By contrast, 24 percent said it is "very difficult" and 55 percent said it was "somewhat difficult."

The first step in seeking new employees should be the most obvious: carefully defining what you really need your new hires to be doing, and then precisely outlining their duties and their responsibilities.

Attracting an experienced account manager, perhaps even from a competitor, is markedly different from the strategies that land competent foremen, field technicians or seasonal workers. That said, don't overlook what you already have. Your next valuable manager field supervisor might be that employee starting out on the seat of a mower or pushing a spreader.



The 800 horticulture students competing at Student Career Days attract lots of attention from recruiters.
Photos courtesy Nobile Photo, www.nobilephoto.com.

Commonly used strategies

Common recruiting strategies, apart from the ubiquitous "Help Wanted" sign in front of the company offices, include:

Using a bigger net

Some companies serving regional markets throw out a bigger net for employees by promoting and conducting job fairs. They publicize their job fairs in a number of ways: on Craigslist, with signage and with announcements and advertisements in local newspapers. Typically they devote an afternoon in January or February to interview and screen job applicants.

Typical is a recent posting on a PLANET online forum by R&S Landscaping announcing an afternoon job fair this past Feb. 26 at its Midland Park, N.J., headquarters. The announcement was also blogged and promoted in local news outlets. The company said it is hiring in all three of its divisions: landscape maintenance, design/build and irrigation.

"Attendees will have the chance to speak with division managers and other current employees and tour the two-building facility. Candidates can fill out application and interview with managers the same afternoon," the company said.

Other companies, such as Garrick-Santo, Malden, Mass., also go it alone with an annual mid-winter job fair, as well. But, the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado (ALCC) really does it up big. Its job fair at the Summit Conference & Event Center in Aurora, Colo., consisted of about 50 landscape companies seeking to recruit good employees.

The job fair included positions ranging from entry-level jobs to irrigation technicians, foremen and project managers, equipment operators, horticulturists, landscape designers and office support staff.

H-2B, a Valuable but Frustrating Program

by Ron Hall

About 20 years ago, the federal government, responding to demands from small business and agriculture, crafted two significant seasonal guest worker programs: H-2A for agricultural workers and H-2B for non-ag workers. At the time, the U.S. economy was just settling into one of the longest and strongest growth periods in the country's history. As U.S. businesses grew during the 1990s the United States was, for all practical purposes, near or at what experts refer to as full employment. Unemployment figures essentially reflected individuals who couldn't or wouldn't work.

The government initially capped the number of visas available for H-2B workers at 66,000. That's where it remains today. It took several years for landscape company owners to become knowledgeable about this source of new employees. That knowledge consisted primarily of strictly adhering to government rules to acquire visas for these seasonal employees, the great majority being Spanish-speakers from Mexico and Central America.

One of these rules - perhaps its most important and certainly its most contentious - is that U.S. employers provide proof that they've attempted to attract and hire U.S. citizens for the jobs they need to fill before looking south of the border for workers.

The popularity of the H-2B grew as the U.S. economy hummed along nicely through the 1990s; that was until it ran full face into the economic stonewall of the 2008-2009 Recession. Business owners in a number of industries (landscape business owners snapping up the greatest share of H-2B visas from year to year) were willing and able to pay the fees required for recruiting the seasonal workers, obtaining the visas and complying with the requirements.

But, like many government programs, politics increasingly began taking precedence over policy and the requirements for acquiring H-2B visas, seemingly always capricious, became more byzantine and costly over time. Evidence of this are the rules (575 pages of them) that the U.S. Labor Department issued early in 2012 "to strengthen protection" for H-2B workers and "spur recruitment of Americans" for jobs.

Yes, the H-2B program remains in place and as many as 1,000 landscape companies still rely on their seasonal immigrant employees to serve their customers. In many cases the same workers return each spring and return to their homes in Mexico or elsewhere in Central or South America in December.

The Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) continues to monitor and defend the program as well as assist members who depend upon it. To learn more to stay abreast of what's happening with H-2B, visit http://www.landcarenetwork.org/legislative/h2b.cfm.

"The cost to replace a skilled employee is $5,000 or more per employee when you factor in advertising for the position, interviewing prospective employees and the training the new employee," said David Chenoweth, president of Western States Reclamation, Inc., Frederick, Colo., in reference to the ALCC Job Fair

For the most part, owners seem to feel that "attitude" rather than experience is a better indicator of an applicant's likelihood to succeed as an employee. Owners are always looking for new hires with positive, can-do attitudes, individuals who can be trained.



Competition among landscape firms for acquiring the top students at PLANET's Student Career Days is intense.

Chasing young talent

That's one of the reasons that about 60 landscape companies and industry suppliers make it a point to participate in and recruit at the annual Student Career Days sponsored by PLANET (Professional Landcare Network).

How Not To Lose Your Best Employees!

by Bill Hoopes

Ever lose the one person you need most, and wonder why? In my 28 years working in the home services end of the green industry, I've seen it happen again and again; really valuable employees walking out the door. Funny thing is the spurned leader never seems to understand how or why it happened!

You hear a lot about how Generation Y workers are different; and I will agree there are some fundamental differences in the way today's "millennials" view the world of work. For one thing, they think of themselves first. A job is typically a means to an end, not their long-term objective or the reason they get up in the morning. I'm not sure the term career is even meaningful these days. Short-term thinking is the order of the day. I want in and I want to be important, and I want all that now. So, the paradigm shifted.

Do these changes mean we cannot impact Gen Y behavior and build productive work teams? Not a chance. But if you are a manager or supervisor at any level and over 40, taking a different approach could help keep winners on board.

Watching some of the very best [and worst] over the seasons, here are a few brief but, for me, meaningful observations:

  • Smart leaders understand that the human resource is the key resource. Treat people like tires on a truck and that is exactly what they feel like. Let's see, I need four tires and one driver. Ok, I'm all set. I wish that it were that simple, but it's simply not. The point is, people who feel they are counted on as an integral part of the business success formula are more likely to take their jobs seriously.
  • Workers are not there to make you rich! Today's employee works to live, not the reverse. So, grinding out long hours because that was the norm in the '80s and '90s is a loser. Try it and turnover will soar. I've watched it happen. So, build in as much flexibility as possible for those who have earned it and give people choices when you can.
  • When people feel the leader is honest and open with them, they respond. I didn't say easy on them, I said honest. People respect honesty and will stay longer with an honest leader.
  • People who understand why you want a tough job done find it much easier to make it happen. People need and deserve more than "Do it because I said so". Understanding there is a reason to do something is important to those who feel that if they don't like the situation, they can take a hike.
  • People who come on board because they want your job versus just a job, are much more likely to be coachable and to succeed early on. So, improve workplace morale by starting at the beginning; work harder, spend more time on recruiting efforts. You can find good people anywhere. Keep your eyes open. Look for that positive, can-do attitude and hand that person a business card with a short recruiting message on the back. Polish your interviewing skills and process. An interview is not your moment to "sell" the job; it's your opportunity to explore the candidate's past performance, the only serious predictor of future behavior.
  • Lastly, set the example you expect from your people. Remember, your people are watching. What they see in you today, they will become tomorrow. At the local watering hole, more often than not the topic of conversation starts with their job, and that ties them directly to you. Make sure the story is a good one.

Long story short, if we simply treat people the way we'd like to be managed and led, far fewer great people would leave us just when we can least afford it.

Bill Hoopes operates Grass Roots Training, a private green industry training-consulting business. He has over 25 years management experience, and is a former director of training at both Barefoot Grass and Scotts LawnService. You can reach him at hoopes@columbus.rr.com.

Recently more than 800 horticulture and landscape students from about 65 schools traveled to Colorado State University to test their skills. They're a competitive and incredibly spirited bunch of young people. They're just the kind of educated but raw talent that can step in and, with training and more experience, help companies rise to the next level.

Not surprisingly, the event also attracts green industry companies (contractors and industry suppliers) hungry to get some of this talent. They set up booths and recruit at the Career Fair that takes place in conjunction with the student competitions.

The competition for the top students is keen. In fact, many of the top students are identified and receive job offers prior to the event. More than a few of the young competitors are in the enviable position of weighing several job offers when they leave the event.

Participating in the Career Fair is a big financial commitment for landscape companies. Unfortunately, only an incredibly small number of landscape company owners, given the tens of thousands of "landscapers" in the United States, are willing and are in a financial position to land a prize young employee or two in this manner. That some of these companies participate and recruit at the Career Fair year after year suggests that they've determined that it is money wisely spent.

Indeed, a good employee (whether a lawn tech, foreman or manager) is a valuable addition to any landscape or lawn service company. By "good employees" we're talking about folks who sincerely appreciate being on a team, who remain loyal to it goals and who are willing to keep growing and learning as they help their employer to succeed and to grow.

Finally, many owners recruit year-round because the industry's employee churn is high. They've learned that there's never a bad time to add a good employee to their teams.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He is nearing his 30th year participating in and reporting on the green industry. Reach him at rhall@mrpllc.com.