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Green Industry labor crisis: Let’s get busy

August 7, 2013 -  By

You can’t be with a group of landscape contractors long before the conversation turns to the topic of the difficulty finding and retaining good employees.

I hear stories of ads run in newspapers or online with no responses. Or of potential employees interviewed and offered a job, who don’t show for the first day of work.

But you know the stories. As a landscape company owner, you’ve lived those stories.

In industry surveys that I’ve conducted over the years, the issue of finding and keeping good employees is always in the top three problems faced by landscape contractors and other Green Industry companies.

And unless some things change, the problem only will get worse.

The demographic facts

Demographics are not in our favor, at least not for the next decade or so. The baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, was the largest population group in this country’s history, numbering some 76 million people. That population is now aging and leaving the workforce.

Following on the heels of the boomers is Generation X, born between 1965 and 1981. This population group is significantly smaller than boomers and its members are now in their prime working years.

Because Boomers are leaving the workforce and there are fewer Gen Xers, at least some of the labor problems experienced by the Green Industry are due simply to these demographic facts.

But there is a glimmer of hope. The generation following the Gen Xers, called Generation Y or Millennials, is about the same size as the Baby Boom generation at 77 million. These folks, born after 1981 and through 2002, have started to enter the workforce.

Career choices

The big question is will the Millennials want to take on Green Industry jobs in sufficient numbers to ease our labor problem?

Some of the evidence we’re seeing in Pennsylvania is troubling. During the past year, three vocational-technical schools closed their horticulture programs due to dwindling enrollment. Over the past five years, three community colleges ended their horticulture and landscape contracting programs for the same reason. We also hear similar stories from four-year college horticulture programs across the country.

Kids and their parents are not seeing jobs in our industry as viable life career choices.

Immigrant labor

So our industry has turned increasingly to immigrant labor, whether documented or undocumented.

Many landscape contractors who have turned to the H-2B guest-worker program have found it to be a frustrating nightmare of delays and bureaucratic snafus. The recent decision by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to raise the H-2B wage rates is just the latest in a long series of hostile actions against the program by the DOL and Homeland Security stretching back to the Bush administration.

Those companies that don’t use H-2B but do their best to screen employees to be certain their documentation is legitimate are faced with forged documents that even experts often can’t detect. Contractors are faced with the dual threat of hiring an undocumented worker or facing a civil rights lawsuit for rejecting an applicant who’s in this country legally.

What’s the answer?

There is no easy answer, but there are a number of things that we must do as company owners and as an industry to turn the tide.

First, as owners, realize that one of your primary jobs is leading the human resources function in your company. This means giving significant time and attention to the recruitment and care of your employees, even if you have someone else handling the day-to-day HR function. It’s one of your major responsibilities and it’s hard work.

I know many landscape contractors for whom this was a surprise. They got into the business because they love it, whether it’s simply being outside or perhaps the design and installation process. They dislike the HR manager aspects of being a company owner. Sorry, it comes with the turf.

Second, you have to be your own public relations and marketing department, not only for your company but for our industry. Get involved with your local vo-tech program, community college or four-year horticulture or landscape contracting college program where you can tell your story.

Each of us as individuals must take responsibility for telling the story of our industry to excite kids and their parents about the career opportunities we offer. No one else will do that for us.

Several years ago, your national and state landscape and nursery associations got together and developed a website to help you tell this story:  www.TheLandLovers.org. It’s a great resource if you have the opportunity to give a talk to kids or parents about the career opportunities in our industry.

Finally, you must get involved in encouraging your Congressional representatives to support Senate Bill 744 for comprehensive immigration reform. During the August recess, your representatives will be holding town hall meetings and other opportunities for you to encourage their support of reform. Or, you may call them upor go see them with several colleagues.

I’ve been asked by landscape contractors that don’t use the H-2B program, “Why should I care about immigration reform?” Whether you realize it or not, under the current broken immigration system, your business is vulnerable to legal action from the federal government for unknowingly hiring an undocumented worker or being sued by a legal applicant you rejected because you suspected them of being undocumented.

For sure, the anti-reform forces will be out there, so it’s important that your voice as an employer and constituent be heard. Go to  www.votervoice.net/ANLA/home  or www.congressweb.com/pln  for more information and to send a message to your legislative officials.

So while there are no easy answers to the labor shortage, there are things we can do to improve our companies’ and industry’s future. Let’s get busy!

 

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About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

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