Success for Hispanics (English Version)

By: Ron Hall
Landscape Management

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of several exclusive, dual-language Landscape Management reports focusing on factors that define and drive success for Spanish-speaking landscape workers, manager and owners. This first article provides an overview of the importance of these foreign-born workers in the industry and the paths they take to success. Upcoming, can’t-miss articles will profile prominent Hispanic business owners and high-level managers. (Click here to download the complete Spanish Version.)

The U.S. Green Industry as we know it would be different without the Hispanic worker. It would be smaller and offer fewer products and services. Nobody knows with any degree of accuracy how many people of Latin American heritage are employed in the Green Industry, but the number of hourly workers, managers and the growing number of owners must run into the tens of thousands, given the size of our industry. Most estimates peg the number of functioning landscape and lawn service companies in the U.S. at about 70,000.

Regardless of ongoing and contentious wrangling over immigration policies and immigration reform, Hispanics long ago established themselves as a potent force in our society — and in our industry. And they will become a bigger factor as the industry grows to satisfy the demands for services from the estimated 70 million baby boomers, the wealthiest generation in history.

Admittedly, we use the term “Hispanic” loosely in this report, and only as a convenience in reporting. It’s inaccurate and unfair to write about or see Hispanics as a homogenous and monolithic group of people, says Mauricio Velásquez, Diversity Training Group, Reston, VA. Apart from a shared language and some commonalities of cultures, they come from different countries with different customs, he points out. That said, Mexico, because of its size and proximity to the U.S. border, is the origin of the majority of Spanish-speaking U.S. landscape employees.

Regardless of their point of origin or their status (legal or illegal), they all arrive with a singular goal in mind: to make money.

Climbing the career ladder

Most Hispanic workers, especially seasonal guest workers and those with dubious documentation, define their success by their continued employment as laborers. The career path for Hispanic workers — and newly arrive workers in particular — is essentially the same across the industry. Most start as laborers or gardeners. Those with ambition and drive soak up technical and business skills. They progress to higher levels of responsibility and perhaps even to lower management. The more ambitious and entrepreneurial, especially those with legal status or who have earned their U.S. citizenship, aspire to become managers or perhaps to run their own companies.

The trend hasn’t gone unnoticed in the industry.

Several years ago, Massachusetts landscaper Nicholas J. DiBenedetto, CLP, N.D. Landscaping Inc., told a group of fellow company owners how his ancestors arrived with other immigrants from Italy to work on the New York City skyscrapers. He pointed out that many of these laborers eventually started their own masonry or construction companies and built them into some of the most successful in the Northeast and New England. He predicted similar success for Hispanics in the landscape business.

Indeed, predictions focusing on changing U.S. demographics in regard to Hispanics are eye opening: People who identify themselves as Hispanic now comprise the largest minority in the U.S., and it’s expected to triple in size as we approach 2050, according to a 2005 study by the Pew Hispanic Center. That study predicted that 29% of the U.S. population will claim Hispanic origin by the year 2050, compared with 14% in 2005. Most of this growth will come from immigration, it said.

Case in point

Ernestino Morino Sanchez’s commute to work is a dandy — a 12-hour bus ride from his city of Miacatlan in the high country of south central Mexico to the bustling industrial city of Monterrey in the north. A night’s rest, followed by an early-morning visit to the U.S. Consulate there, and off he goes, boarding another bus on a winding, northbound, 24-hour journey, dropping off workers like himself along the way, to St. Louis.

At 50, Sanchez is not a typical H-2B seasonal guest worker. Most are much younger. But he likes to work, he says, mixing English and Spanish as company superintendent Travis Andrews serves as translator. And, Sanchez adds brightly, compared to some of the jobs he’s held in his native Mexico, working for a St. Louis-based landscape company is not that difficult.

“The only thing I don’t particularly like is when it gets cold,” he says with a good-natured chuckle.

Sanchez’s loyalty, work ethic and his determination to learn English (he admits it’s a work in progress) have allowed him to take on progressively more responsibility with US Lawns West County, says company co-owner Kelly Haskett. He was among the first three H-2B workers that the company acquired through Virginia-based Mid-Atlantic Solutions Inc. (masLabor) five years ago. Now, Sanchez, his two nephews and several close friends are among the 23 seasonal guest workers from Mexico working there.

It’s been a win-win situation almost from the get-go, says Haskett: “They’re awesome employees.”

Sanchez has moved up a rung on the career ladder and now oversees the lawn care and ornamental care at many of the company’s commercial properties. But like the more than 20,000 other H-2B seasonal guest employees at landscaping companies across the U.S., he counts success by the amount of money he can earn and can send back to his family — a wife and school-age daughter living in Miacatlan. He also has two grown sons.

Asked whether he would rather live in the U.S. or Mexico, Sanchez barely hesitates in answering Mexico. He says he calls home three times a week, and greatly looks forward to returning to Miacatlan each year in time for the Christmas season. And, like he said, he’s a worker. During the winter he drives a taxi in his city of 24,000 people until it’s time to return to work in St. Louis in the early spring.

The path to success

Any Green Industry employee’s success, of course, ultimately depends upon the ability to meet employer expectations. This includes fitting into the company’s culture, meeting production goals and providing quality work.

Wages for beginning laborers in the U.S. Green Industry generally range from $8 to $11 an hour, depending upon the region. Beginning wages are established through a combination of federal and state regulations and the competitive forces of local job markets.

From laborer, the next step up the job ladder is the field foreman. Proficiency in English isn’t necessarily a barrier to becoming a field foreman, assuming fellow crewmembers are Spanish speakers. To advance to that position — which of course offers a higher hourly wage — a worker must be proficient at a variety of tasks, such as plant identification and layout, plan reading and equipment operation. Obviously, the foreman must also work efficiently with other crewmembers.

If a worker excels as a foreman and becomes proficient in English, he may be selected to receive additional training and become “lead man,” with more ownership of the properties under his crew’s care and an expanded set of responsibilities.

This is a major step, offering significantly more responsibilities and better wages. It takes a determined effort by a seasonal worker to make this leap, and few do. A lead man is expected to consistently turn in quality work with no “redos,” do jobs within budget, communicate effectively with his supervisor, continue to grow his skills and those of his crew members, take care of company equipment, work safely with no accidents, and turn in accurate and timely paperwork. Full-time employees take these positions with rare exceptions.

Training to leave?

The greatest challenge facing most newly arrived Spanish-speaking workers is the most obvious one: language. Some landscape companies offer workers the opportunity to learn English in local schools or programs. But generally what English the workers learn, they learn on their own.

“If there were no language barrier, a lot of your folks would quit and start their own businesses and become your biggest competition,” says Mauricio Velásquez of Diversity Training Inc. “Many of these people are hard-working, industrious, entrepreneurial people.”

As today’s owners increase the business knowledge and skills of their best Hispanic employees, they’re building value into their companies and increasing the level of service to their clients. What many of these same owners are now starting to recognize is that they may also be training their competition — and some of the next generation’s industry leaders.

Getting off to the right start

What does it take for a landscape company and its Spanish-speaking workers to both achieve success? Things that start well have a much better chance of succeeding.

Steve Rak II, Southwest Landscape Management, Columbia Station, OH, hired his first H-2B seasonal workers five years ago. Now he has nine. He decided from the start to leave neither their training nor their indoctrination into his company’s culture to chance.

“The first thing I did when we began the program was to hire an outside interpreter,” says Rak. “Every few weeks, our interpreter comes in and we have a short morning meeting to discuss whatever questions or comments they may have.”

Rak’s company also developed and uses a company-specific PowerPoint presentation in Spanish that he presents to new workers. The interpreter, using the presentation as a visual, covers almost every aspect of the company — from uniforms to legal forms. That session takes the better part of a day.

For the company’s regular training sessions, Rak’s managers rely heavily upon training materials offered by the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET).

On different occasions, Rak, his managers and his employees have gathered at a local restaurant for a night out, attended Cleveland Indians baseball games and played miniature golf.

“We are now a multicultural company, but having fun transcends any cultural barriers we may have,” says Rak.

5 tips to help ensure success

Veteran labor expert Robert Wingfield, Amigos Inc., Dallas, offers these five suggestions to company owners in building successful Spanish-language employees:

1. Explain clearly what is expected of each worker. This includes what’s expected regarding their performance, their behavior while representing the company and especially what they will be paid and what will be deducted from their paycheck each week.

2. Provide them with comfortable housing in a safe area. It must at least contain the basics — a bed with sheets and pillows, a couch, table and chairs with a place to cook. They want to be able to save as much money to send home as they can.

3. Workers must have access to a bank, a grocery store and a laundromat each week. It’s better if they have these within walking distance of their apartment; otherwise you need to have a crew leader take them weekly.

4. Workers need as many hours per week as possible. They come here expressly to make money. If you are only giving them 40 hours with no overtime, it is likely they will leave. One solution is to bring up — and thus spread more available hours among — fewer workers.

5. Treat them with respect. Realize that they come from a different culture with different customs. You don’t have to “adopt” them, but treat them fairly.

Specialized skills mean more pay

By Daniel Weiss, Contributor

Hispanic workers measure success in their employment in terms of wages. Money. Cash. Titles are fine, but they (like most of us) are most interested in what they can earn — and, in many cases, what they can send home to their families.

To the employee, they realize that there are two main ways they can increase their wages. They can either work more hours per week or acquire additional skills. This is how they make themselves more valuable to their company and its customers.

My company has several workers who chose the later route. They do exceptional brickwork and other hardscaping. Compared to national averages, I pay them well, much better than general laborers. Beyond that, I treat them (and all our multicultural employees, in fact) with the same respect I would treat any person who works hard, is honest and takes pride in delivering quality service.

Some of our Hispanic employees speak English. They live in the U.S. and are established in nearby communities with homes, families and friends. We also employ seasonal workers, most of whom don’t speak English. I try to meet those employees halfway by attempting to speak Spanish. Admittedly, I struggle, but I keep trying. On occasion, I even use my computer to seek out the translation of a particular Spanish phrase. While I might not get it exactly right, and it may surprise employees to hear me attempt it on a job site, I’m sure it strengthens my relationship with my Spanish-speaking employees.

Giving Spanish-speaking employees, including newly hired ones, the tools to be successful starts by establishing expectations up front. Everyone has to know and abide by the rules. Then it’s up to the employees to increase their value and wages by the manner with which they perform their tasks — and by the extra value they create for the company and its customers with the skills they master.

One of the keys to building a successful relationship with foreign-born workers, I’m convinced, is to clearly establish expectations up front and to keep the lines of communication open.

— The author is owner/operator of the Elysian Design & Landscape Group, Oakland County, MI

Copa Vila builds competition, morale

By Ron Hall, Editor-at-Large

MIAMI, FL — In the U.S., the sport is known as soccer. The rest of the world, including the sport-loving Mexican and Central American landscape workers at Vila & Son, the sport is known as futbol.

Vila & Son, one of the premier landscape companies in Florida, builds excitement, competition and keeps morale high among its various branches and locations with one of the most unusual annual “futbol” tournaments in the world: the Copa Vila.

One Saturday each month from January to May the company buses in teams, composed almost exclusively of its Spanish-speaking workers, from its branches in Orlando (La Maquina Celeste), Miami (Blue Tigers), West Palm Beach (Coyotes) and Ft. Myers (Altetico Barcelona). That’s where they meet up with Los Reales, the team composed of corporate and nursery workers. They compete on a specially prepared pitch at the home of Vila & Son CEO Juan Carlos Vila, located in the verdant, agricultural region just southwest of the city. The five teams of landscape and nursery workers match futbol skills in a five-month-long, round-robin tournament at the site.

While the play is friendly, it’s spirited, says Vila. These are not your neighbor pickup-type match-ups. Each team has its share of excellent athletes, he adds, and the level of play is often exceptional. This (and the lure of good food and the prospect of hooking up with friends) brings about 150 family members, past employees and prospects to witness each contest.

The company provides transportation and uniforms for the players. The Vila family and staff at corporate prepare and serve food and soft drinks to the competitors, spectators and guests.

Once the dust clears, the tournament championship team (this year, it’s the Coyotes — the team’s first ever crown) take a trophy back to their location until a new king is crowned next May.

“My family and I are honored to share our home with our employees. We consider them family, and family is always welcomed,” says Vila.

To top
Skip to content