Hiring heroes

November 6, 2013 -  By
Andrew Wagner

Headshot: Andrew Wagner

From aiding in the destruction of bombs as a radio field operator in the U.S. Marine Corps to destroying weeds, among other tasks, at The Grounds Guys of Greater Little Rock, Ark., Andrew Wagner’s transition to the civilian sector—primarily the Green Industry—was somewhat seamless.

Then again, his stake in landscaping started awhile ago. When he was 10 years old, his dad rolled a push mower in front of him and instructed to go earn some dollar bills.

Wagner credits his four-year military service, including two tours to Afghanistan and one to Iraq, for his success in the industry, though.

Russell Hall

Headshot: Russell Hall

“It’s a great place for military [people] for the simple fact it’s fast-paced and you’re always doing something new,” says Wagner, a foreman. “In the military that’s what we do every day, something new and fast-paced.”

To that end, it’s Wagner’s military mindset and work ethic that make him, as well as other military veterans, a fine fit for the Green Industry, says Russell Hall, president of The Grounds Guys of Greater Little Rock.

Wagner, the only veteran of a nine-man staff, has quickly risen through the ranks at the company. He was promoted to foreman shortly after his hire in February and is slated for promotion to supervisor before the end of the year.

“He knows what it takes to make a business successful,” Hall says. “We are rewarding him as quick as we can to show him we really appreciate his attitude and efforts.”

The most admirable qualities of a veteran like Wagner, Hall adds, are punctuality, discipline and leadership.

Theresa Austin

Headshot: Theresa Austin

Wagner also will keep colleagues in check for quality workmanship, which Hall says is a plus for a boss.

Parallels in sectors, skill sets

Theresa Austin says the discipline veterans attain from their service is most transferable to the Green Industry and what makes them standout from their peers.

The COO of Lambert Landscape Co. in Dallas speaks from experience, too. Austin served in the U.S. Air Force from 1987 to 1992.

“The military requires great discipline and a get-it-done attitude,” she says. “We used to have to get up at 4 a.m. every morning, run 3 miles and then get to work when most people are just waking up.”

As a hiring manager, she adds: “Service personnel put a lot of investment in what they do and are great employees. Every vet I’ve hired has proven that.”

For Austin, it was her exposure to total quality management in the Air Force that’s proven useful to her career in the Green Industry. The process of putting a design from paper into reality and then sustaining it, for example, must be through a “regimental process,” Austin says.

“In the Air Force, standard operating procedure guides all decision-making,” she says. “This mindset works well at Lambert’s because standard operating best practice is how we approach our work. There’s a very specific way we execute our jobs, maintain the properties and measure performance. Military training is really compatible with that.”

Benefits in workmanship, finances

Hiring veterans also can come with financial benefits to business owners.

The Veteran Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 provides tax credits to employers who hire veterans struggling to gain employment. Those tax credits include the Returning Heroes and Wounded Warrior Tax Credits.

The Returning Heroes Tax Credit provides a credit of 40 percent of the first $6,000 of wages (up to $2,400) to employers who hire veterans unemployed for at least four weeks and a credit of 40 percent of the first $14,000 of wages (up to $5,600) for employers who hire veterans unemployed for more than six months.

The Wounded Warrior Tax Credit provides a credit of 40 percent of the first $24,000 of wages (up to $9,600) for employers who hire service-disabled veterans who have been unemployed for more than six months.

These programs expire Dec. 31. A move in Congress is required to extend them to 2014 or to make them permanent. Though it’s uncertain if it will do so as of press time, Congress has expanded and extended them in the past.

Chris Vedrani, owner of Planted Earth Landscaping in Westminster, Md., took advantage of a $1,500 tax credit four years ago when he hired Justin Spittal, a project manager with the company. Spittal served eight years in the Army National Guard.

Vedrani says the financial advantages to hiring Spittal were a minor perk. He concurs with other landscape business owners that veterans’ greatest value to the Green Industry lies in their discipline and, in Spittal’s case, organizational skills.

“For him, organization may stem from coordinating plant deliveries to scheduling equipment,” Vedrani says. “The discipline and the organization are a key part of that role.”

He adds military members also bring loyalty, and says: “They made a commitment to the country and completed it. That spells loyalty and they’re going to be loyal to your company and loyal to your client. That’s a big plus.”

Chris Vedrani

Headshot: Chris Vedrani

Challenges to consider

Hiring military members may not always go smoothly, though, cautions Dirk Bakhuyzen Jr., president of PROCARE Landscape Management in Byron Center, Mich.

With two veterans and one National Guard member, who is his daughter, in the makeup of his 35-member team, Bakhuyzen says hardships can surface from employing military members.

His daughter, for example, was sent to Advanced Individual Training for the National Guard during PROCARE’s midseason. (This branch of the Army allows soldiers to maintain their military training part-time amid working or acting as a civilian.)

Although PROCARE is operating sufficiently in his daughter’s absence, Bakhuyzen says it’s not always easy.

“You want to leave their job open for them but you can’t necessarily do that,” he says. “You may have to fill that job temporarily until they get back.”

Justin Spittal

Headshot: Justin Spittal

Still, employers should know the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) is a federal law in place to protect military members against discrimination and safeguard their civilian jobs, ensuring their position is available upon return from trainings or deployments.

Another challenge Bakhuyzen once had was with a veteran employee who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder after a deployment to Iraq.

“We stood by him for a long time but he ended up ultimately having to leave,” he says.

Landscape business owners, he says, should not be deterred from hiring veterans dealing with the aftereffects of deployment, though. They just need to be attentive to their needs.

[RELATED: Closing the gap |My military experience: How Green Industry business owners have turned their military service into success]

Attraction between parties

The advantages to hiring veterans in the Green Industry, Bakhuyzen says, far outweigh the downsides. It’s for that reason he hopes to recruit more veterans going forward.

“The experiences I’ve had with veterans and active (members) is that they’re very job-focused. They take instruction easily, listen and try to follow through on everything,” he says. “They’re not whiners.”

Chris McDonald

Headshot: Chris McDonald

Hence its name, Military Veterans Landscaping (MVL) was formed from the notion veterans and the Green Industry mesh well, says Chris McDonald, managing member of MVL. The company was largely established for the purpose of employing veterans in the Green Industry.

Based in Washington, D.C., MVL is mainly staffed by veterans, with the exception of some seasoned landscapers for training purposes.

“When you bring service members back that are looking for employment, they are strong, able-bodied individuals,” McDonald says. “A lot of these guys are looking for a job and they’re willing to work hard no matter what the sector is. When they put on our uniform they give 100 percent.”

After a 10-year service in the Navy, McDonald cofounded MVL with John Yori in January 2012.

While he had no experience in landscaping, McDonald joined the industry for an obvious comparison between it and the military, which is they both require outdoor work.

“I liked getting outside. I enjoyed working really hard,” he says of his service, and adds of his landscaping career,
“I love that you go to a property and it’s a mess. You tear it up and put something back more beautiful than before.”

The outdoor aspect, Hall agrees, attracts veterans to the Green Industry.

“Being in the military, they are used to hard work and working outdoors a lot,” Hall says. “People who sign up for the military, they’re the type of person who enjoys the work we’re doing.”

Veterans, Austin adds, like the structured environment of a landscape business and may be beneficial to a company looking to put structure in place.

“Having military management experience is a skill set that can be a strategic advantage for entrepreneurial companies seeking to build efficient systems and practices,” she says.

These comparisons are the reason many landscape business owners seek out veterans for employment, too.

“It’s hard work, long hours, hot, cold. I think [the military] provides some of that before they get here,” says Vedrani, who actively recruits veterans from Hire Heroes USA. The nonprofit organization trains job-seeking veterans for employment in the civilian sector. It creates engagement between employers and veterans via job postings and offers a database of veteran candidates to employers.

For other business owners, the drive to hire veterans goes beyond gaining a dedicated staffer.

In Bakhuyzen’s case, it’s about returning a favor.

“I’d like them to work for me just for the satisfaction of knowing I can give back to someone who gave something to me and my country,” he says. “If I can help them achieve their goals after service, that would be a great thing.”

About the Author:

Former Associate Editor Sarah Pfledderer is a West Coast-based contributing editor for Landscape Management.

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