LM 2019 Industry Pulse: Labor report

December 24, 2019 -  By
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Plenty of work, but no workforce

Industry Pulse respondents say 2019 was a good year for business but a struggle to find people to help complete jobs

While landscape companies say work was plentiful in 2019, it was often hard to find workers like those pictured here. (Photo: GreenSweep)

While landscape companies say work was plentiful in 2019, it was often hard to find workers like those pictured here. (Photo: GreenSweep)

The good news in 2019 is the economy is strong and demand for landscape services is high. But, when the going is good with the economy and the unemployment rate is low, that usually means one thing: Labor is scarce. Such was the case in 2019, say many respondents to LM’s 2019 Industry Pulse.

“You ask any landscape guy out there what his biggest problem is, and he’s going to say people,” says Don Zerby, president of Ecolawn, a lawn care, tree care and pest control business in Eastlake, Ohio.

To sum up the viewpoints of many survey takers, one respondent said simply: “Plenty of work, but no workforce.”

Tough to find good people

Landscape professionals say they’ve faced issues with finding qualified workers within the labor pool, too.

“It’s not just about hiring them; it’s about keeping them,” Zerby says.

Setting competitive wages is a constant struggle. Sources we spoke to say they have increased pay in order to stay competitive within the market.

“My guys make anywhere from $17 to $23 an hour, and my kids from high school made $10,” says Kurt Olsen, president of Timber Ridge Landscape, a design/build operation in Crown Point, Ind.

Skilled labor has also been a challenge for One Two Tree, a pest control, tree service and lawn care operation in Miami. General Manager Dusty Montiel says his operation has struggled to find tree trimmers — so much so that he calls them “extinct dinosaurs.” One of his best trimmers has worked for One Two Tree for more than 20 years.

Dusty Montiel

Dusty Montiel

“Our tree division can’t grow because we can’t find them,” Montiel says.

Survey respondents say they’ve implemented signing bonuses, increased benefits, offered free lunches, free uniforms, on top of referral bonuses all to try to fill positions. And as far as referral programs go, One Two Tree had to increase its employee referral program to entice more participation.

“We went from $300 for the year to $600 for the year,” Montiel says.

Shawn Edwards, president of A+ Lawn & Landscape, a lawn care and landscaping operation in Des Moines, Iowa, also pays top dollar for employee referrals. His company’s program pays out $400 per month, starting after 30 days of a referred person’s employment up to five months for a total of $2,000.

A+ Lawn & Landscape uses Indeed, social media and job fairs to recruit workers. But, as Edwards says, “there’s no secret sauce to finding labor.”

On average, respondents pay employees with 0-5 years of experience $13.40 an hour for mowing work. That amount increases to $16.40 with 5 years of experience or more.

Training

Russ Jundt

Russ Jundt

One solution to the labor strife, respondents say, is to boost an operation’s employee training. Some landscape companies have accomplished this by developing how-to and safety videos in-house.

Conserva Irrigation created a new recruitment, training and certification program to train junior irrigation technicians called Conserva CareerTech Academy.

“After sourcing young men or women with little or no irrigation experience, in just four weeks, we are able to train them (classroom and field) and get them in their own company service vehicle earning money for themselves and for the company,” says Russ Jundt, founder and vice president of Conserva Irrigation. “They graduate with a Certified Irrigation Technician certificate and can handle 80-85 percent of the common problems encountered in the field.”

The training, though, doesn’t end there, Jundt says. Continuing education options are also available with the end goal of creating a consistent experience for Conserva’s customers.

“We are very encouraged by the early results,” he says.

Treat them well

Shawn Edwards

Shawn Edwards

Another fix for labor woes, many survey respondents suggest, is to respect employees and take a heightened focus on company culture.

Olsen says he’s changed his approach when communicating with his employees. “I tend not to yell at them. I don’t give them the riot act like I used to when I was younger,” he says. “If one guy does something wrong, I’ll pull him off to the side.”

An owner/co-owner of a design/build/construction business in the Southwest recommends that managers and owners, “respect current employees as they are family.”

Edwards agrees, saying he makes it a point to spend time with his A+ Lawn & Landscape employees.

“The best labor practice in this labor shortage is to spend more time with your employees so you don’t lose them,” he says.

Become an employer of choice

Don Zerby

Don Zerby

Zerby says labor struggles are nothing new for him, and he’s spent a lot of time unsuccessfully thinking about how to alleviate his labor woes.

That was, until a friend passed along the book, “How to Hire the Best” by Dr. Sabrina Starling. In the book, Starling explains that businesses struggling to fill positions need to become an employer of choice.

And, in order to understand what an employer of choice looks like, companies need to identify the key characteristics of the ideal employee and identify what elements of a business employees like.

“Pretty soon, you start to define what an A-player employee looks like. Job ads can be written that capture the testimonials of what your current A players like about working at an employer of choice,” Zerby says. “You end up marketing in a similar fashion to the way you do to your ideal customers.”

Zerby says the book and website have been immensely helpful, and his labor woes are now nonexistent.

“We made a couple of successful hires based on information that is in this book,” he says. “Your A players become your best recruiters.”

Labor savers

As labor becomes scarce, business owners are looking for ways to do the same amount of work with a smaller workforce. Equipment that helps increase efficiency is often the solution. Here are a few pieces our survey respondents keep in their fleets to help them get work done even when there are fewer people to do it:

  • Vermeer chipper/Bobcat E20 mini excavator
  • UTV with spray rig
  • Electric equipment
  • Mini skid-steers
  • Service Minder CRM
  • Stihl 800 blowers
  • Bobcat MT52
  • Zero-turn mowers
  • Z-Spray
  • 200-gallon spray tanks
  • Toro and Exmark stand-on mowers
  • Toro Dingo

Reasons people leave

  • Better pay
  • Work is too hard
  • Don’t fit into the culture
  • Better benefits
  • Other industries are more appealing

How are you attracting more employees?

  • More money
  • Weekends off
  • Sending them to trade school
  • Current employees are best recruiters
  • Work-at-home days
  • Treating all employees with respect
Christina Herrick

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