Overcoming the talent crisis

Photo: ©istock.com/Paul Lampard
Photo: ©istock.com/Paul Lampard

Photo: ©istock.com/Paul LampardUnderstand the root causes of the landscape industry talent crisis. Then, find ways to promote the industry and your company.

As I travel throughout the country, it’s become increasing clear the single overwhelming constraint facing landscape contractors is talent. From entry level to middle management to executive leadership, finding people to fill positions has become a bigger issue than raising capital, finding new business or even technical skills. Some landscape company executives are afraid of growth simply because they can’t find people to do the work.

The best opportunity to alleviate the problem might be to devise strategies to attract people from outside the green industry. To do so, the industry will have to implement ways to promote itself and invest resources to do so. But first, let’s look at how we got here.

There are a number of possible root causes for the current crisis, including worker availability, wage rates, lack of perceived opportunities and industry image. So let’s examine these because the closer we come to identifying the root cause, the better our solutions will be.

Availability. Are there no young, ambitious, smart people looking to contribute? Certainly, there are. Our population is growing and, compared to many Western countries, we have fairly young demographics. In fact, the second largest segment of our population is people 15 to 30 years old (the first is people 40 to 55 years old, but not by much). The U.S. population is among the highest of industrialized countries. Unemployment is low, and the market for workers is competitive, but availability isn’t the sole cause of our labor crisis. Available people exist, they’re just not showing up at our doors.

Opportunities. Are there no opportunities in our industry? We all know that’s not the case. Most everyone reading this article has advanced from an entry or lower level position to their current position. We work with a number of landscape businesses and can’t think of any that aren’t seeking more leaders. Not only are there plenty of opportunities in the landscape business, but compensation rates at all levels have been increasing considerably for several years. Recently, a company owner in the Northeast was willing to let a candidate write his own salary and guaranteed bonus plan just to get him on board.

Wages. The green industry hasn’t been famous for high wages; however, entry-level wages have risen 20 percent to 35 percent throughout the country during the past five years. This has been the steepest wage escalation we’ve ever witnessed—increasing more quickly than the pace at which we’ve been able to raise prices for our services. While we still can’t say the industry pays above market wages, we can say its wage rates are comparable and competitive with other industries—such as hospitality, food service, manufacturing, retail and warehousing—for the same levels of responsibility. Wage pressure will continue in this competitive environment, but we don’t know of any company unwilling to pay what it has to to get people in the door.

Image. While availability and wage rates are partially responsible for the labor crisis, we don’t believe these are the biggest drivers. The fact is, in many markets, it seems landscape businesses all compete for the same set of employees. At the field level, these are mostly first- or second-generation Americans with industry experience and a solid work ethic. At the managerial level, the group seems to be comprised of a mix of people who’ve advanced from the field, are the product of a horticultural program or are recruited from other industries. Regardless, trading the same employees back and forth won’t solve the labor crisis.

Looking outside

It seems the pool of people working outside our industry holds much more promise than the limited world of those who are currently working in it. The industry needs to answer two questions: How can we attract people who are entering the hospitality, construction, food service, manufacturing, retail, warehousing and transportation industries? Why do these industry segments seem like better options? The industry is suffering from an image problem. It is unknown and underappreciated, and it’s our own fault.

Devising strategies to become better known and appreciated will attract talent from other industries and save us from cannibalizing ourselves. Self-promotion is nothing new, but it’s become an investment the industry can’t afford to skip or wait on. Participation in school programs, volunteer events, placement offices and traditional marketing avenues is becoming a necessity. Many landscape companies offer benefits and compensation levels comparable to businesses right around the corner, but no one will know it if we don’t tell the story.

Speaking of good stories, we need to be cognizant of our own self-image and how we talk about ourselves. It’s frustrating to hear people say we struggle to attract talent because the work is difficult and outdoors. Have you ever watched a football practice? Our industry is full of former athletes who took a landscape job because they didn’t want to work indoors all day.

There are no silver bullets, but self-promotion will help. The story of how you became a leader in a great industry is an exciting story. Share it passionately, and people will want to work with you.

Quick tip:

Devising strategies to become better known and appreciated will attract talent from other industries and save us from cannibalizing ourselves.

Photo: ©istock.com/Paul Lampard

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