What happens when a hot market meets a chilly labor pool

October 18, 2021 -  By
Landscapers say the nonstop demand for work and the lack of workers is like a sports car out of gas. (Photo: Chris Aluka Berry)

Outta Gas: Landscapers say the nonstop demand for work and the lack of workers is like a sports car out of gas. (Photo: Chris Aluka Berry)

The difficulty of finding and keeping good employees is nothing new to the landscaping industry. Nicholas DiBenedetto, president of ND Landscape Services in Georgetown, Mass., remembers always looking for the next employee for his business since its inception about 40 years ago.

“I don’t recall not needing to hire anybody, although there’s always a few downturns in the economy,” he says. “I’ve always observed who would be available with high skills.”

DiBenedetto says he’s proud to have employees who have been with his commercial landscape management, design/build and snow and ice management business 12-plus, 25-plus and even 35-plus years. And while many landscaping companies have longtime employees like DiBenedetto’s company does, many companies struggle to fill key roles. Experts say now is the time to look to alternative sources for your next new hire.

A Porsche without gas

For Seabreeze Property Services in Portland, Maine, this past year and a half has been a time of increased demand and growth. CEO Josh Flynn estimates his primarily commercial landscape maintenance, design/build, lawn care and snow and ice management company is about 35 percent larger than it was pre-COVID-19 and now employs about 70 people. He says he’s noticed a diverse pool of applicants, including people coming from the hospitality and restaurant industries. And yet, he says the labor market is just as tight as when he started with the company about five years ago as a supervisor.

“You hear stories of ‘Back in 2008, 2009, we had a stack of applicants, and you could have picked whoever you wanted to,’” he says, adding that those days are now a distant memory. “It’s just as tight as it was in 2019 and just as difficult. It’s compounded by the fact that there’s so much opportunity that we want to seize.”

Flynn says his company stopped selling projects about two and a half months ago because he can’t source enough employees to keep up with the demand. One of his sales representatives likens this current state for the industry to a Porsche without gas.

“It’s tough to say no to new work,” Flynn says. “We’ve stopped selling now for probably about two and a half months. That’s incredibly unusual.”

Andrew Bray, vice president of government relations with the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), says the global pandemic exacerbated an already tight labor market. Before the pandemic, the unemployment rate was under 4 percent. Workers were already opting for year-round employment, fewer manual labor jobs and air-conditioning in fast-food restaurants and big-box stores.

“Now, a pandemic happens, and I think everybody is feeling that crunch,” he says.

Brian McCabe, financial adviser with Savage and Associates and co-owner of McCabe Outdoor Power, an equipment dealer in Grand Rapids, Ohio, says this labor crunch has hit his dealership.

“We’ve lost sales. A guy’s like, ‘I’m going to take four zero-turns this spring.’ But then says, ‘You know what? I’m actually good because I have to hand away accounts this year because I don’t have enough help.’”

This isn’t going to change any time soon, says Kara Youngblood, founding attorney of Youngblood & Associates, an immigration law firm that focuses on the green industry.

“There’s just no workforce that they can count on being there on a daily basis,” she says.
Landscape Management interviewed multiple experts about what they advise their peers do given the hot market alongside a chilly labor pool.

Advice: Charge more for services and pay employees more

Flynn says he’s looked at historical numbers at Seabreeze Property Services in Portland, Maine, and it’s high time the industry takes a hard look at what it charges for services.

“I think for a very long time, most folks have probably been getting away with paying between $11 and $14 an hour,” he says. “In our market, that’s not a cost-of-living wage.”

Flynn said he’s increased wages by 10 percent since April 2021. He says his business is also significantly raising prices to account for the higher wages.

“You have to do these things in order to keep growing and moving forward,” he says. “The machines don’t move unless there’s somebody in them.”

Advice: Keep them year-round

Flynn said Seabreeze Property Services transitioned from guaranteeing workers a certain amount of hours throughout the winter into a new winter program that guarantees a full-time paycheck — including overtime and differential pay — regardless of weather. Instead of having employees report to the shop to clean trucks over and over, last winter, a group of employees from different divisions and branches worked at the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, Maine.

“We did a pilot group of five to six folks every week, depending on the weather, and they go for a full day,” he says. “Why not give back to the community in some small way? At the end of the season last year, they had prepared enough boxes of food for 37,000 meals for the state of Maine. That’s only five or six people … we have 70.”

Flynn says Good Shepherd indicated the need for more help, and there are several food bank branches close to Seabreeze branches.

“It’s weather-dependent, but I’d like to at least double what we did last year,” he says. “It’s all wrapped into how we’re trying to think about winter employment and financial security for our employees and what’s more worth their time.”


Next generation: Experts say the green industry can be very attractive to Gen Z candidates. Target your messaging to attract these potential employees. (Photo: Chris Aluka Berry)

Next generation: Experts say the green industry can be very attractive to Gen Z candidates. Target your messaging to attract these potential employees. (Photo: Chris Aluka Berry)

Advice: Appeal to the next generation

Each new generation entering the workforce has a reputation that precedes it. This is true with Generation Z. Working in the green industry could be a natural fit for this generation, which is known to be passionate about the environment and concerned with climate change.

Bray says this is an opportunity for the industry to tout the benefits of landscaping and the green industry as a whole to attract these new workers.

“Studies show that this younger generation feels this tremendous amount of social responsibility,” Bray says. “There’s some really cool stuff out there we’re doing that is not just mowing the grass. There are ways to shape landscapes and improve them by putting in certain plants. And there’s some real critical thinking involved. Those are some things that are very appealing to many in this younger generation.”

Bray says landscaping companies should use the opportunity to visit high schools and job fairs and target the messaging to the benefits of the industry, which is exactly what DiBenedetto did recently. He spoke to a group of high schoolers in his hometown about the true cost of a college degree and the opportunities within the green industry. He compared the path of a college grad with $200,000 in student loan debt with a high school grad who works for a landscaping company after graduation. By the time the college student graduates, the high schooler would be earning $65,000 a year, while the college graduate starts with a low-paying job.

“I remember the instructor telling me that he was just amazed when I started to put the numbers on the whiteboard,” DiBenedetto says.

Advice: Consider H-2B

Youngblood’s company, Youngblood & Associates, helps landscaping and other green industry businesses navigate the tricky application process for the H-2B program. She sees temporary H-2B workers as an important role in the industry.

“I think that nonimmigrant (H-2B) workers are going to be the future of manual labor in this country,” she says.

She recommends business owners start thinking now about where they see their business going and how they’re going to source the labor.

“You have to plan ahead in the same way that you’ve got to plan ahead to make sure your materials are at the job site at a particular time,” she says.

Youngblood recommends taking the steps now to apply to the 2023 H-2B labor pool with an experienced filer who knows the green industry as it takes time to file the necessary paperwork with the Department of Labor.

“Don’t wait until the end of the season to start looking for someone to file for you for the spring,” she says. “That’s just not an adequate amount of time to prepare for the season.”


Quick hire Experts say one way to keep candidates interested is to process job applications quickly for qualified applicants. (Photo: Chris Aluka Berry)

Quick hire: Experts say one way to keep candidates interested is to process job applications quickly for qualified applicants. (Photo: Chris Aluka Berry)

Advice: Focus on recruitment

Flynn says Seabreeze Property Services prides itself on a quick turnaround on job applications. A human resources manager focuses entirely on recruitment.

“If you apply to our company and you’re prequalified, then chances are you’re going to get a screening phone interview within the next day or two and then an in-person interview the following day after that,” he says.

Flynn likens job applications to impulse buying.

“You don’t want somebody to apply and then sit there and apply to a bunch of other places,” he says. “You have to be quick, and you have to be diligent.”

His company uses Paylocity HR and payroll software to move candidates through the process to ensure a quick and streamlined hiring process. He says quick offers also keep potential hires interested.

“Just like selling, it’s an everyday thing,” he says. “We want to make it as easy to buy from us as possible, and you want to make it as easy as possible for someone to apply and get hired. It doesn’t need to be an arduous process.”

Advice: Get active

In 2019, Bray says the landscaping industry applied for 75,000 H-2B workers, half of all applications. The U.S. Department of Labor caps the H-2B program at 66,000 visas but allows for supplemental visas of anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 workers.

“We know that the 66,000 cap is not representative of actual demand,” he says. “We’ve been trying to fix this problem for nearly two decades. I know people are frustrated. But remember, each of the last five years with the exception of COVID, we’ve gotten additional visas.”

In June, the House introduced a stand-alone bill to put returning worker exemptions back into the H-2B program. Bray is also optimistic there could be more immigration reforms coming, but he says the landscaping industry needs to speak up.

“We need to activate our grassroots network in a way that we have never done before,” he says.

Organizing a short meeting with a congressional district office to talk about the labor issue could make a big difference, Bray says. Or more simply, use templates NALP has created to reach out to elected officials and share your story.

“It’s about building that relationship with their elected official, letting them know how important this issue is to them,” he says.

This article is tagged with , and posted in Business, Cover story, Featured, From the Magazine, October 2021
Christina Herrick

About the Author:

Christina Herrick is the former editor of Landscape Management magazine.

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