Looking for Labor

With the H-2B guest worker program's long-term viability seemingly tied to comprehensive immigration legislation, landscape professionals are looking for alternative labor solutions. Even if a contractor doesn't participate in H-2B, the impact of companies not getting their guest workers will have a trickle-down effect. Labor will be at a premium, and finding ways to recruit and retain workers needs to be a top priority for all companies.

HOW TO SQUEEZE OUT MORE WITH LESS. To make up for any possible labor shortfall, Eric Cross, president of Duke's Landscape Management in Hackettstown, NJ, says he may go from a three- to six-person crew on larger accounts. The move will save his company one driver. Being able to get the work done with possibly fewer employees is one issue. The other issue is growth, and right now, aggressive growth is not his company's number-one priority.

Heather Schuster's company, Terra-Firma Landscape in Muskego, WI, fields four installation crews and one maintenance crew, so labor is an issue. "I no longer hire college students because they can't work when we're the busiest," she points out. "We've had some success hiring high school students to come in to wash trucks, clean the office, and take vehicles to a nearby fuel station. We don't want our regular crews spending time doing that."

Schuster says she's heard stories about some companies having success hiring retired workers who job share. In one instance, two retirees share a delivery route. The move satisfies their demand for flexible work hours, and it gets the job done for the company. Would it work in a landscape environment? Possibly, but it would depend on the application, and it certainly would not make up for a substantial labor shortfall.

IMPROVING PRODUCTIVITY. Making better use of the employees you have is a requisite today. Whereas many companies are scrambling to find people to fill seats, industry consultant Tom Oyler suggests that the long view should be to get "one person out of every truck."

Oyler says, "Your employees are the least dependable component of your entire operation. The current H-2B crisis serves to remind us of this, and should be a wakeup call for the industry to become more proactive about reducing its dependence on labor.

"Since the landscape industry started to measure people productivity 10 to 15 years ago, there has not been much emphasis placed on ways to increase productivity," Oyler goes on to say. "Most industries, ours included, provide a product or service under time/motion constraints. Find a way to be more productive and you find a way to reduce labor dependency."

Oyler admits that better utilization of equipment, more effective use of growth retardants, and an emphasis on the development of agronomic plans that provide a good horticulture foundation without promoting growth will not go far to ease the current labor crunch. But the current labor shortfall is heightening awareness within the industry that the contractor and supplier communities need to work together to find ways to increase productivity.

"If we don't have the labor force to get the work done, then we have no choice but to shift emphasis and look for ways to reduce our dependency on labor," Oyler adds.

FALL RECRUITING, INTERNSHIPS CAN HELP. Contractor Roscoe Klausing, president of the Klausing Group in Lexington, KY, has a few tips for peers looking for labor. "We have found that, for whatever reason, the best time to hire crew leaders is during the fall, as opposed to the spring. Starting an internship program is something we want to do next year."

As Klausing points out, you don't have to be a big operator to attract interns, or to have a program that is advantageous for both the interns and your company. In addition to providing another level of recruitment and introducing potential employees to your company, an internship program helps build relationships with area schools and faculty members.

TEMPS, SUBS AND BETTER RECRUITING. Bill Leidecker, president of Five Seasons Landscape Management in Reynoldsburgh, OH, says that although he's "concerned about the labor situation as never before," there is no need to panic. "I've always thought that if you spread the risk around, you're better off," Leidecker relates. "We hire local Latinos, advertise on monster.com for crew leaders, and have a relationship with an area temporary employment agency. Hiring temporary laborers has worked for us in the past, but it can be very expensive."

Virginia-based James River Grounds Management is looking for subcontractors to fill in some of the service void this spring. As company president Maria Candler, CLP, points out, even if they get their guest workers this year, it won't be in time to help out in spring work.

"We're going to sub-out some of our larger mulching jobs to companies that specialize in that area," Candler explains, noting that subcontractors may be used in other specialized service areas until workers arrive. Partnering is a definite alternative to losing an account or otherwise missing out completely on a service offering because you're short-handed.

RECRUITING BASICS FROM THE PROS. Bill Cook, HR consultant for the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), offers the following recruiting tips:

Job Identification – Know what you want. Know the job and the kind of person who fits it best. Does this job require a loner, a team player, a problem solver? Identify the characteristics of the people who have done it best and of those who have done it worse. Look for those characteristics in the candidates you interview.

Sourcing – Where will you look for this type of employee? Where do they work now? Where do they live? Where do they play? What newspapers, radio stations, TV shows, churches, community organizations, athletic clubs and grocery stores are they connected to? How do you get the message out to those people?

Attracting – Getting someone to come in for an interview is not the recruiting job. It's part of attracting them. You must continue to attract them by selling your company to them just as if they were a customer. Professional recruiters know that everyone has a hot button. Your interviewing process should try to identify that hot button and get it on the table.

UNCOMMON, YET EFFECTIVE, RECRUITING STRATEGIES. "Over the years, small businesses, as well as professional recruiters, have offered their tried-and-true tips that have helped them find that right person," Cook relates. He lists a few of them:

Community Contacts – Contact and/or obtain the name and fax number of organizations in your community. Include community colleges, YMCAs/YWCAs, churches, athletic clubs or organizations, trade schools, juvenile centers, minority or ethnic organizations, women's organizations, etc. Fax an attractive notice to each contact every time you have openings.

Your Customers – Send a more formal announcement about job openings on your letterhead or preprinted cards to every customer (or potential customer). Announce the openings to them—they have retired husbands, sons, daughters, unemployed brothers-in-law, out-of-work/school nephews, neighbors, church friends, etc. People enjoy being the source of positive opportunities, such as a good job. By doing this, you send a message to your customers that says your company is doing well.

Retirees – Contact the retired police and firefighters clubs. Many of their members seek supplemental income or jobs immediately or soon after retirement. They often like horticultural and outdoor work.

Closing Plants – Identify manufacturing plants that are closing in your area and across your state. Industrial companies are cutting back, and old manufacturing plants are closing regularly. The law (WARN Act) requires companies with 100 employees or more to inform employees and local authorities (mayor's office, employment office, etc.) as much as six months in advance of closings or major layoffs. You can contact those companies or the local authorities and obtain their help in screening, interviewing and even training these recruits. In many cases, you, as the employer, can acquire significant tax breaks and training funds if you hire these people.

Paying Hourly Workers a Fixed Salary – Consider offering hourly employees a guaranteed weekly salary. That can be a big draw for workers and their families. To find out more about paying hourly workers a weekly salary, visit PLANET's website at landcarenetwork.org. You will find the "Personnel Notebook" entitled "Paying Hourly Workers a Weekly Salary."

Vets on the Internet – Contact hirevetsfirst.gov. It's a new Veterans Administration site. Enter the site and select "Skills Translator." Then enter the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) job code for the position you are trying to fill. You will be given the comparative military job titles. They will then give you the contact point for the local Vets service center to put you in contact with vets. (Note: DOT is available at all public libraries and DOL offices. All U.S. jobs have a DOT job code.)

Green Industry Jobs on the Internet – Visit PLANET's job board at PLANETcareers.org where job seekers and employers can connect.