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.