The Cold, Hard Truth About American Work Ethic

Chicago landscaping company can't find enough reliable, "American" workers. What's the problem here?!

Christy Webber Landscapes has been a Chicago-area landscaping business for roughly 20 years. According to the company's website, Christy Webber Landscapes is a company comprised of people who share Webber’s enthusiasm and work hard to meet or exceed client expectations. These days, however, it's getting extremely difficult to find people who share that enthusiasm and work ethic.

Company owner Christy Webber recently told a local CBS affiliate that she's about 50 people short this year. She refuses to hire undocumented workers, but can't find enough willing and able Americans to fill the vacant positions in her company. She's tried just about everything, including hiring ex-cons on "back to work" programs. Most will stick around for about a week or so, then simply stop showing up to work. That's true of a lot of the people Webber hires. In fact, she says attracting applicants and hiring people isn't the problem. The problem is hiring people who will show up to work on a consistent basis.

THE PROBLEM. All of this leaves contractors like Webber concerned—and frustrated. She's even started to question the "American work ethic" to a certain degree. She said many of the the "Americans" she hires have attitude problems. They think they know everything, and that they are above the type of work landscape crew laborers do. Coupled with the typical hourly wage they are paid, they just decide in short order that they want nothing to do with it.

Larger landscape companies sometimes rely on the H-2B seasonal immigrant worker program. But recent changes to this program have driven up the average wage of an H-2B worker by at least a few dollars an hour. The reliable, "inexpensive" labor some companies had learned to rely on isn't so inexpensive anymore.

That brings us back to trying to find "Americans" to do the work. There are several challenges here:

  • The typical wage of a laborer is just not palatable for most (check out this story on wages in the landscaping industry)
  • It is hard work, and a big part of today's younger generation would rather work on a computer than a skid steer or lawnmower
  • Those who do want to "work" and/or operate machinery have other, often better-paying vocations to pursue, such as construction, garbage/recycling, truck driving, etc.
  • Those with lots of ambition and a real passion for lawn care or landscaping often have intentions of starting their own companies.

The labor crunch in the landscaping industry isn't going to be an easy problem to solve, especially when unemployment benefits in most states will put more money in one's pocket than a paycheck from a landscaping company. As frustrating as it probably gets, landscaping company owners just need to stay focused on building organizations that attract those with a real passion for the Green Industry, along with those who simply have a passion for working hard and getting rewarded accordingly. That means creating opportunity for growth and advancement, so that taking a job with you could prove to be the best career move they can make.