Open any newspaper, go to the classified section and see how thick that section is with ads. Open any trade publication, look in the back of the magazine and see ?Help Wanted? ads. It wasn?t that long ago when help was easier to find.

Finding labor, no less skilled labor, is almost like finding a needle in a haystack. The time and energy spent on filling positions is costing companies big bucks.

Wouldn?t it be great if you could find machines to do specialized work? If you could replace some labor with equipment that could do the job, you could utilize that labor in other areas of the project, maximizing the use of labor and equipment.

For years skid-steers, otherwise know as utility loaders, were well-known in landscape and construction contractor circles as one of the most versatile and valued tools. Need something hauled across a big job site? Need loose earth moved? Need to trench or dig quickly and efficiently? Call on the hard-working skid steer.

However, these machines aren?t made for every job, especially jobs usually contracted out to landscape and irrigation guys that handle a lot of residential or small commercial jobs. Maybe a job is needed at a residence, and the work is to take place in a backyard that?s fenced in. Obviously, full-sized skid-steers won?t maneuver in such a tight space, and there?s bound to be some turf destroyed in the process, as turning ratios and the weight of the machine aren?t made to operate or ride lightly. In such a case, the fence must come down and then re-installed, a situation that wasn?t so uncommon in the past, even five or six years ago.

Although the need for the standard size skid-steer loaders won?t ever disappear (there will always be heavy, large construction), there was a pressing need for the smaller skid-steer loader.

In 1981, the Jaden Group of Companies of Australia developed the world?s first ?stand-on? compact utility loader from the concept of a domestic-use, motorized wheelbarrow. They called it Dingo. Since then a number of manufacturers have introduced compact utility loaders to the market, including The Toro Company, with their version of the Dingo. Jaden returned to the U.S. market with its product, called Kanga.

A solution to the lack of manpower woes has come by way of technology. Sensing the need for smaller, more maneuverable machines for landscape work, manufacturers are starting to provide the industry with compact, yet powerful tools that can obviate the need for extra workers and, in turn, bring back some of that profit. This is arguably the hottest sought-after product category in the landscape and irrigation industry.

The versatility of these compact machines is very attractive to landscape contractors. They offer a variety of services and handle complex jobs. Robert Maffei, owner of Maffei Landscape Contractors, employs 30 people during his peak season and considers his market to be ?labor starved.? He says, ?We?re turning to anything we can to reduce crew times.?

?Compact utility loaders are very popular right now,? says Pat Holubetz, sales associate for Finn Corporation. ?Compacts have a different use than the larger skid steers. They?re much more mobile; they can get into tight spaces, and they?re very powerful.?

Craig Grigsby can attest to that. Working as the regional assistant at Walnut Ridge Landscaping and Nursery in Jeffersonville, Indiana, heavy lifting and material handling requires a machine that?s both agile and powerful.

?We use ours for everything,? says Grigsby of his Kanga Loader. ?Anything from loading and unloading trucks, moving trees and mulches, whether it?s on a skid or if it?s something that?s loose like our hardwood mulch . . .?

If there?s a single benefit of using a compact utility loader, Marc Bowers, marketing manager for Toro, will tell you it?s the machine?s versatility. Bowers likens the compact utility loader to the ultra-useful Swiss Army knife, thanks to the many attachments used on the machine to perform various jobs.

?A compact utility loader increases your productivity as a contractor,? says Bowers. ?Now, instead of running back and forth between the rental yard to get a separate tool for trenching, a separate tool for drilling, and a separate tool for laying cable in the ground, you have one tool that can do it all on-site.?

?Most contractors don?t need the super-heavy construction equipment you would use to build a freeway,? says Bowers. ?They basically need a Swiss Army knife. A compact utility loader is a Swiss Army knife for someone who?s doing construction work.?

?These machines can do all sorts of things,? says Holubetz. ?They?re basically a hydraulic power plant, a hydraulic tool on which you can put all kinds of attachments.? For most compact loaders there are over 35 attachments that can be switched, often in just a couple of minutes. Of these, Bowers says buckets are among the most popular attachments for Toro?s Dingo, because ?you can dig and carry stuff with them?. Other widely-used attachments are trenchers, augers, and roto-tillers, as well as attachments to prepare a seed bed.

To those who don?t understand the physics of hydraulic power, torque, and horsepower, the miniature frames of the compact utility loaders seem unlikely to perform the feats for which they were built. How could this little machine, for instance, dig a trench in really stubborn soil? How could it avoid getting its auger attachment stuck irretrievably in clay soil ? or worse? ?That?s what most people think when they look at it,? says Alan Porter of Kanga Loaders. ?They tell us, it?s not going to dig in my soil, but we haven?t found any soil yet that we can?t dig in.? The system is designed to create a lot of torque to handle a lot of very difficult digging conditions. The only real limitations of the compact machines is their lift capacity, which is simply a barrier created by the law of physics.

For Grigsby, his yard-and-a-half bucket is often used to transport materials within his company?s nursery as well as on the jobsite. ?We also have a ball grabber for lifting different-sized trees,? he says. ?And we can move them without injuring the trees or damaging someone?s property.?

Mike Edwards, owner of Edwards Landscape Contractors, Inc., in Louisville, Kentucky, uses his Ramrod machine to please his customers as well.

They?re not as big, not as bulky, not as loud as the bigger skid steers,? says Edwards. ?You?re not in somebody?s backyard with a bulldozer; you?re not there to dig a foundation. People like to see you have a specialized piece of equipment, too, to do the job.?

Probably the biggest benefit that affects contractors? wallets is the elimination of certain labor costs. For example, digging a hole for a tree would take a couple of guys an hour or more to do, where with one of the tools from the ?Swiss Army knife? concept, the same hole can be dug in about 60 seconds.

A contractor that has a job involving landscape construction is looking at planting, say, a dozen trees, all the bushes, and then cleaning up and moving all the material around ? there?s a lot of labor-intensive uses for a mini skid-steer, when it replaces the work of a lot of people.

Carol Dilger, marketing services manager for the Ariens Company, gives the example of her company?s Gravely Skidster, used to dig post holes to fence a 60-foot by 60-foot lot. Based on digging 64 holes, the Skidster would take 2.1 hours and one person to perform, costing $42. This is compared to two people using motorized hand-held equipment 5.3 hours, costing $212. Going even further, consider one worker using non-motorized hand-held equipment, taking 16 hours and costing $320.

?There are two ways of looking at labor savings,? says Bowers. ?On the one hand, you can take the labor that you have and re-deploy them more efficiently. Now, instead of putting five guys with shovels to dig a hole, you can have one guy with a loader and the other four guys doing something else. So, you?ve increased your productivity and you get the job done faster.?

The other way to envision labor benefits is to take a look at the tight labor market. Bowers notes that daily labor concerns circle around worker reliability and performance issues.

?This machine gives contractors uniform performance,? notes Bowers. ?It never calls in sick; it never comes to work with a hangover; it?s always there, and it?s always doing the work of more than one person alone. So, if you want to use it as a labor replacement tool, you can actually take two or three guys out of a five-man crew and still get the same job done in less time.?

Also, keep in mind that when you have a compact utility loader on hand, you have the ability to be extremely competitive, or to take a larger margin of profit on the project. In any case, you?ve increased your productivity and subsequently, your profitability.

How reliable and long-lasting are compact utility loaders? Because of their relatively young product cycle, there?s no way to tell how long a machine?s life expectancy will be. If you take into account prototype units put to work even before reaching the states that are still alive and kicking, without the need of replacement parts, you can bank on dependability. Toro tests its machines to last several years. And, as Bowers notes, if well maintained, like a good automobile, they?ll last five, ten or fifteen years. Kanga, in fact, just took in trade a fifteen-year-old machine.

In terms of return on investment (ROI), there?s a relatively short turnaround. The first reason is because the machines are less expensive than their bigger brothers, like the Bobcat. The second reason is due to an influx of mini skid-steers available in rental yards. For the contractor who doesn?t want to make an investment in a new piece of equipment for seasonal needs, or for a need that comes around occasionally, renting it becomes a quick ROI. With only a few bucks spent on equipment rental, the labor savings alone from using such a productivity-enhancing machine more than pays for itself.

Where will compact utility loaders go from here? Porter sees the machines continuing to evolve, ?As more tools become available, the applications will also grow,? he says.

Dennis Kissick, North American sales manager for Leon?s Manufacturing, manufacturers of the Ramrod family of mini skid-steers, notes, ?If you can think of an attachment for this thing, you can run the application and do the job.?

Just last month, Toro introduced a stump grinder as its new attachment, which replaces the need for a large tractor to dig and pull out a stump. The stump grinder will grind a stump down to 16 inches below grade, leaving only a hole to backfill and plant over.

?It?s another tool for the Swiss Army knife,? notes Bowers. ?It just increases the versatility of the product.?

This year?s models are showing up with rubber tracks as well as wheels. Companies like ASV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have taken the wheels off the machine and replaced them with rubber tracks, aptly named ASV?s Posi-Track. Leon?s Ramrod has a dedicated track loader, while Kanga and Toro have rubber tracks as well.

?Track machines are needed for less ground disturbance, and also in varying conditions,? says Kissick. ?They?re a lot more stable, a lot more sturdy, in boggy conditions where a rubber-tire loader would sink down or not function well at all.?

Porter believes there?s even more to be seen in the compact utility loader category. ?I don?t think it?s come into its own yet,? he says. ?I think it?s still relatively new, and it?s exciting?give a man a machine and the job will get done, give him a shovel and there will be a reason the work is never finished. A Kanga Loader is your perfect partner; you?ll never leave home without it.?
Workers seem to really love these machines; it?s certainly easier than using a pick and shovel. ?I don?t know how we got along without ours,? says Grisby.

April 2001