Sept. 1 2000 12:00 AM

Jumping into your truck, first day of work, you are thinking how lucky you are that this "piece of cake" job just fell into your lap. You have been mowing lawns since you were tall enough to push a mower; how hard could it be to work for a professional landscape maintenance contractor?

Arriving at company headquarters, you and your new co-workers are filling out the necessary paperwork and you can tell that they have the same feeling you have. You are being paid pretty well, benefits included, to perform work that you have done for peanuts all your life. However, as you are called into the training room, you receive the surprise of your life. You are about to be "untrained."

"Being a member of a mowing crewing can be compared to that of an orchestra," says Joe Ketterer, production specialist for the Mid-Atlantic region of The Brickman Group. "You can all play the same instrument, when done move on to the next one, then jump on the next one and so on, or you can each take one instrument and it all comes together.

The Brickman Group has more than 65 branches located in 17 states. Its Ketterers job to train the branch managers and crew supervisors, who in turn train their crews. He also helps recruit for the branches in his region so that when the "season" hits, the branches are fully staffed with trained crews. "No on the job training," says Ketterer. "Anyone can cut grass, but what we want are the best trained people and the latest equipment so they can get the job done in a quality manner in the least amount of time." Ketterer accomplishes this by holding "rodeos." Maintaining that the best results are accomplished in small groups, he trains his crew leaders who in turn hold rodeos at their branches, each adding their own unique approach. They show videotapes produced by the American Landscape Contractors Association {ALCA}, and tapes produced by Brickman that demonstrate how to use each set of equipment. Since the majority of the work force is Hispanic, these tapes are viewed in both Spanish and English. Afterwards, "we augment the tapes with hands-on use. Before they even go to a clients property, we take them to a field where they learn how to use each piece. Thats why its called a rodeo, because thats what it looks like. Some of these people have never even seen motorized equipment before and a seventy-two-inch mower can be intimidating," explains Ketterer.

Ketterer himself videotapes employees throughout the year and creates his own "proper usage of equipment tapes." These tapes are viewed in weekly branch team meetings. They have interpreters available but pictures are worth a thousand words. One example he uses as a common error is mowing too close to cars, splattering the cars with grass clippings.

Safety is also an issue reviewed weekly at the team meetings. Among their basic requirements are eye protection, ear protection, work boots rather than sneakers, and long pants. In addition, they receive "safety grams" in their paychecks with little reminders in Spanish and English.

Another important issue to the professional mowing industry is appearance. "When we pull up in our trucks that have "The Brickman Group" on the doors, our people will say that as well; we want them readily identified. We do not allow our people to wear jewelry, long hair, short pants, etc., the purpose being to disassociate ourselves with the stereotype of the industry - rusted pickup truck, guys piling out of the back, pulling their antique equipment with them."

Apparently, the largest hurdle that the professional mowing industry has is the language barrier. The majority of the work force being Hispanic, the training involves more of "do what I am doing? not do what I am saying" because the trainees do not fully understand what is being said. Ketterer says they go to great lengths to teach both languages, actually paying their employees to learn a second language, in an effort to overcome this barrier. Many of their crew members are second and third generation.

Recruitment from college horticultural and marketing programs is another source that is used when looking for additional employees. These recruits are hired for management positions, but when first employed, they are required to start from the ground up; it?s always an entry-level position, whether in sales or horticulture.

Tru Green LLC was formed in 1998 when they purchased a number of landscape companies across the nation, bringing their total number of branches to over 160. Every company that was purchased had their own training program. Consequently, they are still trying to get it all under one umbrella and do not have a corporate training program implemented as yet. Ken Peterson, vice president of People Services for Tru Green LLC, says they are working on putting together a standardized corporate training program for their mowing and landscaping crews. Their regional service managers have sent into corporate headquarters the training tapes and programs that were being used. "Our training and development department experts are studying them all," says Peterson, "looking at the best practices, looking at what has been highly successful, and will begin putting together the best mix of them all. Then we will pilot the new program in a number of different branches, based upon the type of turf in the different areas of the country. This is inclusive to routing, service calls, etc., to train them in the most cost effective manner."

Michael Hoffman, partner in Janet Moyer Landscaping of San Francisco, California says, "Everyone knows how to run a lawn mower not everyone knows how to run it right." When he sends his crews out, he has five basic instructions:

Pay attention to the health of the turf, whether there are wet or dry areas indicating a problem with the irrigation system, pest problems, fungus, or die back, signs of moles, voles, or gophers. In other words, be conscious of the environment as they are mowing.
Mulch mow, leaving the clippings for self-fertilization.
Do not mow grass too low.
Do not mow grass in the same direction every time.
Edge properly and avoid being too invasive.

"I want my lead man walking," says Rich Schorr, manager of the maintenance division for Heads Up Landscaping in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Hes not seeing as much when hes on the riding mower. I want him walking around the site with a trimmer so he can observe everything thats going on. Hes the quality man on the crew."

Schorr also deals with a largely Hispanic workforce. A smaller business, they have four regular crews with one extra or "enhancement" crew that fills in as needed. His challenge is to train, or retrain, his new employees and make them aware that they are using different equipment than the average homeowner uses its faster, larger, and more dangerous. He says that sometimes just teaching the simple things are the hardest. These include:

Mowing in straight lines.
Overlapping properly.
Not missing spots.
Not mowing over tree roots, damaging equipment, but mowing around them.

Since safety is always a leading concern with management, Schorrs training staff includes a full-time employee specifically for safety training. Ear, eye, face, breathing, and footgear are just some of the basics addressed.

Having many large homeowners associations as clients who request that the employees be identified on sight, Schorr requires his crews to wear shirts with the companys name on the back; the crew leaders is a different color from the crew. These are worn with jeans and work boots. Uniforms are a major expense with the turnover rate of temporary employees. Schorr says his company will buy the third shirt, after the employee has bought the first two, then following a period of time the company will buy a fourth and so on.

Ketterers Golden Rule when training his crew managers is that you never ask someone to do something that you cannot or will not do yourself. ?If I want you to push a mower around islands all day, then by golly, I better be able to do it!"

When training the crews, he has them to first mow north to south, in straight lines. "The more turns you make the more time it takes. Pattern mowing is for looks only and is reserved for clients who request it. Patterns take more time, so obviously will cost more. In all mowing situations, the pattern should be alternated every three weeks."

It was unanimous among all training personnel interviewed that the mowing heights of the grass should remain as high as possible. Reasons sited for this include:

The reduction in the turfs need for water.
The grass is able to successfully compete with weed invasions, creating less need for herbicide use. The shorter you mow, the more bare soil is exposed for weed seeds to germinate.

Schorr has his crew leader be an active participant when estimates are first being prepared. The site is walked before an account is taken over. The man-hours and type of equipment required are agreed upon. Then, when on the job, the crew leader is in control of the job. Given the correct tools and the correct manpower, it?s up to him to work within the time restrictions and make the job profitable.

"When estimating a job, you are selling man-hours," says Ketterer. "To be profitable,the same number of crewmembers will not be sent out for every job. The crews are routed weekly. They first look at jobs in the closest proximity to each other and then match up similar scopes of work.

Ketterer summed it all up with this simple statement. "Mowing commercially is a process a sequence of events that has to occur in a timely manner. You cannot just mow until you are done."

Patterson adds that its a totally different ballgame than when they worked on their own equipment as children. They soon realize that getting behind these commercial units demands an entirely new training emphasis..

Sept. 2000