One of the biggest issues our industry is facing is a shortage of labor. As more Baby Boomers retire, landscape companies are finding their available worker pool growing smaller each year. Plus, with talk of minimum wage hikes around the country, those who are hired will end up costing more. So what do we do to fix this problem? The simple answer is to turn to machines.
While technology hasn’t quite reached the point of making Jetsons-like robot workers, there are several machines that will do a great deal of work. In our industry, the most commonly used— and, some would argue, the most important—are UTVs, mini skid steers, and compact track loaders.
UTVs—which stands for Utility Terrain Vehicles—are the smallest and least expensive of these options. Like its cousin, the ATV, a UTV is able to be driven around like a golf cart over any terrain. A UTV can seat between two and four people, and has a little ‘trunk’ in the back that’s perfect for storing equipment or transporting mulch and soil.
Neil Borenstein, marketing director at Toro, highly suggests buying UTVs to make things easier on your workers, especially those working on large tracts, such as HOAs (homeowners associations). “They’re ideal for transporting people and equipment around a property,” he says.
“They’re really great for reducing worker fatigue, by not having employees carry or push things back and forth.”
If you work on HOAs, or even on several houses in one neighborhood, a UTV is an excellent investment, and a more affordable alternative to buying a truck. However, all it can really do is transport. If you need a piece of equipment to do more heavy lifting—literally and figuratively—then you’re better off looking at mini skid steers and compact track loaders.
Both mini skid steers and compact track loaders are defined as ‘small, rigid-frame, engine-powered machines with lift arms used to attach a wide variety of labor-saving tools or attachments.’ Both come in standing, sitting and walk-behind models.
The sitting models are typically more comfortable, with features such as climate controls, suspended seating, and even cup holders, on occasion. But they also tend to be more expensive, especially those with suspended seating and cup holders, and are often too big for landscape projects. So, for most residential projects, Timothy Trimmer of Professional Grounds Inc., in Lorton, Viriginia, opts to use his standing Toro Dingo loaders instead.
“These are great for working on townhouses and backyards, anything that’s a little smaller,” he says.
“So we tend to use those a lot. But on larger jobs, it just makes sense to use the big, sit-down loaders.”
All of the models allow for attachments, which are the loaders’ main attraction. Available attachments include backhoes, pallet forks, sweepers, augers, mowers, snow blowers, stump grinders, trenchers, dumping hoppers, rippers, tillers, snow blades, cement mixers, wood chippers and even more. Most every type of landscape or construction tool available comes in the form of an attachment that can go onto a skid steer.
With so many choices, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with what to pick. And it can be very tempting to go for fancy equipment for jobs you didn’t even know existed. But, as a general rule of thumb, it’s better to start out small with your first few attachments.
“Our simplest attachments are our best sellers,” Borenstein says. “Things like buckets, forks, levelers, trenchers and auger powerheads are what most people look for.” These attachments are really where you’re going to save on labor.
Trimmer believes that his loaders are an excellent investment, in terms of saving labor. “If we did the year over again with no loader, we certainly would have had to hire more people to make up for not having that piece of equipment onsite. Digging a hole by hand is time consuming, and with these machines, we can do this stuff very quickly,” he said.
Mark Wehman, owner of BBC Property Maintenance in Colchester, Vermont, agrees, saying, “It’s certainly made the jobs that we’ve been working on a lot easier.” He opts for simple attachments for his mini skid steer.
“We use the general-purpose bucket a lot for loading salt and mulch. And we use it for snow removal and that type of thing, because it’s so much faster than a tractor,” he says. “The forks are obviously for anything on a pallet, and the stump bucket is what we use if we have to dig holes in clay, because it just makes things easier. Obviously, we also use it to remove stumps, and for replacing landscaping.”
Of his equipment, Trimmer says, “We don’t have as many attachments for our skid loader, because we just got it a couple of months ago. We probably need to look at what else we can use. So right now, we just have a regular bucket, a tooth bucket, and a fork for lifting pallets.”
“We do have a ton of attachments for our Dingos, though,” he adds. “We’ve got a trencher that we use for installing drainage and French drains at the HOA that we work at. It’s so much quicker than digging manually. We’ve also got a tooth bucket, a regular bucket, forks and four different sizes of augurs, running between 12 inches to three feet.”
So if both mini skid steers and compact track loaders can use attachments, does it really matter which one you choose to buy? Well, that depends on the environment you’re working in.
Skid steers get their name from the way they turn. Instead of the wheels turning, one side will lock up while the other side continues to move, which skids the machine around to the direction you want it to go. While this works, it may be bad news for turf.
“With a skid steer, you’ll tear everything up if you turn and the soil’s not packed,” Wehman says. He doesn’t have the same issues with his compact tractor, though. “My tractor has wheels as well. But because it has a longer wheelbase, when you turn, it doesn’t dig up the ground.”
As for Trimmer, he’s had years of not being able to use loaders on projects, because his mini skid steers would ruin lawns. Now, he swears by his track loader.
“Skid steers can be used on work sites or on dirt, but you can’t really bring the wheeled ones on landscaped sites, because they rut everything up,” he explains. “However, if you’re going to an existing house, the track loaders are much easier on existing turf or anything landscape-related.”
For this reason, the compact track loader tends to be the machine of choice for many in the landscape industry. Instead of wheels, it runs on tracks, which are also called treads, like a little landscape-friendly version of a military tank. This reduces the stress on the turf, and leaves very few marks in the grass. It also works better on muddy or uneven sites than wheeled models do.
Whichever machine sounds most appealing to you, it will no doubt help lighten the work load. But you can’t get good help free, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a new, high-end piece of equipment with a cheap price tag. UTVs run around $10,000 - $15,000, and a good loader can easily be double that.
Trimmer adds, “With track loaders, a good one that has enough weight to be able to pick up a 3,000- pound palette costs about $58,000. But the wheeled ones are much less than that.”
If you’re not quite ready to take that kind of financial leap, you can still use this equipment. You can rent any kind of loader from an equipment rental place, often for weeks at a time. It saves you the commitment of buying equipment you may not use often, and is a great option if you want to get a feel for a machine before buying one.
Regularly renting equipment can be a hassle, though, and ultimately, can cost you more than if you had just gone ahead and bought the equipment. Trimmer used to rent a track loader for his projects, but in time, he became frustrated with the extra fees.
“When you return a piece of equipment, there are tons of fees they don’t tell you about until you turn it in. They’ll be upfront with their price for the loader, but then there are all these additions: you need a bucket, you need a trencher, and you need all these other attachments. So what happens is that our guys will call and get a quote, but then what they’ll charge is more than what they quoted. That’s not good for our business,” he says. “Remember, if your people call for a quote, make sure you let the rental yard know the attachments you’ll need and how to price them in.” That’s what finally motivated him to buy his own compact track loader.
“We finally looked at the numbers and said, ‘Look at what we’re paying to rent this thing. We need to buy one.’ It just got to the point where renting was well over the cost of buying, and we could definitely afford a loader by that point,” he adds.
“We realized that it’s much cheaper for us to own a loader, as long as we’re getting enough use out of it.”
So buying may be more cost-efficient in the long run. But how can you know that you’re in a good enough position to buy a costly piece of machinery? Essentially, if you can afford to hire a new employee, you can afford a big piece of equipment.
Take a moment to consider the cost of labor. Over the course of a year, the average landscape worker costs your company about $30,000, including the labor burden. That’s roughly the cost of a decent wheeled skid steer, not counting the attachments. But say the job you’re looking at requires two new workers. If the loader you buy will do the work of these two employees, then even Trimmer’s $58,000 compact track loader would still be cheaper than paying two men $60,000 a year.
Saving time is also an important thing to consider when deciding on a new piece of equipment. Not only does a loader make short work of digging trenches and moving mulch, but it also saves the time and money that are necessary to train someone to do those specific jobs. Since the controls on the loaders stay constant, one employee just needs to be trained one time to do several different jobs.
Additionally, the chunk of change you’ll put down for your new skid steer or compact loader is more or less a one-time payment; tune-ups and even additional attachments won’t cost as much as paying $30,000, year after year, to an additional employee.
And one perk that cannot be overlooked is that you can have a little more peace of mind. After all, machines can’t call in sick or decide not to show up; they’ll also follow whatever orders you give them.
“Labor is the hardest thing to manage,” Trimmer says. “It’s the riskiest thing to manage and the most unreliable thing to manage. But the track loader is always ready to go. And since it can do the work of many employees, it’s enabled us to be more efficient on our jobs, which enables us to lower our prices, which enables us to get more work at the same margins.”
Overall, UTVs, mini skid steers, and compact track loaders can make almost any kind of landscape job easier. They pick up the burden of transporting, digging, mixing, and just about any other thing you can think of that needs to be done on a project. Plus, they’ll always be there when you need them. So, even if pickings remain slim for new hires, you’ll have these mechanical marvels to fall back on.