Starting a small business in the professional landscaping industry is not that difficult. All you need to get started is a mower, a truck and the drive to bring in clients. But as soon as that business starts growing, you’ll run into one of the biggest obstacles facing everyone in the current market: bringing in new employees.
In our 2020 Industry Outlook Survey, finding qualified employees was consistently listed as the top challenge for a developing business. A full 65% of respondents said that their region didn’t supply enough workers to meet the company’s needs. Hiring is a time-consuming process, and it’s wasted effort if your new employee doesn’t show up for work on the first day.
But it’s impossible to grow a business without making team development a core focus, according to Larry Ryan, president of Ryan Lawn and Tree of Merriam, Kansas. He remembers receiving an early lesson in business when he was just starting out, originally as a region manager in the restaurant business. At the time, a team leader asked Ryan and a group of colleagues to name their first priority as managers.
After the group’s responses, “[The leader] said ‘Guys, until you figure out that recruiting and hiring great people and then keeping them is your No. 1 priority, you’ll never have a consistent second priority,’” says Ryan.
But even with a business owner’s full attention, bringing on good team members is a struggle. The difficulty of finding reliable workers is a continued issue for Scott Chatham, owner of Chatham Landscape Services in Atlanta. In the offseason, Chatham keeps a staff of about 65, with plans to bring on another 35 in April for the season, he says. While his need for labor is only going up, so is the amount of work that goes into each new employee.
“To get to one person that will stay, we have to hire two,” says Chatham.
Online job-hunting services like Indeed are major sources of new labor leads for Chatham, he says. It’s a low-risk approach that’s similar to how a business owner would place newspaper ads or use word-of-mouth to bring in hires. As online resources have become more popular with workers, it’s important to meet them where they are.
“It seems like in this workforce, that’s a great tool we have,” Chatham says.
The downside is that workers often don’t take down their resumes and information once they do land a job, and sometimes that results in a hire getting what looks like a better offer just as the employee is starting off behind a mower.
Caitlin Clineff, recruiting specialist at Myatt Landscaping Concepts in Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, uses a system that posts open jobs to about 15 job boards. While she does get regular responses from those, the respondents there haven’t been as reliable as from other sources.
“What we found was that a lot of the time, people that we hired from online applications typically didn’t stay as long as those from referrals,” she says. It’s still useful as a source, but it’s not the focus. One thing that Myatt did to improve its visibility online and the overall quality of online applicants was to update its website to a more modern, accessible look. For many job applicants, checking the company’s website is the first step after seeing an online job posting, and a more professional look influences how applicants respond to the opening. Clineff has also built up the company’s presence across other social media platforms to raise visibility.
“I think people can get a better sense of the company from those types of things, and that has helped overall with getting people interested who might not have thought about it otherwise,” she says.
But even with those options, employee referrals make up the number one source of quality job candidates for Clineff.
“We have a very, very strong referral bonus program, so our current employees have been doing a really great job over the last year of finding other great people to come work here,” Clineff says.
Myatt has about 130 employees between its two branches in North and South Carolina, working both residential and commercial clients year-round for maintenance, construction and installation. The company’s current referral bonus program has been a big success, but didn’t start out that way, Clineff says. Originally, it was a single payout of $500 if the referred employee stuck with the company for six months.
Those terms seemed like a faraway goal for employees, and referrals were limited until Myatt revamped the program. Now, employees receive $100 for the first month that their referral sticks around, then an additional $400 if the referral makes it to six months. Once a full year of employment is reached, the referring employee gets another $500, making a full-year total bonus of $1,000, Clineff says.
“Since we changed that up, it’s made a huge difference,” she says.
Keeping employees happy
The other part of the referral program is close attention to making sure that current employees like their workplace, Clineff says.
“It’s making sure that our employees that are already here are that happy with their jobs and the company overall that they feel comfortable bringing in their highly skilled, pretty sought-after friends to come and work here as opposed to any other company that’s around,” Clineff says.
Providing the right amount of pay and benefits for the work is another big way to draw in qualified employees, Ryan says.
“You have to pay enough that they’re interested,” he says. “We have a full benefit package for all jobs, 12 months a year.”
Ryan Lawn and Tree, an employee-owned company, keeps about 300 employees across locations in Merriam and Wichita, Kansas; Springfield and St. Louis, Missouri; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. The company provides irrigation and turf fertilization along with tree care services year-round, with no seasonal-only positions. The reasoning behind keeping all the positions year-round is partially thanks to the moderate regional climate, but it also works to bring in quality employees for Ryan.
“The problem is, how do you raise a family?” Ryan says about seasonal positions. With that kind of pay in mind, the company has to drive to get enough income out of the 10 available months of work to cover the rest of the year. But that lets employees worry less about being able to pay bills and opens them up to more varied day-to-day jobs to make sure that the company is bringing in what it needs to sustain the team.
“We share labor. The advantage of not being a straight irrigation company is at times, it’s so wet that it’s hard to pull pipe or dig in the ground or whatever. Maybe they can help pruning for a day, and the guys don’t mind doing that a little bit,” Ryan says. “It gives them a little bit of variety in their work, and I think sometimes it kind of lifts them up a little bit.”
It’s important to move away from the idea and terminology of starting jobs as “flunky jobs,” Ryan says. “Every single job has to be looked at as a priority job, an important job. … The CEO is not more important than the guy that’s out there dealing with the customer, and the pay can’t be 20 times higher than [that employee’s].”
Another major part of bringing in qualified employees is having a recruiter on staff, says Chatham. He created the position at his company in 2009 when it took on a huge new client and needed enough staff to handle the project. Faced with the prospect of growth in a tough economy, he wanted his managers focused on the job rather than constantly cycling in new workers.
“I went to my general manager and said, ‘This economy looks like it’s turning around, right? And our most important asset is our people. We’d better have somebody out there constantly making sure that we have good people coming in the door.’”
He needed someone constantly reaching out to potential new employees and connecting with local sources like regional colleges, he says. Initially the job was focused on combating the constant attrition in the work force.
“They’re making sure that we’re not hiring people that just fog a mirror, that will stay here,” Chatham says. “We judge them on attrition rates and the quality of hire.”
The labor crisis is the entire reason that Clineff’s position was created, she says.
“It had just gotten to the point that everybody else had so much on their plate, nobody had the time to dedicate the amount of effort it takes in this climate to find enough people,” Clineff says.
Chatham’s recruiter takes the time that his managers would ordinarily be using to do a phone screening of potential hires, then schedules multiple interviews daily. Out of those who show up, he goes through the interview process and passes his recommendations on for the couple that meet approval. Even if only a few show up the first day of work, it saves huge amounts of effort for Chatham’s staff.
In the past few years, Chatham had to reduce his overall employee count to match his business, but he couldn’t bring himself to remove the recruiter’s position, he says. “If we would have cut that position, then I would’ve been asking my managers, who need to be out in front of clients as much as possible to keep them coming in, to be setting up meeting times with future employees, only to be stood up,” Chatham says. “Then, they’ve missed an opportunity to be with a client and upsell. We’ve got to keep this position, because of the way the job market is.”
The recruiter’s job goes beyond just setting interviews. It also involves developing new potential labor markets and the company’s regional presence, says Clineff. She organizes field trips for local high school students to help foster a curiosity about professional landscaping and maintains connections with local universities to develop them as sources for potential new hires. She’s trying to get Myatt more involved in community events this year. While career fairs and school events are possibilities, she’s more focused on being visible at local events such as a cultural festival held by an area immigration nonprofit.
“We just want to be at those events so people can see, ‘Oh, OK. They’re hiring and they’re interested in supporting me,” Clineff says.
Even if Myatt was a smaller company and she didn’t have as many resources to work with, staying involved and visible in the area would be her major focus in bringing in new hires, she says. Being connected in the community gets people talking, giving you a better chance when people are looking for work.
If he were working with a smaller company, Ryan would have a similar approach to hiring as he does now. Even with the help of a recruiter handling screening and interviews, his managers examine the resumes that come across their desks and make local college visits.
“Continually, their number one priority is to recruit great people,” Ryan says.
When he’s hiring, Chatham initially looks for experience working outdoors, especially considering the Georgia heat, he says. But that experience isn’t as important to him as just seeing an attitude that the potential hire is ready to work hard and be a team player.
“That means that you’re committed to the team every single day,” Chatham says. “And that you know that if you show up late or don’t show up, you’re hurting your teammates. That’s what attitude means to me.”
That kind of drive is a major focus for Ryan as well, who says he doesn’t particularly care about past education or experience.
“We almost don’t care what your degree is,” Ryan says. “We can teach horticulture if you want to learn it. But we can’t teach heart.”
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at email@example.com.
When Caitlin Clineff took on the role of recruiting specialist at Myatt Landscaping, she helped develop a field trip program that invited students interested in horticulture from regional high schools to see the landscaping industry up close. Students come to the Myatt facility by bus and are introduced to employees who talk about their jobs and why they got started in the industry. Then students are walked through the daily jobs and materials and see the trucks and equipment up close.
The field trip includes some hands-on activities such as a paver-laying challenge with prizes for the winning group of students. They also do a plant identification quiz, followed by an activity where students plant a small container garden to take home.
While the program is too new to see results in direct hires, it’s generated more local interest in Myatt and shown students that a career in landscaping is a viable future.
“That’s really what our goal is,” Clineff says. “Not really to hire every student that comes here, but just opening that door to them and letting them know that there are a lot of opportunities in the industry, and they can make a good living at it.”