One of the largest struggles for any landscape professional is finding good, reliable labor. It’s remained the highest obstacle to business growth on our Green Industry Outlook survey for the past three years. With the additional pressure of last year’s increased demand, finding new talent is likely to continue to be difficult.
Instead of looking for more new recruits, many landscapers are doing what they can to improve and develop the teams they already have. With the right practices in place, the crew you already have could be the crew you think you need. But that starts with making sure you can keep your effective employees happy and growing in their roles.
One of the major ways that Philip Germann, partner at GreenLawn Specialists, Lewis Center, Ohio, keeps his quality employees is through a competitive payroll, he says.
“We’re being really aggressive with pay,” he says. As the average wage for hourly workers in the U.S. is around $22, “our industry is not one of the highest, but we’re working to get closer to that average.”
Providing a higher base pay is important for Germann because it adds value to the job itself and gets employees to think of it as more than a 9-to-5.
“It’s a tough job, and it gets devalued by our customers a lot. It’s not an easy thing to get people to commit to 40 hours in the field,” he says. “If it’s not a career, you’re not going to engage people. So we’re trying to make it a career.”
Though that does put some additional pressure on the bottom line, Germann has been able to find that money for his crews by raising prices, he says. With a good economy to back him up and a strong customer base, he can do that successfully while supporting his crew.
Dennis Realmuto, president of Professional Irrigation, Amityville, New York, does what he can to make sure that his employees are able to make a living wage on the job, he says. As a guideline, if an employee is bringing in about three times his salary, then he’s worth the money going into that payroll.
Rather than leaning into high paychecks, Pro- Turf Landscaping LLC, Pelham, New Hampshire, offers a solid benefits package for its employees, as well as perks such as accrued time off after employees have been on board for a year, says Andrea Dube, office manager. There’s health insurance, with part of those costs paid by the company, and a retirement plan. They have uniforms taken care of by the company.
GreenLawn also provides benefits and a 401k for full-time employees, with company matching. That provides some incentive for employees to learn to save some money, says Germann, and can build a solid amount over the course of the season with small contributions. Because employees can borrow cheaply against it, it also provides a better option than going to a payday lender if an unexpected expense comes up.
Pro-Turf provides longevity bonuses for employees who have been a part of the company for a longer period of time. The bonus is set up as a kind of wager, where employees can choose to get 1%, 3% or 5% of their overall pay as a bonus if they stay on for the same number of years, Dube says.
“It encourages people to stick around for the long run,” she says. “If you’ve been here five years, and you’ve got a bonus waiting for you, maybe you’re not going to go work for this other guy just because he’s going to give you two more dollars.”
Bonuses don’t just come in the form of cash, either, Dube says. Employees who have stayed on for five years receive a TV, and those who stick around for 10 years get a trip to various locations around the world.
“They love their TVs, and they know it’s coming,” she says.
Realmuto also makes it a point to provide loyalty bonuses to his crew over time, with some bonuses adding up to almost an extra week’s pay, he says.
Communication with new employees about the drive behind the company’s pricing to customers and high pay is an important step in the hiring process for Germann.
“We’re not a Robin Hood situation,” he says. “We get out there and work hard for these people, so we’re worth it. And we’re honest with our customers, too. We tell our customers we hire good people. They’re hard workers.”
When new employees start at Pro-Turf, the team discusses the possibilities of future development throughout the course of their career, Dube says.
“They can start off as a weed whacker guy and work all the way up to the $25- or $30-an-hour hydroseed guy,” she says. “If they work for it, they have that opportunity to grow with our company, to be well compensated and get health insurance.”
A new employee gets to see a potential career ladder up front, says Germann. “We build a ladder. Every position or skill set has a base pay and a maximum pay, with a plan for how to get there. That’s all delineated on paper so they know exactly what they can get.”
Dube says having a path laid in front of employees provides an incentive to look at the work as a way to get more out of it than a daily job. “Some of them have excelled, and they’re our top guys. They work full time year-round with those pay and benefits,” she says. “Our company offers the opportunity to grow and succeed and become a professional in a trade if these guys put the energy into it.”
The onboarding process is an important part of incorporating new employees at CM’s Outdoor Solutions Group, Omaha, Nebraska, taking up to three days, explains Bobby Byers, design and marketing.
“We’ve really tried to get away from ‘Welcome to the team, now grab a shovel,’” he says. “It revolves around getting to know the processes and some of the techniques we use. We introduce them to everybody across the board, so they start to get familiar with everyone and their roles.”
Developing employees has always been a major drive for Realmuto, who encourages continuous training not just in skill sets connected to work for customers, but across the entire company, he says.
“The first thing I learned was, ‘In business, if you’re the one doing it all, you’re the business,’ so the business itself never really has any value to it,” he says. “So the goal has always been for me to get employees to do everything.”
That’s led to many situations working with employees one-on-one or letting them lead on projects and giving direction in the background until they feel comfortable with the new skills.
During the downtime of winter, CM’s Outdoor keeps employees on for a guaranteed 32 hours each week, breaking that down into structured, scheduled training, says Byers.
“It might be technical things to help them do their job better,” he says. “A lot of it is budget and business education.” That helps develop employees’ understanding of how and why the business itself works, which translates into more conscientious use of materials and stronger investment in projects as they see how their work affects the bottom line.
“The exposure to some of business, budgeting and financing might just never have been there,” Byers says. “It becomes less of a job where you’re just coming in and punching the clock and more of a holistic approach to building people up.”
With the right information on how every decision can impact the overall company, employees make better decisions, he says.
When working with an employee to find where they fit best, Dube’s team tests the employee across multiple disciplines, she says. “We have plenty of opportunities for them to be a helper in anything we do,” she says. “We can send the guy out to help with the mulch or hydroseed, or lawn installations or sprinklers. So they get out on a crew and they just feel them out. It’s really the only way to do it.”
“The best thing to do is to train up your guys. Find out what they’re good at and train them in it, then try to hang onto them, because finding an experienced guy off the street is impossible,” Dube says.
After sending employees out to try different parts of the job, crew managers report back with results. It’s not a typical buddy system, but it helps determine who makes a better natural fit for additional training in the future, she explains.
“We try to get our leaders to lead,” Dube says. “It’s feeling out what each one of them has skill in and trying to match them to a role in the company they can hang on to and succeed in.”
Sometimes finding the right place for an employee takes some close work, says Realmuto. For one of his longtime employees, he spent time working alongside him on the job, coming away with an understanding of how the employee struggled with pressure but did stellar work when given the space to get the job done.
For CM’s Outdoor, a lot of that training comes during the winter education sessions, where there are opportunities to cross-train across disciplines, says Byers. Beyond giving employees more opportunities to find the right niche for their skill sets, that continues to point toward the concept of building a more well-rounded employee that understands how the different parts of the company work most effectively.
“That’s when it’s not just our sprinkler division or our fertilizer division,” he says. “You can put them all together and then can start to bounce ideas off each other or teach each other what they do from day to day.”
Beyond professional training, GreenLawn management spends time working with the individual employees, with tips on nutrition and getting enough sleep, anything that could both help them improve in their personal lives and also keep them performing well at work, Germann says.
From her perspective, the most important goal in keeping quality employees engaged and growing is to put enough effort into team building, Dube says.
“It’s truly making your team feel like a team,” she says. “Nobody wants to work in a place where they’re miserable. Making sure that your guys have what they need to be successful is important too.”
In a typical year, Pro-Turf runs several group outings for employees to build team cohesion and relationships, Dube says. That looks a little different with COVID-19 in play, but there’s still the effort to create spaces where employees can connect and relax. Beyond holiday parties, there are occasional pop-up events where the team orders pizza in and does something like a darts competition.
“When we look at an outing, we try to pick something where everybody has to intermingle,” to keep teams from breaking down into their usual groups and encouraging more connections, she says.
One point that might seem obvious but bears repeating is to remember to treat your employees fairly and respectfully, she says.
“A lot of what this industry comes down to is just to not be mean to your guys,” Dube says. “A lot of guys have come on board with us because their previous boss in this same industry just wasn’t paying them on time.”
It comes down to treating employees how you would want to be treated, says Realmuto. “Learn how to say ‘Good morning.’ Learn everybody’s name.” He pairs that with thanking his team members at the end of the day as they head out, even his office employees. “It’s a small gesture.”
Showing that appreciation can be more than just saying a phrase, though. For new employees especially, Realmuto makes it a point to check in with them in the mornings to see how they’re adjusting to the job, and he makes sure they’ve got food for lunches when it comes to break time. When he shows up to the work site, he has some kind of sports drink in his truck. He makes sure his employees know about their sick days and use them when necessary.
“Appreciation isn’t a one-way street,” Realmuto says. “They know I appreciate what they do, and they appreciate me doing what I have to do.”
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.