Shifting gears

By Kristin Smith-Ely

Contractors are looking at equipment and technology as integral cogs to keep their businesses running in a tight labor market.

Since the beginning of time, we humans have innovated, inventing tools and machines to help us accomplish tasks more quickly and precisely. And whether it’s the Stone Age or 2018 A.D., the primary goal has been the same — to save the amount of time and manpower that must be expended.

In today’s economy, when it’s hard to find workers to perform manual labor, getting the most from the ones you do have becomes even more important. Landscape contractors have been forced to figure out ways of accomplishing more work with fewer people.

To fill in the labor gaps, they’re leaning on technology and machinery more than ever, and they’re getting really good at it. And the companies that make those tools for them are also getting better at providing contractors with solutions to ease their labor pains.

Jason Ambro owns Ambro’s Landscaping in Sequim, Washington. This is his eighth year in business, and he says it’s the worst labor market he’s ever experienced.

“It’s been horrible. This year has by far been the most difficult year finding good help or finding just employees in general,” he says. For example, of the five guys he hired this year, only two actually showed up to work the next day. “Three of them I hired, and then later that night they literally texted me and said, ‘Hey, I’ve found another job, but thanks.’” It’s a good thing Ambro decided to take his father’s advice. “One of the things my dad always taught me is to let the equipment do the work, because it’s easy to replace a piece of equipment but it’s not easy to replace your body. The labor has been really hard to find, so that’s why over the past several years I’ve been investing in equipment that eliminates as much labor cost as possible, of either hiring an employee or saving myself.”

Labor pains

“It’s hard to find any good help these days,” is a lament often heard from small business owners. Steve Jordan, president, Turf Masters Lawn Care Inc., Pascagoula, Mississippi, does have some good help, but he’d sure like some more of it.

When I called to talk to him for the story, the call rang into the garden center where he was both answering the phone and helping a customer inside the store. He was filling in because one of his employees was at lunch and there was no one else to cover. “We’re a little shorthanded right now,” he explained, and asked me to call him back in an hour.

While the company operates a garden center that grows about 40,000 annuals each quarter, the company’s main business is grounds maintenance, making up about 70 percent of the contract work the company takes on. The other 30 percent consists of landscaping and irrigation.

“Labor is just hard to find,” Jordan says. That’s why he, like many of his peers, are looking at other options. To make up for the people shortage, he says the company is constantly looking for productivity-enhancing equipment, from different loader attachments to use in the field, or ways to automate the potting process at the garden center.

“It’s really tough to find the type of laborer that wants to do the type of work we do,” he says. Jordan is fortunate that his employees generally stick around about five years, on average. He has 45 now, but needs more. Earlier this year, he tried to swell their ranks, but struck out.

“We applied for H-2B labor, but we didn’t get chosen in the lottery. We didn’t get those 12 additional workers, therefore, we’re constantly looking for ways to better manage the labor that we do have, from the routing of our jobs to the tools that we use.”

Ed Castro is in a similar boat at his Roswell, Georgia-based business, Ed Castro Landscaping. He also serves on the board of the National Association of Landscape Professionals Foundation, and he can tell you that landscapers are feeling the shortage everywhere, not just in the Southeast.

“Everybody is suffering from the same things,” he says. “Nobody has been spared from the labor shortage, and we’re also competing with other trades. Everybody in hospitality and construction, they’re all looking as well, and we’re all competing for the same people. Some of the things we’re trying is to automate more of what we do with technology — by that, I mean equipment.”

Having your back

Anytime Ambro purchases a piece of equipment he asks himself a few basic questions. “Is this going to improve my productivity?” “Is it going to help me get the job done faster?” “Will it enhance the overall look of the job?” “That’s why we’ve been investing in certain pieces of equipment to help us,” he says.

He purchased a front-loader tractor earlier this year, which helped out when he had to load 60 bags of fertilizer weighing 50 pounds each onto his truck for one of his condo clients. (His back probably thanks the new loader, too.) “Instead of having to throw those in the truck individually, now we can throw them on pallets, lift them with the tractor and put them on the truck.”

When doing large installations of mulch or bark, Ambro can use the tractor to just scoop up the material with a bucket and drop it in his clients’ flowerbeds. “Before, we had to use wheelbarrows,” Ambro says. “That’s a big strain on you, because they can’t haul as much, and that wears you down. We’re able to get a lot more done throughout the day and accomplish a lot more because of our equipment.”

He’s also invested in a dump truck and dump trailer, which, after a full day of landscape work, can be emptied with the push of a button.

Ambro can remember when all he had was a flatbed truck. At the end of a long, tiring day, he’d still be faced with the task of shoveling all the clippings and other debris out of the truck. “Having the dump truck and trailer has saved us so much time — and our backs. And, because we’re not so tired from having to do all that extra labor, we get a lot more done on our properties.”

Test pilots

While finding enough workers has been difficult, finding enough business has not. Instead of turning away clients, both Castro and Jordan have decided to experiment with a different type of equipment in hopes of saving time and labor. Both Turf Masters and Ed Castro Landscaping are test sites for Greenville, South Carolina-based Greenworks Commercial’s battery-powered equipment.

Turf Masters has two trucks set up with charging systems built into them. Each truck is equipped with two string trimmers, two edgers, two backpack blowers, a hedge trimmer, a chainsaw, a mower, a pole saw and a pole trimmer, plus six batteries for every charger and a backpack battery. Jordan has found that having the trucks right on-site to provide power is a huge time saver.

“The amount of time not spent dealing with the types of issues we’ve had with gasoline-powered products has had a big savings impact,” he says.

He’s done the math. The company runs eight other crews who still use gas-powered products. “We constantly track our numbers, and we know what six minutes a day costs our company. If we can save that six minutes a day per each employee that’s not having to drive as far or not having to deal with a gas engine that’s flooded, that’s a significant cost savings.”

Jordan says he was concerned at first that the battery-powered machines wouldn’t be as productive as the gasoline-powered equipment, but that has not been the case. The crews were also a bit hesitant. “They didn’t think these tools could do the job, but they’re believers now,” he remarks.

Jordan plans to move more crews over to battery-powered equipment once he tests out a few more scenarios. “I really think this is the way our industry is going,” he says. “If we couldn’t meet our productivity goals ’cause we’re using a tool that’s not quite as powerful as we need, we wouldn’t try it, but we aren’t seeing that. The battery-powered stuff has been every bit as powerful as the gas-powered tools.”

Castro thinks battery-powered tools bestow some additional benefits besides saving labor. The employees that use them like that they’re quieter and lighter than gas-powered equipment and have zero emissions. He thinks that might make the work a bit more appealing to certain demographic groups.

“We think the battery-powered tools are beneficial for our industry and the public’s perception of it, and also makes it more attractive to the current and next generation of the workforce,” Castro says.

He thinks more women might enter the field if they knew they’d have battery-operated tools at their disposal. Castro says women have tended to like them better than “messing with gasoline.”

The benefits don’t stop there. “We have a solar-powered charging station in one of our vehicles,” Castro continues. “The 83-volt batteries charge up overnight or during the day. Since we added the solar panel to our van, we don’t have to spend time unloading the equipment, taking it into the shop, plugging it all in and bringing it all back out.” An extra bonus is that his workers are allowed to carry the battery-powered equipment into certain buildings where gas-powered equipment or gas cans would never be allowed.

“It’s a safety issue as well. When we’re on university campuses or at hospitals or government buildings, we’re finding that we’re more mobile and can use different equipment.” That goes for the transportation as well. A worker can put a mower inside a van and not have to worry about fumes. Equipment also doesn’t have to be unloaded to be charged up, since it can do that right on the truck.

“It’s a big marketing piece for our internal clients (our employees) and external clients (our customers),” Castro says. “Our employees love it. Everybody thinks it’s pretty cool,” Castro says.

Attracted to technology

I remember how working in an office where I was forced to use an ancient Macintosh computer that would crash every half hour used to make me feel … not good and not appreciated at that job. (Luckily, it’s not this current one.) The same thing goes for your workers. Investing in new equipment and technology can improve morale among your existing employees and even help recruit new ones.

When your employees are able to use tablets and GPS technology instead of paper time sheets and folded maps, it sends a message to them that the company is forward-thinking. “We’re scanning in documents,” says Castro. “We’re using tablets. We think that is a competitive advantage and a draw for labor. We can bring tech-savvy people into our industry. All the GPS we’re using makes us more efficient, and I think that’s attractive to workers.”

Castro estimates that using GPS and doing paperwork electronically saves a half hour per person per day versus doing things the old-fashioned way.

But in this day and age, it’s not only about buying more equipment and technology but about making sure that it works well. “We can’t afford to be inefficient with our labor because we have so little of it,” says Castro.

Turf Masters has been using Fleetmatics GPS software (recently rebranded as Verizon Connect) for the last 18 years on its trucks. More recently, the company began using BOSS LM software to track the time spent on every job. All the crews have mobile devices to clock into jobs when they arrive and clock out when they leave.

At the end of each day, the software knows how much time was spent getting to and from a specific job and the time that was spent on it. When Jordan first started pulling reports from the software, he couldn’t believe how much time was being spent behind the wheel. So, he checked the numbers against the GPS data. That really opened his eyes.

“The numbers were surprising as to how much windshield time we were spending, so I addressed that with my management team,” Jordan says. “I told them, we need to make sure we’re routing our jobs efficiently as best we can to eliminate windshield time.”

One of Ambro’s favorite apps is called Mile- IQ. “The old way of keeping track of mileage was, you wrote down your odometer mileage at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, and where you drove to,” he says. “At the end of the year you would add it all up and send it in with your taxes. That process took forever.”

Ambro had three different trucks that he used for both work and personal trips, so business mileage was hard to keep track of. He found that because of this, he was leaving money on the table every year.

MileIQ keeps track of everywhere you drive from beginning to end. You can swipe left or right as to whether the trip is for business or personal reasons, and it sends you an email. “It saves me a lot of paperwork. I used to hate doing that.”

While we’re on the subject of more efficient routing, about two years ago, Ambro decided to do something a bit differently to maximize the amount of work he can get done.

The company had been doing landscaping, property maintenance and irrigation installations, but was competing against some firms that had been around for 20 to 30 years. It was a hard market to break into. Ambro decided to direct all his efforts strictly toward property maintenance for commercial sites and condo associations and ditching the residential business altogether.

“I didn’t want to be that jack-of-all-trades, I wanted to be the master of one,” Ambro says. He notes that while his company may not have a lot of accounts, the ones it does have are big. One of the condo associations it services is on three acres and contains 19 homes. “To most guys, that’s 38 yards, so we do 38 yards in one day.”

Just one of those big condo complexes can take Ambro an entire day to finish. “I show up, and our truck sits there all day so we’re not wasting all this fuel, and we’re not putting miles on our vehicles. We literally load up and go.” Another bonus is that he only has to deal with one person instead of all 30 homeowners in the complex.

Another way he saves time and postage is by using electronic invoicing. A friend of his created a piece of software for him that is similar to Quick- Books. It does his taxes, and he can email invoices to all his clients in about 10 minutes.

Because of all of Ambro’s investments in equipment and technology, he’s been able to get by much of the time with only one additional employee. “With the accounts we’re maintaining, I should have at least two or three guys working for me full time.”

Considering the difficulty he and others are having hiring employees, those investments are looking very wise. “Seeing how things are going, I’ve been trying to look at investing in more equipment so I can be prepared should someone decide to quit,” he says. “That’s why I’ve invested in specific tools where if my guys can’t be reliable, that’s where my equipment can come in. I can rely on that instead.”

Wally Wood, owner of Beach River Landscapes, Jacksonville, Florida, says he’ll go through 60 or 70 applicants just to find a handful of “awesome guys.”

Those aren’t the greatest odds, so he has to make up for it in other ways. “We invest in the nicest equipment we can to make the job easier. The better the equipment, the less reliant you have to be on a certain number of people to do the work.”

One of the tools that’s helped Wood save labor is his Gravely Atlas Job Site Vehicle. With it, rather than having to hire one or two extra people to do a mulching job, he can just use his existing crew. “Usually, you’re paying a few guys to move around straw and mulch and all that stuff,” he says. But with the vehicle, “one or two guys can do four or five guys’ worth of work.”

While labor-saving technology keeps advancing, it still only supplements what human workers can do. Machines won’t ever completely replace a landscaping company’s biggest asset, its labor force. Even as robotic mowers and other autonomous devices continue to develop, “we still have to rely on people, no matter what,” says Wood.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at

Find out how equipment manufacturers are stepping up to the plate to meet the needs of smaller contractors in the online exclusive sidebar below.

Stepping up to the plate

A number of outdoor power equipment companies are recognizing the void they can fill when labor is lacking or can’t cut it. ASV, Grand Rapids, Minnesota, launched the RT-25 Posi-Track compact track loader in October, which, at 48 inches wide, is designed to appeal directly to the smaller contractor working in tight spaces.

Buck Storlie, ASV testing and reliability leader, explains “There is a need in the market for a very small or compact machine. People today are either doing that work with manual labor — rakes and shovels — or in some cases, stand-on type skid loaders. We are really trying to offer them a sit-in track loader that can be small and compact and do the work that you might otherwise do with a stand-on product or with manual labor.”

Though the ASV track loaders come in larger versions, all the way up to the RT 120, Storlie says, “The small side of our lineup has always been one of our best sellers and that market continues to grow.”
Compact equipment is appealing to small landscape contractors trying to save time, especially those that are strapped for labor. More fall protection, comfort and faster speeds come with an investment in a loader. Some, like the RT-25, offer features such as low weight, low ground pressure and tires that are designed not to tear up a yard as it drives through.

ASV will conduct live demonstrations of the RT-25 during GIE+Expo, Oct. 17-19 in Louisville, Kentucky.